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Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Preview

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The Blazers look to make it five in a row as they head to Canada to face one of the East’s best teams.

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (29-22) vs. Toronto Raptors (34-16)

Friday, February 2nd - 4:30 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (probable), Maurice Harkless (questionable), Meyers Leonard (questionable)
Raptors injuries: CJ Miles (out), Fred VanVleet (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ

The Blazers hope their hot streak will follow them across the border against a strong Raptors team. Portland has won seven of its last eight and just finished their best month of the season, going 11-5 in January.

Toronto sits near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Their 16 losses put them one behind the first-place Celtics. The Raptors play the Blazers on the second game of a back-to-back after losing to the Wizards 122-119 in Washington Thursday night.

What to watch for

  • Stopping DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors All-Star guard is having another solid season. He’s averaging 24.4 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting nearly 47 percent from the floor. He’s putting up more 3’s than ever before (3.3 per game) and making 33.1 percent of them. DeRozan was just named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January. He scored over 40 twice in the month including a 52-point game on New Year’s Day. DeRozan has slowed down a bit lately, scoring less than 20 in three of Toronto’s last five games and shooting under 40 percent in four of them
  • The battle inside. Both Portland and Toronto have young, international 7-footers holding down the middle of their starting lineups. Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has been playing especially well recently. The Lithuanian, who is averaging 11.5 points and 8.4 rebounds this season, has scored 18.4 points and 10.8 rebounds over his last five games. Jusuf Nurkic, while having a better season overall, has been inconsistent, mixing in games like his 14-point, 20-rebound effort against the Clippers with a 6-point, 3-rebound outing against Minnesota.
  • Lillard reaching a milestone. Damian Lillard only needed to score 25 points against the Bulls on Wednesday to reach the milestone of 10,000 points as a Trail Blazer. The milestone had to wait at least one game, as CJ McCollum’s 50-point night helped propel Portland easily past the Bulls. Lillard ended the game with only 13 points, putting him 12 points shy of 10,000. If he reaches it Friday, he’ll be the fastest Blazer to do so in his 441st game. Clyde Drexler reached the 10,000 point mark in his 500th game as a Blazer.

What they’re saying

ESPN Analytics’ Neil Johnson wrote that small changes the Raptors have made give them a good chance of winning the Eastern conference:

With a projected 56.9 wins and a 62.9 percent chance of finishing first in the East, BPI sees only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets as better teams than the Raptors. But good luck finding an objective observer who truly believes they’ll reach the ultimate playoff stage. Why is this Raptors team different?

While the Raptors haven’t completely revamped their offense, they have made a bunch of smart tweaks to help them gain an edge. The Raptors were dead last in the league last year in scoring attempts that came off cuts, but they have risen to a respectable 15th in the league in that area in 2017-18, according to Synergy. Toronto was also dead last in percentage of made shots that were assisted last year, and has seen that mark improve to 23rd in the league.

On the other end of the floor, the Raptors’ defensive rating has improved by 2.2 points in 2017-18, from 104.9 to 102.7. That might not sound like much, but it’s bumped them from No. 8 in the league in that category up to No. 3.

Simon Broder of Raptors HQ took a look at Toronto’s poor late-game offense:

You know what they say about the definition of insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Raptors’ definition of insanity is expecting DeMar DeRozan to hit contested shots in crunch time to win games in the balance. On the season as a whole, DeRozan averages 0.90 points per possession on isos. That’s not terrible, but it’s not good, and running a play type with an expectation of less than one point at the point in the game when you’re most in need of points seems counter-intuitive and counterproductive. Given current late-game personnel, running a set play with a cutter seems like an obvious solution (see Tuesday’s game against Minnesota for how that worked out.) Teams score more on cuts than isolations in general. But a good defense can guard against that, so the Raptors need something else in their bag of tricks as well.

James Herbert of CBS Sports discussed the way DeMar DeRozan has adjusted his game this season:

As part of Toronto’s reinvention on offense, DeRozan knew his usage rate, minutes and shot attempts would drop. He embraced this and became more efficient than ever. This happened after three All-Star berths, two gold medals and one trip to the conference finals, all accomplishments that critics thought would be impossible without DeRozan significantly changing his game.

It took years of honing his footwork, ballhandling and touch to prove people wrong. To evolve, he had to let go of the idea that he had to prove anything at all.

“That’s exactly what it was,” DeRozan said. “You just get to that point. I wasn’t going to go my whole career not wanting to shoot 3s. I didn’t shoot 3s frequently. I knew I was going to get there eventually. I let it happen naturally, not something that will be forced. I never force nothing in my game. I let everything come whenever it needed to come. That’s the beauty of it.”