I don’t know about you, but this is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a Toronto Raptors team, at least in the regular season. There seems to be no obstacle too great, no loss too dispiriting, no injury too significant, for the Raptors to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and throw Pat McCaw and Oshae Brissett onto the court and beat an excellent team in the Boston Celtics. Nick Nurse is teaching a master class in coaching; a variety of players have taken steps forward; furthermore, there’s always some new delight every week. The Raptors are a pleasure.
And now we get the pleasure of watching Serge Ibaka face his former team in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Raptors will return home on the second leg of a back-to-back to take on another joy of a team in the Thunder. A few seasons removed from losing franchise cornerstones in Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and, heck, Kevin Durant, the Thunder sit at 16-15 on the season and are in playoff position in the weaker Western Conference. A variety of analysts saw the Thunder as possible sellers entering the season, with talented veterans like Danillo Gallinari and Chris Paul potentially available for the right price. Instead, the Thunder are a feisty, defense-oriented team. They don’t shoot a bunch of triples, but they drive as much as anyone in the league. Their guards penetrate into the paint almost at will.
Oklahoma City are led by a dialectical pair of point guards in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul. Gilgeous-Alexander is a young, fun, and Canadian point guard with an unbelievably veteran in-between game. Like most young guards, he makes mistakes, sure, but his euro-step is among the best in the NBA already, and he’s crafty and effective as a finisher. He’s also endlessly long. Paul is perhaps the polar opposite as an old head who wins around the margins, makes almost no mistakes, and is as likely to win on a technicality as on a made basket. He has few physical advantages. He is, in some ways, the Kyle Lowry of the West; he’s contemptible to fans of the opposing team but an object of adulation for fans of his own team.
The Thunder, despite being led by two such talented guards, are actually at their best when Dennis Schroder is on the floor. He’s been coming off the bench this year, and he’s taken to the role well. He’s established a reputation over his young career as a conscious-free gunner, but he’s in the midst of a career year. Among two-man lineups, Schroder has been a part of all of the top four, which have all outscored opponents by over 100 points on the season. The fifth-best is only at plus-38. All that to say, the Thunder have been excellent with Schroder on the floor and not great with him on the bench; he will not be playing, so Toronto will have an advantage coming into the game. Gallinari, too, will be absent. He has been Oklahoma’s most consistent wing or big scorer.
Another aspect of the Thunder’s season is that they’re aren’t as good a road team as they are at home. That’s normally true for every team in the NBA, but it’s been pronounced for the Thunder this year, outscoring opponents at home by 69 points at home, and getting outscored by 43 points on the road. That’s a massive disparity. It could be partially due to the importance of youngsters like Gilgeous-Alexander to the team’s playing style, but one would think that a Paul-led team wouldn’t be susceptible to such mental lapses. Regardless, it’s an element upon which Toronto, 13-4 at home, could capitalize.
With the Raptors a fairly good bet to always show up, even on back-to-backs, and the Thunder on the road and missing Schroder and Gallinari, signs point to Toronto having some advantage in this one. Still, Chris Paul is a certified genius, and the Thunder have been surprisingly competent this year. Missing so much talent, every game should be a slog for Toronto. There’s no telling what will carry over from one game to the next, so expect the unexpected against a Thunder team the Raptors haven’t yet faced in 2019-20.
Tipoff: 6:00pm EST | TV: SN1| Radio: 590
Pascal Siakam (groin), Norman Powell (shoulder), Marc Gasol (hamstring), Matt Thomas (finger), and Dewan Hernandez (ankle) remain out.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis
SG: Fred VanVleet, Malcolm Miller
SF: Patrick McCaw, Oshae Brissett, Stanley Johnson
PF: OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher
Dennis Schroder (ankle), Danillo Gallinari (ankle), and Hamidou Diallo (elbow) are all day-to-day, though it’s unlikely any play. Schroder has already been ruled out. Andre Roberson (knee) is out indefinitely.
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lugentz Dort
SF: Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader, Kevin Hervey
PF: Darius Bazley, Deonte Burton, Mike Muscala
C: Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel
Toronto is -2.5, and the over-under is 212.0.