For the first time since June 13th, 2019, a date etched in the soul of Canadian basketball diehards, the Toronto Raptors will face the Golden State Warriors. After meeting at the pinnacle of the sports world last year, both of these teams look drastically different. One side lost Kawhi Leonard to a Western Conference foe, while the other side lost Kevin Durant to the appeal of playing in the Eastern Conference.
Currently, the Raptors own a record of 43-18, good enough to place them 2nd in the East, and 3rd league-wide. Conversely, the Warriors have fallen to an abysmal 14-48, ranking dead-last in the entire league – but don’t let that record fool you.
The Dubs have played all but four games of the season without two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, who was widely expected to contend for the award again this season. Curry – who will turn 32-years-old next week – was supposed to bear the weight of the Warriors’ offense in the absences of Durant, and the injured Klay Thompson. D’Angelo Russell, who finally broke out and became an All-Star last season in Brooklyn inspired further hope that his ability to score the ball would cushion the blows of losing Durant and Thompson. A team with Curry and Russell together in the backcourt, combined with the playmaking and defensive abilities of Draymond Green, it would have been asinine to overlook them, even in such a competitive Western Conference this year.
Those expectations quickly went wayward when a near-300 pound Aron Baynes fell flat onto Curry’s arm on October 30th, fracturing the second metacarpal in his left hand. Russell and Green would also battle injuries of their own throughout the year, which is ultimately what placed Golden State right at the top of the league in terms of man games lost, and right at the bottom of the league in terms of games won.
Alas, that dreaded era of injuries seems to be in their past. While it’s too late for them to contend, or even make a playoff push this season, the Warriors will be at their very floor, a good team once again.
With a core of Andrew Wiggins, Stephen Curry, and possibly Draymond Green set to take the floor against the defending champion Raptors tonight, the contest should be at least provide fans with a shadow of last year’s finals.
The Raptors have battled injuries of their own though – maybe not to the extent of losing their best player for over four months of the season – but key players have certainly taken turns of bearing the basketball gods’ burden. Kyle Lowry has missed 12 games, Pascal Siakam has missed 11, Fred VanVleet has missed 13, Norman Powell has missed 20, Marc Gasol has missed 26, Serge Ibaka has missed 14, and the list continues. The plethora of bumps and bruises has forced Nick Nurse to juggle with his lineups – trying everything from shifting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or OG Anunoby to the centre slot, or testing out a frontcourt of Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol. The wins that he’s accumulated with a team that was projected to fight for a playoff spot is ultimately what has him running away with Coach of The Year award votes.
Finally, for the first time since January 28th the Raptors might be looking at deploying a fully healthy top-7 players tonight. After missing three games each, Ibaka and VanVleet are listed as questionable. The bigger piece of news is regarding Marc Gasol’s questionability, who has only appeared in eight games since December 18th after suffering an initial hamstring injury, and later aggravating it. If all three players are able to return to action, it will certainly bump down the value of guys who have shined in their absence, but will undoubtedly put the Raptors one step closer to championship contention.
Currently, Toronto ranks 1st in the NBA in opponent points per game, 2nd in defensive efficiency, and 2nd in opponent field goal percentage – all incredible feats, given that they’ve missed an average of 1.36 of their top-7 players per game. With the additions of Gasol and Ibaka, Toronto’s interior defense – currently ranking 2nd in the league based on opponent paint points per game – will only be further strengthened. Gasol is the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and while he doesn’t have the ability to move his feet like he could six years ago, his massive 7-foot-tall frame along with his intangibles to orchestrate the defense from within the paint is vital.
Ibaka, while not the genius of an on-court defensive coach that Gasol is, still brings something special to that end of the floor. He too, is not the fierce shot blocker that he was back in the earlier part of the decade when he averaged 3.7 swats per game, but is a more versatile defender than Gasol, and only allows opponents to score on 43.0% of pick and rolls against him, making him one of the best pick and roll defenders in the NBA.
In addition to tightening some screws on the defensive end, it should also be noted that the international twin towers will help out in the rebounding department, where Toronto currently rank 18th in the NBA based on total rebounding percentage. This season, Ibaka and Gasol own 13.2% and 11.0% rebounding percentages respectively, which are both above league average.
Ultimately, whether the trio of Gasol, Ibaka, and VanVleet are able to return to action tonight, or at a later date, it’s exciting that the Raptors are finally days away from full health. If we have to, let’s bubble wrap this team until mid-April, because injuries are just becoming unaffordable this late in the season. Regardless of who plays, tonight’s rematch should be a fun one. Even if Steph Curry isn’t the Steph Curry that we’ve become accustomed to watching over the years, it will be fun to see such a gravitational force in action again. Hopefully, Toronto walks out of Golden State triumphant tonight for the first time since… well… you know.