Toronto Raptors vs. New Orleans Pelicans: Preview

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The last time the Raptors and Pelicans met it was back on opening night, an evening Toronto will never forget. The reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors got to reminisce over their 2019 NBA Finals run once more as they were handed their championship rings and revealed their banner. On top of that, Toronto ended their magical night with a 130-122 overtime win against the New Orleans, courtesy of two big performances by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet — and Kyle Lowry coming up clutch with a huge three-pointer to seal the deal.

Fast forward to today and the Raptors are 5-2 in the early season with their last win coming on Wednesday night as they barely squeaked by the lowly Sacramento Kings. Their play on both ends of the floor still needs to improve, and that will all hopefully come together as they come into New Orleans to take on the struggling Pelicans.

Even without Zion Williamson, the Pelicans are a juggernaut on offense. It’s their defense that has let them down, as they can’t seem to stop their opponents from scoring at will. Still, they’re a fun albeit young and inexperienced team, which means they’re last in the Western Conference with a 1-6 record. To make matters worse, it’s not going to get any easier for them as they have the Raptors tonight and a pretty tough schedule ahead.

However, we’re only focusing on tonight’s game, so let’s jump into the game details followed by the three keys to the game.

Where to Watch:

TSN, 8 p.m. EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol

New Orleans — Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Jahlil Okafor

Injuries:

Toronto – Patrick McCaw (Left knee injury — OUT)

New Orleans — Lonzo Ball (Strained adductor — Probable), J.J. Redick (Bruised left knee — Questionable), Zion Williamson (Torn meniscus — OUT), Darius Miller (Ruptured Achilles — OUT)

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No 3-D

For tonight, Coach Nick Nurse may want to take a page out of Brooklyn Nets’ coach Kenny Atkinson’s book. In case you missed it, during last week’s game against the Houston Rockets, Atkinson held up this sign:

The meaning behind the sign was for the Nets to play their “No 3-D” defense during a defensive possession, depicted as former NBA sharpshooter Dennis “3-D” Scott with a “no” symbol over him. As far as symbology goes, that’s clever enough.

Now, if Wednesday’s game against the Kings taught the Raptors anything, it’s to play their “no three defense.” Toronto allowed Sacramento to make 20 of their 42 attempts from three-point land (46 percent), which was the most they gave up through their first seven games of the season. If the Raptors think they can dodge another hot shooting night tonight, they should reconsider. Coming into today’s game, the Pelicans are third in the league in three-point field-goal makes with 15.1 threes per game, fourth in three-point attempts with 40 a game, and sixth in three-point percentage, shooting 37.9 percent a night. To rewind, the Pelicans drained 19 of their 45 threes in the season opener against the Raps. Toronto will have to play tight and go over screens all night, but especially when they are guarding Redick, Ingram, Ball (!), Hart, and Holiday as they lead their team in makes and attempts.

Luckily, the Raptors are not far too off from the Pelicans as they are fifth in the league in makes, ninth in attempts, and third in three-point percentage. If this becomes a shoot-out, Toronto could very well keep themselves in the game if their defense doesn’t hold up.

Keep the Pelicans Grounded

In today’s NBA, teams tend to play fast and the Pelicans are no different. With a young, quick, and skilled squad like theirs, it’s easy to do so. The Pelicans rank sixth in pace with 106.5 possessions per game, they score 119.3 points per game and have an offensive rating of 110.4, which is best for fourth in the league in both categories. If those offensive numbers weren’t elite enough, they make 44.4 field goals per game, which is the best in the NBA. They’re also hitting their shots with accuracy, shooting 46.3 percent from the field — which is tenth best, just behind Toronto.

So, how can the Pelicans play that well on offense but still be 1-6 on the season? Well, look no further than their defense. They’ve allowed their opponents to score 124.3 points per game and they’re either dead last or bottom three in defensive rating, opponents field makes/percentage, opponent points in the paint and fast-break points. Yes, the Pelicans are young and inexperienced, and we know what the Raptors can do on offense to light them up (pick-and-roll plays, threes, fast-break run-outs, etc.) but they can really put New Orleans away by having them playing slow. Fast-pace teams, especially young teams, struggle when they’re forced to play their offense in the half court, and with Toronto’s strong defensive identity, they can push them late into the shotclock and out of their comfort zone.

In-Game Load Management

Toronto’s rotation and depth issues were clear right after game one and it still remains an issue. Lowry leads the league in minutes played, averaging an absurd 39 minutes a night at the noble age of 33. Meanwhile, VanVleet is right there at 37.4 minutes per game, placing him third in the NBA. It’s clear that the guard position likely won’t receive significant depth assurance tonight (or anytime soon), but the point is for the Raptors to start and finish strong so that Lowry and VanVleet can rest rather than go hard the whole way.

In fact, this Raptors team is capable of getting out to the early lead. In their previous three wins, they jumped to a 13-point first-quarter lead against the Kings, and nine-point first-quarter leads against the Pistons and Magic. Although they won those three games, they still let those opponents back into it, causing the starters and Serge Ibaka to play more minutes than they probably should in order to close out the game.

It’s going to be crucial for Lowry and VanVleet to get rest whenever they can tonight, but especially during the second half of the game as they have a back-to-back coming up this weekend against the Lakers and Clippers, followed by the Trail Blazers next Wednesday and the Mavericks next Saturday.