The Utah Jazz (22-14) continue their Eastern Conference road trip tonight, traveling out of the country to take on the Toronto Raptors (23-11). The Raptors, who for a time this season had the #1 offense in the league over the Golden State Warriors, began this season on a tear and are expected to push Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East. However, they’ve hit a bump in the road lately, losing three of their last four. This sounds less than ideal until you look at the schedule and realize two of those losses were to the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, both on the road.
When these two teams met the night before Christmas Eve, Utah gave their best effort but were unable to contain Toronto’s backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They scored a combined 60 points on 25-of-44 shooting. Frankly, Lowry (who shot 15-of-20) hit some shots in the fourth quarter that made me want the Jazz to take their ball and go home. Slowing down those two is a handful even at full strength, but George Hill was out, leaving the perimeter defense wanting. The case is the same tonight, as you’ll see in the injury report.
Holy guacamole. Do my eyes deceive me? The Jazz are missing only one player tonight due to injury. Unfortunately, he’s arguably the most important player to this team’s success and definitely the most important player in this particular matchup. Still, with our history lately, I’ll take it. Granted, Alec Burks is still on a heavy minutes restriction and we’ll see how much Exum plays in his return after missing over two weeks. But there’s a light at the end of the injury riddled tunnel.
Patrick Patterson— Day-to-day (knee)
Patterson has missed the last two games with a strained left knee. If he can’t go tonight, the Raptors will miss his shooting in the front court, something the Jazz struggle to contest with at times.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Shelvin Mack vs Kyle Lowry
Rodney Hood vs DeMar DeRozan
Gordon Hayward vs DeMarre Carroll
Derrick Favors vs Pascal Siakam
Rudy Gobert vs Jonas Valanciunas
Straight across, these matchups are problematic for Utah. Personally, I would start Raul Neto. I think he would do better gumming up Lowry’s game to some extent, but Quin Snyder doesn’t seem inclined to agree. If Favors were right and playing at full strength, that one would stand out like a sore thumb as the Jazz should go to him early and often against Siakam. Favors is slowly working his way back to normal, but I don’t know that he’s ready to be the focal point of the team at this point.
Key Matchup: Gordon Hayward vs DeMar DeRozan
Kyle Lowry is probably going to torch Utah’s backcourt tonight. The sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll be. To have a shot to win this game, Gordon Hayward will have to outscore DeRozan. This is a tall task, as DeRozan is averaging 27.5 points a game this season. Adding to the uphill climb, Hayward will be guarded much of the night by the “Junkyard Dog,” former Jazz fan favorite DeMarre Carroll. While Carroll has had his share of injury troubles in recent years, he’s still more than capable on the defensive end. Maybe all we can hope for is that DeRozan doesn’t try to take out any of our players again like he tried to level Trey Lyles last time out.
You stay classy, Toronto.
X-Factor: Jazz non-point guard lineups
Without Hill, and with Burks presumably playing at least some minutes tonight, I’m a big proponent of the no point guard lineup as much as possible. We saw last season that the “triple wing” lineups could be deadly in short spurts, but the injuries (as well as the addition of Hill) have taken away some opportunities to see it this season. Mostly, I think it’s important to put as much length on the court as we can to disrupt Lowry’s game. Offensively, these lineups have been prone to turnovers against tough defense, but if we can plant Hayward in the point forward role I think the defensive advantages outweigh the offensive issues.
Prediction: Jazz lose big
Sorry, guys. We just have no answer for that Toronto backcourt without Hill and Exum fresh off injury on defense. To win this game, it will take a mammoth effort from several of our guys playing their third game in four days. I just don’t see it.