Raptors prepare for ‘wrestling match’ vs. Pelicans’ Cousins, Davis

Raptors guard C.J. Miles talks about the challenge of facing the New Orleans Pelicans, with two of the best bigs in the league in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

The Toronto Raptors look to finish their current three-game homestand on a winning note versus the visiting New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday.

The Raptors will have all hands on deck once more against a team that poses a decidedly different—and far greater—threat than their last opponent, the 2-7 Chicago Bulls.

The Pelicans’ 6-5 record may not seem like much, but they’ve won three straight heading into Thursday night’s game, and their all-NBA frontcourt of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have been red hot to start the season.

The 2017-18 edition of the Raptors and their deep, physical stable of bigs may have a better chance against New Orleans’ twin towers than Toronto teams of the past, but the team is preparing for a tough battle. As head coach Dwane Casey said after shootaround Thursday morning: “It’s going to be a wrestling match.”

Projected Starting Fives

Kyle Lowry
DeMar DeRozan
Norman Powell
Serge Ibaka
Jonas Valanciunas

Jrue Holiday
E’Twaun Moore
Dante Cunningham
Anthony Davis
DeMarcus Cousins

Strength in numbers

One of the few teams with two players on Sportsnet’s pre-season list of the 30 people who will define the NBA in 2017-18, any conversation about the Pelicans starts—and often finishes—with their star duo of Cousins, the best centre in the game, and Davis, who is probably one of the most overlooked/under-appreciated superstars in pro sports today.

Both are in the top six in scoring and rebounding this season, with Cousins averaging 28.9 points and 13.6 rebounds per game and Davis right behind at 28.4 points and 12.8 rebounds. They’re also each blocking two shots per game, and are two of the Pelicans’ better three-point shooters (Davis leads the team at 41.4 per cent beyond the arc).

They protect the rim, hound the ball, score from all over the court, run screens for one another. It’s crazy. It really is.

On Thursday morning, DeMar DeRozan, who has played with both in recent years with USA Basketball and was teammates with Cousins on USA’s gold-medal winning Olympic squad in Brazil last summer, says he’s never seen a team with two big men of their abilities starting alongside one another.

“They’re two frontcourt guys with the skills of backcourt players,” DeRozan said. “There’s nothing they can’t do.”

It’s clear no team will present a frontcourt challenge to the Raptors quite like New Orleans. However, this season the Raptors are better equipped to handle this particular problem than ever thanks to a deep rotation of bigs. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas may draw first duty, but expect to see healthy doses of Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogeuira and Jakob Poeltl—all of whom put in extra time on the court at shootaround—to try their hand at slowing down the Pelicans’ stars.

Since acquiring Cousins from the Sacramento Kings during all-star weekend in February—one of the most surprising trades in recent memory—New Orleans has undergone a grand experiment by going big while the rest of the NBA goes small. So far it’s yielded middling results and the Pelicans are 17-19 since acquiring the multi-talented big man, but when the dynamic duo is rolling they can be flat-out unstoppable.

Trouble from deep

New Orleans does a great job of defending the three-point shot. The Raptors, if you haven’t heard, take a lot of three-point shots these days and have had a hard time sinking them. Thursday night may not be the night where that changes.

On the season, the Pelicans are holding opponents to 34.8 per cent from deep, good for 11th in the NBA, whereas the Raptors’ 32.2 per cent three-point shooting mark is ahead of only the Los Angeles Lakers.

To make matters worse, over the Pelicans’ current three-game win streak, they’ve held the opposition to a stingy 29 per cent from deep. New Orleans is an active, physical team, and even though the likes of Rajon Rondo and Solomon Hill remain sidelined, they still boast solid perimeter defenders like Jrue Holiday and reigning All-Defensive team member Tony Allen. Throw in a mobile big man like Davis—also a reigning All-Defensive member—and his Stretch Armstrong-reach, and the Raptors shooters could be in for a long night.

I mean, what big man can routinely do this?

For all the talk (and, ok, reality) of the importance of strong guard play in today’s game, there’s a growing list of imposing, versatile big men killing it this season and reminding us that basketball is still a big man’s sport. Raptors fans are in for a treat, because Davis and Cousins are as good as they get.

Catch the Raptors versus the Pelicans live on Sportsnet One with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

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