Coming off a solid stretch of games, in which the Raps won two of three against the Heat, Rockets, and Pacers -- and took care of business in Milwaukee -- the players and coaches would've been looking forward to a well-derseved, incident-free, few days off prior to tonight's tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers. Unfortunately, Jonas Valanciunas made a big mistake in the early hours of Monday morning, and the media focus -- temporarily, at least -- has been placed on his huge error in judgment, and away from the game of basketball.
Jonas reportedly apologized to his teammates, and according to Masai Ujiri, he's very upset and embarrassed. But while everyone recognizes that he's young, and that young people
with boatloads of money make mistakes, the timing is unfortunate. The Raptors -- Jonas, in particular -- have been playing really good basketball as of late -- really good basketball without the services of two of their three best players, in fact. It's important that this doesn't become a distraction down the stretch, as the Raps play their final 5 games of the season, and look to hold on to that all-important 3-seed.
Fortunately for Dwane Casey's team, the home-stretch schedule isn't exactly daunting. The Raps face the Sixers tonight, and have games against the Knicks (twice), the Pistons, and the Bucks. The combined record of those teams is 93 and 217, and the Raps' record against teams under .500 this season is 27 and 7. All signs, assuming that complacency isn't an issue, point to the team breaking the franchise's record for most wins in a season, which currently stands at 47.
Far more important that breaking records, of course, is holding firm as the 3rd best team in the East. The Bulls currently have the same record as the Raps, but the Raps own the tie-breaker by virtue of being the Atlantic Division leaders. They're also currently two games up on the Nets for that Atlantic Division lead, but it's important to remember that winning the Atlantic Division doesn't guarantee the Raps the 3-seed -- it simply guarantees that they can't finish any lower than 4th. If the Bulls finish with the better record, the Raps will have to face the Nets in a 4-5 series, regardless of whether they win their division; and they'll likely face Miami in the second-round if they can pass that huge test.
With the Pacers floundering and looking like they'll finish 2nd in the East, finishing 3rd opens up, if not an easy path to the Conference Finals, than a far more manageable one.
But on to tonight's opponents...
There isn't a whole lot to say about the Philadelphia 76ers, other than the fact that they're bad -- really, really bad. Brett Brown's team have won a couple games recently, but those came off the back of a record-tying 26-game losing streak. That crap-fest may have acted as a sort of draft lottery reform tipping point. There's been a huge outcry, from fans and the media, regarding the negative incentives that lead teams to field borderline D League rosters in the hope of rebuilding through the lottery. The league may have to look at reforming the system.
The ire of the fans and media shouldn't be directed at the Sixers, of course. Don't hate the player, hate the game, as they say. They're playing within the rules, doing what multiple teams before them have done in order to rebuild, if only a tad more brazenly.
An an aside -- and as SB Nation's Tom Ziller stated recently -- if the current draft lottery system stays as is, creating monsters like the 2013-2014 76ers, the league can hardly moan about one-and-done youngsters ruining the quality of the game. I mean, come on; the Sixers are fielding the likes of Henry Sims, James Nunnally, Brandon Davies, and Hollis Thompson. Who he play for, Chuck?
I've neglected to go with the usual '3 Keys' tonight for the Raps, simply because there isn't anything particularly complicated when it comes to beating Philadelphia. They're the worst offensive team in the league by a long way. In fact, when assessing a team's offense, never has the redundancy of the points per game stat been more exposed than with this season's Sixers. They play at a ridiculously high pace, which increases their offensive possessions, and inflates their points total. In points per possession, which adjusts for pace, they rank dead last (96.2 points per 100 possessions).
Also, because the Sixers play at a breakneck speed -- and because they have a lot of bad players -- their turnover ratio is the highest in the NBA. Almost 15% of the team's possessions end with a turnover. Defensively they aren't much better. They're currently tied for 26th in defensive efficiency. Not great.
All this is not to say that the Sixers don't have some talented players, because they do. Likely Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, despite having his numbers inflated by his team's playing style, is a very fun player to watch. The Raps guards will have to protect the ball when he's in the vicinity. Thaddeus Young (#FreeThaddeusYoung) always seems to play well against the Raptors, and is a player that any contender in the league would love to have on their team.
In conclusion, however, if the Raps turn up tonight, and don't fall into the trap of playing down to their opponent, this should be a comfortable double-digit win.