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Is the Raptors defense on the brink of collapse?

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The next 31 days could determine whether this year’s Raptors look way too much like last year’s — or if they’re Finals contenders.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

November 1997 was the worst month in Raptors history. The Dinos, after losing their one and only game in October, proceeded to play fourteen games in that cold and grey month and won exactly... one of them.

Overall, the Raptors dropped thirteen in a row in that November, en route to a franchise record 17-game losing streak.

Fortunately, that was then and this is now; this current Raptors team isn’t about to lose thirteen in a row (or, maybe, even three in a row again). But they’re facing the possibility of a mense horribilis — as the Ancient Roman’s would have put it — more commonly known as: a horrible month.

Why? Because Toronto is about to embark on what may be the single most difficult 31 day period in the history of the franchise.

Between tonight’s game with the Memphis Grizzlies (12-7), and December 28th’s tilt with the Orlando Magic (10-11), the Raptors will play 16 times. The net winning percentage of those 16 teams? .554.

Strip out the 5-14 Cavaliers, and the Raps will be going up against teams that, on aggregate, are playing .600 ball. The three losing teams they play (aside from the Cavs), are the Heat, Nets and Magic, and all three of those games are on the road. And all three of those teams are hardly pushovers.

All told, Toronto will play ten of those 16 games on the road — including one four-game western swing that may end up ranking in the top three toughest Toronto has ever taken (more on that next week).

Still, while this is all a tough task, is it really enough to compare it to the literal worst 30 days in Raptors franchise history?

It just might be. Because this Raptors team has both sky-high expectations, and some warts that make it look uncomfortably close to last year’s version, the one that got destroyed by the worst Cavaliers team of LeBron’s second coming.

As we’re all well aware of by now, last year’s Raptors team destroyed under .500 teams, but was barely above .500 itself against teams better than that. And, they struggled badly to stop those good teams — having one of the worst defenses in the NBA in those games.

Flash forward a year and the Raptors are showing an eerie similarity. The Raps have posted a 6-3 record against teams currently at .500, which is good enough, but a full half of those wins have come against teams that are exactly .500.

What’s worse, the defensive slippage is back. According to Basketball Reference, the Raps have an overall healthy 106.2 defensive rating — good enough for seventh overall.

Raptors Defensive Rating

Overall Vs. 500 or better Vs .500+
Overall Vs. 500 or better Vs .500+
106.2 106.3 109.5

Against those .500 or better teams, the Raps are basically the same, putting up a 106.3 rating.

But, stripping out those exactly .500 teams, and adding the New Orleans Pelicans game — a team that is well over .500 when Anthony Davis plays — the Raptors defense paints an uglier picture: a 109.5 rating which would see the Raps slip to 13th.

Now, this isn’t Toronto carrying around one of the three worst defenses in the league, and of course the better the opponent the worse your defense will perform. But to me, it’s the number one thing Toronto fans should be looking at this month. Because that league average defense also includes two games with the Celtics and one with the Pistons. Neither team sits in the top half of the league in offensive rating.

By comparison, the Raps will play eight games in this next month against top-10 offenses. Toronto also plays the Sixers twice, meaning they have 10 games against offenses currently in the top half of the league.

So far this season the Raps have only played eight games against the league’s top half offenses. Their defensive rating in those eight contests: 109.6 — or almost right back in the middle.

The other concern is the elephant (dinosaur?) in the room: can Kyle Lowry stop elite guards? No one is saying that Lowry isn’t as smart a defender as they come, and he generally helps the team on defense more than he hurts it — but that’s largely due to his smarts, not his physical tools. When the Raps struggle defensively it often stems from an inability to slow down opponents at the point of attack. Or in this case: when teams have point guards who can attack.

This trip will see the Raps face off against Mike Conley, Eric Bledsoe, Damian Lilliard, Steph Curry (but maybe only once), and rising stars Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray. Beyond the raw numbers, how the Raptors manage to contain this parade of electric point guards, and how well they are able to keep the shape of their defense will go a long way to determining whether the next month is a preview of the best Raptors post-season in history, or a replay of past failures.