If you’ve read more than one of these Rap-Ups, you probably know by now that my glass is almost always half-full. (And if you’re a first-time reader: WELCOME!)
Last week, we were lauding the Raptors offense after a couple of signature victories against the upstart Grizzlies and defending champion Warriors. In the middle of their 8-game win streak, Toronto reeled off five straight games of at least 122 points.
Over the next five games, however, the Raptors quietly put together their best defensive stretch of the season, limiting opponents to 106 points or less.
After a week of tough losses to Denver, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee, it’s extremely easy (and probably expected) to think Toronto is doomed for worse days, especially with the toughest road trip of the season on the horizon. However, all three losses came down to the final seconds. In fact, so did the Boston loss... and the Detroit loss too. The Raptors have admittedly not hit their full potential, but could conceivably be 26-2!
On to this week’s games and picks! Make sure to include your own in the comments.
December 11 @ Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have been a pleasant surprise this season. They didn’t blow anyone away with any offseason acquisitions. It appeared they were only making headline news when discussions turned to next offseason. With over $45 million in cap space after this season, the Clippers will have room to sign two free agents from next season’s insane group of available stars, including Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, and [gulp] Kawhi Leonard, among many others.
As exciting as their offseason could be, Doc Rivers has his team excited and playing well this season. Rivers had the Clippers in the no. 1 spot by the end of November and was rewarded with the Western Conference Coach of the Month award. Not to be outdone, Tobias Harris garnered his first (Western Conference) Player of the Month award. Harris has improved his shooting, increasing his TS% by 6%, and is playing exactly how you’d expect an expiring contract player to play.
Whipped together a quick & dirty Shotmaking Value Added metric using player eFG%, @bballport's Shot Quality values (essentially expected eFG%), FGA. Basically it's points contributed or lost by shooting above or below expectation. Top 30 and Bottom 30 attached. VOOCH! and Trae :( pic.twitter.com/8H9nSFBnRA— NBA GIVER (@NBAcouchside) December 6, 2018
L.A. is an excellent free-throw shooting team. They rank first in FTs made, FT rate, and FT/FGA rate. On the defensive end, the Clippers rank first in defensive eFG%. While those stats may appear daunting, the Raptors rank fourth in eFG% and fifth on the defensive end in FT/FGA rate.
Toronto has struggled recently corralling defensive rebounds. Luckily, the Clippers aren’t that amazing at crashing the boards (22nd overall). Also, their best offensive rebounder (averaging 2.4/game) isn’t even a starter — Montrezl Harrell. The bench is also where the Raptors’ best rebounder currently resides. You’d better believe we’ll get a healthy dosage of JV whenever Harrell checks in. Toronto also doesn’t have to worry about turnovers — the Clips rank dead last in creating turnovers. Coming off a tough loss to the Bucks, and wanting to set the tone for their longest remaining road trip, the Raptors clip the... err... Clippers, 107 - 103.
December 12 @ Golden State Warriors
This game is filled with red flags. Kawhi is likely not playing due to SEGABABA. The Warriors will be motivated to show this up-and-coming Raptors squad why they’re the champs. They’ll be hoping to avenge an early-season Finals preview loss in Toronto. Steph Curry is back. Draymond Green is back. DeMarcus Cousins is... still out, but is already gearing up to play in the G-League. While Toronto’s best player is likely out, our second-best player is mired in a shooting slump.
That’s a whole lot of reasons to not like the Raptors’ chances in this one. However, re-read the prediction section from the Clippers game. Toronto struggles on the defensive rebounding end. While the Warriors did a great job of getting 17 offensive rebounds in their match-up two weeks ago, Golden State is a below-average team (17th overall) in that category. The Raptors are in the top-10 in forcing turnovers, while the Warriors are bottom-10 in turning the ball over.
So, I’m saying there’s a chance.
The same recipe that’s helped Golden State win three of the last four championships — assists (#1), 3-pt shooting (#1 in 3-pt FG%) — will be on full display in this game. Draymond will set bone-crushing screens to free Curry / Klay / KD for open triples. Curry will pour in at least five triples (before halftime). Klay will also hit five triples (in a quarter). Jokes aside, Golden State should be able to take advantage of a Toronto squad that (likely) undermanned. Warriors claw past the Raptors, 123 - 115.
December 14 @ Portland Trailblazers
Good news: Toronto has won the last six meetings with Portland, including a 25-point thrashing the last time they faced each other.
Bad news: Portland will do their best to own the glass, as they’re ranked fifth in offensive rebounds, second in defensive rebounds, and second in total rebounds per game.
Good news: Toronto ranks third in TS% and third in eFG%. You can get as many rebounds as you like, Jusuf Nurkic, but there won’t be a ton of them.
Bad news: Damian Lillard is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, blocks, and offensive rating, while leading the NBA in offensive win shares.
Good news: Lillard’s stats when facing Toronto are among his worst when looking at 3-pt FG% (32.6%, only three other teams have made him shoot worse) and defensive rating (114, only 3 teams have forced him into a worse rating).
Bad news: For the second straight game, the Raptors face Curry.
Good news: It’s only Seth.
You know how Washington will do that annoying thing sometimes when they’re losing against Toronto, then Bradley Beal will start catching fire, John Wall will start driving to the rim with purpose, and a random bench player like Tomas Satoransky starts making all the hustle plays? That is what the Blazers are capable of, especially at home, against these Raptors. It’s absolutely plausible that the Raptors jump out to a big lead, only to see C.J. McCollum/Lillard raining threes and Nurkic getting his hands on every rebound in sight during a massive comeback. Toronto holds off a late rally to extinguish the Blazers, 118 - 116.
December 16 @ Denver Nuggets
I won’t recap the Nuggets-Raptors game from two weeks ago because a) it was not enjoyable viewing; b) you can already read a good recap here; c) and another one here; d) it will also very little into how this game will be played. Since that tough game last week, the Nuggets have lost Paul Millsap (foot) and Gary Harris (hip) to injuries. Add that to the growing list of missing players in Denver, including Will Barton (right hip), Isaiah Thomas (wrong hip, sorry), and 2018 draft pick Michael Porter (back).
Just as the Nuggets owned the offensive glass (15-7) and converted those second chances (23-2) last week, the Raptors were perfect from the line (12-12) and won the turnover battle (20-17). Kawhi hit one — no, wait — two clutch jumpers in the final minute. Had the referee not made a ridiculous foul call at the most critical time, we might have been treated to a third consecutive clutch shot from The Klaw!
This should be a loss, right? Last game of a road trip vs. a team that just beat Toronto last week in an arena that’s literally a mile above sea level. However, this is an undermanned squad. Millsap was supposed to be the defensive stopper of Pascal Siakam. Harris was supposed to be the release valve if Murray was in trouble or having a bad game. Giving heavy minutes to Juan Hernangomez and Torrey Craig will give you exactly what you’d expect — a loss to the Hawks. Finally, this year is still different than any other in franchise history. No longer are the days of moral victories and expected losses. Raptors pick their way past the Nuggets, 109 - 98.