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The Rap-Up: Games of the Week for Dec. 17-23

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The Raptors return from their road trip to face one of the league’s hottest teams, followed by games against opponents they’ve blown out twice already.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve passed the midway point of December and the only thing you should be stressing about is any last-minute holiday gifts you’ve yet to purchase.

Why? Because there’s not a damn thing to worry about with your Raptors!

Toronto just completed their third, and final, 4-game road trip of the season (every other road trip this season is three games or less). In those 12 road games, the Raptors won nine. The three losses each had good reasons — Celtics (Kawhi Leonard missed game-winning buzzer-beater, Kyrie Irving with season-high 43 points), Blazers (No Kyle Lowry, No Jonas Valanciunas, No Pascal Siakam after 3rd quarter injury), and Nuggets (No Lowry, JV, Siakam, or Fred VanVleet). Most importantly from last week’s road trip, the Raptors scored impressive blowout wins over the Clippers and Warriors — both games without Kawhi.

If you’ve been keeping track, Kawhi has conveniently missed both games at the Staples Center (Toronto’s only visits to L.A. this season), where he’s been rumoured to want to play next season. Also, Toronto has blown out the Lakers and Clippers, as if they were sending a message to Kawhi, “oh, you want to play there next year?!?”

The Warriors game was simply the best game of the season, and quickly gaining momentum as the best regular season game in franchise history. The Raptors blew out the defending champions on their home court (this time with Steph Curry and Draymond Green in the lineup), while playing on the back-end of a back-to-back, without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Toronto posted up Danny Green on Curry, ran the Warriors off the line (they shot five fewer 3-pointers than usual), and limited them to half their average threes made (6 vs. 12). It was extremely indicative of what the Raptors can do in the playoffs, especially against the Warriors.

But back to the schedule. There are no more games in the Pacific or Mountain time zones, which means all remaining games are either 1-hour difference (Central), while the rest are in the same time zone (Eastern). The Raptors’ latest remaining game is a 9:30pm Wednesday night game in Oklahoma City on March 20. They’ve got only six back-to-backs left, with one of them occurring this week. Likewise, there are only six remaining 3-games-in-4-nights, with one of them occurring this week. Toronto is tied with Golden State with the second best record (10-4) against the other conference (Oklahoma City is 9-2 vs. the East). The Raptors also have the best road record in the NBA (12-5, while no other team has more than nine).

Lots to like about this Raptors squad. No need to worry about them. Now go out there and buy some presents! (But first, some previews and picks!)

December 19 vs. Indiana Pacers

No rest for the (road-)weary. The Raptors return from the Mile High City to face the Pacers, one of the best defenses in the league — 1st in opponent’s points per game and 2nd in defensive rating — as well as one of the hottest (winning 7 straight through Sunday). Victor Oladipo, who recently returned from an 11-game layoff with a right knee injury, has started to resemble the same player that won last season’s Most Improved Player award. Indiana’s best player this season isn’t Oladipo, nor has it been Myles Turner, or Darren Collison, or even Bojan Bogdanovic. It’s been Domantas Sabonis all season long. He’s 5th in FG%, 17th in rebounds per game, 8th in defensive rating, 17th in PER, 7th in win shares per 48 minutes — and he’s doing all this while coming off the bench!

Prediction

Toronto ranks second in 2-point FG%, but Indiana ranks first defensively in that regard, limiting opponents to the lowest 2-point FG%. A large reason for those numbers is the outstanding defense that Turner has been playing this season. He ranks third in blocks per game, first in block percentage, and fourth in defensive rating. Where Indiana is flawed defensively is beyond the arc, where they allow 3-pointers (makes, attempts, FG%) at a below average rate. Meanwhile, Toronto ranks fourth in 3-pointers made and attempted. Before I predict a Raptors victory, it’s also worth noting the Pacers will be on the back-end of a back-to-back, after playing at home to the Cavaliers the night before. Raptors speed by the Pacers, 105-97.

December 21 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

At this point, we know who the Cavaliers are: a lottery-bound team with young players trying to prove themselves. At this point, we know who the Raptors are: a Finals-bound team with young players that have already proven themselves. VanVleet was a Sixth Man of the Year award finalist and Siakam is a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award this season.

With the Raptors still decimated with injuries, we may see C.J. Miles make another start. Did you know he has the same amount of experience (13 seasons) as Cleveland’s entire starting lineup (Alec Burks - 7; Ante Zizic - 1; Cedi Osman - 1; Collin Sexton - R; and Rodney Hood - 4)???

Prediction

Last time these two teams met, the Raptors played well enough to win, but not well enough for the bench to play the entire fourth quarter (thus saving the starters for more important games). This time around should be different. Toronto will be motivated to empty out their bench in the fourth quarter. Ideally, the starters will be rested before the following day’s showdown in Philadelphia. The Raptors drive past the Cavaliers, 118-99.

December 22 @ Philadelphia 76ers

Oh look. It’s another opponent who the Raptors smacked by double-digits in their two respective meetings this season. Will we see Kawhi guarding Ben Simmons again and forcing him into a multitude of turnovers? Simmons is averaging 9.0 turnovers over the two games he’s faced Kawhi. While you may notice this is a back-to-back, the Raptors indicated last week they had every intention of playing Kawhi in both games of the back-to-back involving the Clippers and Warriors.

Prediction

I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see anything convincing from the Sixers that would lead me to believe this game will end any differently from the previous two encounters this season (both Raptor blowout wins). What has changed, however, has been on the Raptors side, where Valanciunas will miss the next few weeks, after being karate chopped by Draymond Green. JV was a game-high +14 in their previous meeting, chipping in 26 points off the bench. While his presence will be missed, the rest of the Raptors should all be healthy — even Norm Powell. Assuming Kawhi plays his first back-to-back of the season, I believe the Raptors will add another crack to the Liberty Bell that is the Sixers, 110 - 106.

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Season Record for Predictions (Last Week): 22 - 10 (1 - 3)