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HQ Roundtable: It’s almost Christmas time with the Raptors

In this week’s edition of the HQ Roundtable, we react to Jonas Valanciunas’ injury, the Raptors’ clutch troubles, and Christmas, of course.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the latest edition of the HQ Roundtable discussion — I’m Sully Akbari, your host. Since this weekly series is published every Wednesday and Christmas is next Tuesday, we decided to jump in on the holiday spirit early with some special cheer. Joining me this week to discuss news and Christmas topics on the Toronto Raptors and the NBA are Conor McCreery and Mitch Orsatti.

Before we get into our Christmas-related questions, let’s discuss some business first.

On the Raptors:

1) What do you make of Jonas Valanciunas’ thumb injury?

Sully Akbari: This injury came at the worst time for JV. He’s had a stellar season playing both as a starter and coming off the bench, and for him to be out for at least four weeks is a big blow. However, there may be something to look forward to with JV’s injury: we’ll get to see how Nurse makes use of the centre position now. Serge Ibaka will get the start, there’s no doubt in that, but I’m curious to see if Pascal Siakam will get some stints at the 5 with the usual starters, and either one of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, or OG Anunoby. I think any one of those potential lineups would be the Raptors’ best version of a fast and extremely versatile death lineup, much like the Golden State Warriors. Hopefully, OG and Norm can work their way back from slump and/or injury so that those lineups can see their full potential.

Conor McCreery: I’m not saying I’m terrified of it, but I am sad that the injury to JV may very well bury his sixth-man of the year candidacy. We’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating that Valanciunas had a chance to put up better scoring and rebounding rates than anyone else in league history playing under 20 minutes a night. Now, even if he does come back at full force (which seems unlikely — at least for the first few games), “Big V” will have missed too many games to overcome the host of other great sixth men out there. It’s not really germane to the Raps’ fortunes, but, then again, neither is the injury — the Raps are going to the playoffs and Valanciunas will be ready for them.

Mitch Orsatti: I’m going to do my best to look on the bright side of a situation that saw the Raptors lose a guy whose Per 36 numbers look like this:

via BasketballReference.com

How, might you ask would I be able to do that? Well, the much-lauded “Bench Mob” simply has not been the same this season and while JV is devouring his competition on the second unit (with the occasional start), I think the bench has a real opportunity to find its rhythm in his absence. This all may very well be moot if the entire Raptors team turns up on the injury report like it seemed to against Denver, but if the full complement is available and there is a swap of JV’s minutes for a spicing of Greg Monroe and Chris Boucher (who somehow seems to be yet another Pascal Siakam that Masai Ujiri has dug up), then I think there is a real chance that the bench returns to that starting unit level it had reached last season.

If it does though, what happens to Lithuanian Lightning? A question for another roundtable, perhaps.

2) What do you think the issue is for the Raptors regarding their troubles in closing out games in the clutch?

Sully: I think the main issue is that the Raptors just haven’t practiced their late-game situations enough. They’re hard to simulate, and it seems like the Raptors often improvise their plays late when there should be a solid set-play in place. I believe part of that issue is on coach Nurse, with him still figuring out personnel, and trotting out some real head-scratching plays down the stretch or coming out of timeouts.

Another thing to add is Toronto’s defense late in games. There have been a few late defensive rotations and miscues that have cost the Raptors a few close games. Again, I think this all about practicing those situations, as best as the team is able, to tighten up the communication on the defensive end.

Conor: Basically, Nick Nurse hasn’t yet figured out the most innovative ways to get into the Kawhi Leonard isolations he’s (generally rightfully) seeking. Nor has he yet featured a deep bag of tricks for Option B-style plays. To be fair, Nurse may be keeping the good stuff for the playoffs. Why waste it now? The late game issues also point to how Kawhi isn’t yet a fantastic passer, and how the Raps, for all their talent, still might lack one more off-the-bounce threat late in games.

I still would like to see Nurse unleash more of Delon Wright, a heady passer with a strong ability to attack the basket, who is shooting well over 40 percent from beyond the arc. It would help if Wright would play more aggressively in his minutes — he still feels his way into too many games — but Wright also brings size to the defensive backcourt, the lack of which has been exploited, especially in the Bucks and Pistons games.

Mitch: The Raptors have seemed to have a convenient excuse each time they’ve blown a lead or just can’t put enough together in the clutch to push themselves to victory. We’ve played such hits as “but Kawhi’s out” or “yeah, but Lowry didn’t even play” and the timeless “still, it’s Cleveland and we can all expect an off night every once in a while”.

In the game against Denver, Nick Nurse had this to say about another familiar staple to the Raptors faithful:

All of these reasons, or excuses, or whatever you want to call them are justifiable. The Raptors are 23-9 at the time of writing this and they’ve gone through everything above! Yes, it sucks that they’ve blown some winnable games, but what team in the NBA hasn’t? Of the eight Raptors who have missed significant time (over five games), the Raptors have lost 56 games to injury. FIFTY-SIX! That includes 11 games to their two best players and 45 games to their bench, which includes JV who is about to add a ton more to that total. Rack up all of the injuries, working a new star player who missed 73 games the previous season into a system that has a new coaching staff and all of the drama with the Kyle/DeMar/Masai fiasco and I would say that the Raptors don’t have a clutch problem — they’re just getting started.

3) Raptors Christmas! Pick one player on the Raptors that can give one gift (skill) to the team/fans this year?

Sully: I’m going to go with the obvious one because I think there is still a chance this gift becomes a reality: if Toronto can get Norman Powell to perform the way he did in the playoffs a couple of years ago, that would be one heck of a gift. He would be the first man off the bench and provide what Danny Green does — but with more energy and flair to an already fast and versatile team. That’s how strongly I feel about Powell, if that were to ever happen.

Conor: Are we talking for future or present? Practicality or Enjoyment?

For the future, I want to give OG Anunoby a handle/dribbler’s stance. OG has a ton of physical tools, he also plays very upright offensively, and as such his off-the-bounce game is weak. With his three-point shooting still being more of a “show me” talent, Anunoby has to be able to create off the dribble to take the next step offensively.

For now, and for practicality? Serge Ibaka’s three-pointer. Teams are already leaving Ibaka to shoot. If the Congolese big-man can hit at closer to his career level of 36 percent, that would make the Raps crunch-time offence close to unstoppable.

And for fun? I’d like to give JV another six inches of vertical — just to see him throw down a between the legs dunk. Plus, he’d never miss a bunny again!

Mitch: The easiest answer to this question is that C.J. Miles takes GoDaddy to court and sues for lost future wages. In the process, the lead GoDaddy litigator pulls C.J.’s legal team aside because they want to settle out of court in order to avoid the scandal of the very real, very potent “GoDaddy Curse”. In exchange for written testimony that sees C.J. apologize for sleeping in his GoDaddy PJs every night even though said PJs were meant for promotional use only and not to be slept in on a nightly basis, which the lead litigator states is clearly laid out in subsection whatever of the PJs contract (it’s really a fine-print clause, but that’s all part of the ruse). C.J. apologizes for missing said clause in the written testimony which prompts GoDaddy to give him back his talents which they secretly sucked out of his body like in Space Jam by getting him to sign the settlement agreement with a pen that’s made of the same astro-material as the basketball in the aforementioned, extremely excellent film.

C.J. endures slight public humiliation for missing such a blatant contractual clause, but returns to form and shoots 42 percent from three for the remainder of the year and everyone wins, especially the Raptors.

Around the NBA:

1) Give one reason why fans should tune in to all the Christmas games, with a potential storyline to follow.

MIL at NY - 12 PM

Sully: There will be nothing to watch other than Giannis Antetokounmpo literally doing it all.

Storyline prediction: Giannis will lead the Bucks to a win, dropping 40 points and will have NBA Twitter going crazy with several highlight plays.

Conor: Knicks fans and tabloids spend a glorious 72 hours convincing themselves that Giannis wants to come to NYC and partner up with Kristaps.

Storyline prediction: The Greek Freak lives into the hype, posting a triple-double (with seven blocks), and then, post-game, says he’s: “not really into bigger markets.”

Mitch: Giannis flies in the entire Hezonja family as a secret benefactor and repeatedly seeks switches on offense so that he’s guarded by Mario and Mario only for the entire game.

Storyline prediction: Mario Hezonja immediately retires after Giannis scores 69 points on his head-top and the Bucks win by 35.

OKC at HOU - 3 PM:

Sully: This game would have my vote as the one to skip to spend time with your family on Christmas because the Rockets have been an absolute mess for most of the season. Still, they’ve won four straight, and James Harden recorded a triple-double in two of this previous three games. So, maybe no time for family?

Storyline prediction: Triple-doubles galore on Christmas. Russell Westbrook and James Harden both grab them, with Houston escaping with a narrow victory.

Conor: Watching two NBA forces of nature in James Harden and Russell Westbrook go at each other.

Storyline prediction: It will be Paul George who continues being the true engine of the Thunder going for 28 and 12. BONUS: Chris Paul and Westbrook have at least two smirking “discussions” in close quarters.

Mitch: Westbrook and Harden both record triple-doubles in points rebounds, and turnovers.

Storyline prediction: Thunder win on a Steven Adams tip-dunk over Clint Capela.

PHI at BOS - 5:30 PM:

Sully: I think this contest will bring out an entertaining chirp-battle with Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid going at the Celtics’ youngins. Expect a feisty and fast-paced game.

Storyline prediction: Jimmy Butler saves the 76ers in a close game yet again, recording 30-5-5.

Conor: Homework time! Watch how two of Toronto’s biggest threats try to neutralize the other. Bring your notebook.

Storyline prediction: Embiid, Simmons and Butler all pop, and the Sixers still lose in a game that isn’t as close as the final score makes it seem. Raps fans start to get nervous about seeing the Celtics in the second season.

Mitch: Ben Simmons hits not only his first three-pointer of the season, but five of them on five attempts.

Storyline prediction: This silences Celtics Twitter for all of no seconds at all as they collectively froth at the mouth with chants of “small sample size” and “let’s see him do it in the playoffs!” Philly wins by 15.

LAL at GSW - 8 PM:

Sully: Let’s just count this game as a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals because it’s as close as we’ll get to a LeBron James vs. the Golden State Warriors rematch.

Storyline prediction: LeBron will do his thing, but Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green will toy with the rest of the Lakers all night long, handing them an ugly L.

Conor: LeBron knows the Warriors better than anyone — come see whether he can use that knowledge, and a host of younger, better, teammates, to make it clear the Warriors path out of the West isn’t quite as easy as everyone says.

Storyline prediction: The Warriors win this game, but it takes at least two bigtime performances from their top four to do it.

Mitch: So many reasons to watch this one, but the only true reason is to live in a world where you get to see Lance Stephenson check into an NBA game wearing this wig, which will definitely happen.

Storyline prediction: Golden State wins by 40.

POR at UTAH - 10:30 PM:

Sully: So, you’ve decided to watch 10 hours of basketball and stay up past 10:30 p.m. on Christmas to watch an inconsistent Trail Blazers team going up against a struggling Jazz team? Good for you! Anyways, this will be a fun backcourt battle between Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell — that’s one reason to watch this game.

Storyline prediction: Lillard and McCollum combine for 65 points and lead their team to a win in a high-scoring contest.

Conor: A bellwether game. The Blazers and Jazz have been two of the NBA’s best second-half teams over the past couple of years. Both could use a great finishing kick to make sure they don’t miss the playoffs. It’s going to be a dogfight.

Storyline prediction: The Blazers beat the Jazz at their own game, winning a defensive battle.

Mitch: You’re tired. You’ve watched four NBA games in one day. You’re full of so much food and booze that you fall asleep. You miss this game and you know what, it’s fine.

Storyline prediction: Zzz Zzz Zzz...

2) What would be your dream five-game slate on Christmas day next season?

Sully: PHI at BKN: This would be a fun first game to kick-off Christmas 2019, especially assuming the Nets somehow sign some free agent stars in the summer. Also, Philly is fun as well, right?

BOS at TOR: The Raptors finally get a Christmas game at home against the Celtics. Nothing brings Christmas vibes more than the Raptors rocking their red uniforms while Boston wears their greens.

NY at LAL: “It was either here or at the Garden.” – LeBron James.

OKC at GSW: This may be a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant may re-sign with the Warriors. So, this may be my best guess for which two teams get the primetime game on Christmas 2019.

DAL at DEN: Want one reason to stay up past 10:30 p.m. on Christmas? Luka Doncic going head-to-head against The Joker, Nikola Jokic. (I also wrote this before these two teams played yesterday, in what was a very entertaining game.)

Conor: My two caveats here are: 1) I’m forcing myself to be within the real of possibility, and 2) is that I think all the best games are based on great playoff stories from the year before, but I’ll say:

BOS at PHI: After the Celtics knock the Sixers out for the second year in a row, these two teams hate each other. Let it bleed boys, let it bleed.

TOR at MIL: A rematch of last year’s epic seven-game series the Raps won on the road.

NY at DAL: Because the Knicks have to be in here somewhere, I have them heading to Big D, where we get a Luka and Kristaps battle (and, most enjoyable, two egotistical fan-bases that both think they’re going to get the other’s Euro in free-agency.)

GSW at LAL: An even bigger game after LeBron and co. almost beat the Dubs in the playoffs.

LAC at OKC: The Clippers fortified by two massive free-agency signings (but not Kawhi) face off against an elite Thunder team.

Mitch: Can the Raptors play five games in one day? Asking for a nation.

PHI at MIL: Joel Embiid looks to avenge his second place finish in the MVP race to Giannis who’s only real purpose in the NBA now is to force players to retire after Christmas Day games.

IND at BOS: I chose this because I really want Victor Oladipo to have the proper platform he deserves to perform his forthcoming Christmas album that is definitely, 100 percent suitable for an NBA halftime performance.

HOU at LAL: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and LeBron James — what’s not to like?

GSW at TOR: The Raptors finally get their Christmas Day game and all is right in the world as NBA fans get to see a Finals rematch where Steph and Klay seek to avenge their lost championship.

DEN at SAC: Seeing a Christmas Day game that ends with two teams scoring in the 160s is going to be a ton of fun.

3) More Christmas! Which NBA player do you think would be the most fun to have over for a family Christmas party?

Sully: I think Steven Adams would be a great guest. I feel like he has an endless number of stories about his life’s experiences that would be worth sharing and listening to.

Conor: It’s got to be Joel Embiid, right?

Mitch: Since sweet, sweet Boris Diaw is no longer in the league, my answer has to be his probable-diametric opposite in personality, DeMarcus Cousins. Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Boogie enjoys spending his off-season on safari. Maybe he’s a huge wine connoisseur and secret Frenchman at heart. Even if he’s nothing like Boris Diaw, who I definitely would love to invite to over for my family’s Christmas dinner, Boogie seems to be my kind of people. He gives off the impression that he tells it like it is and can sauce it up when the talk gets spicy, which is an excellent quality around the dinner table with family.

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That wraps up our HQ Roundtable Christmas edition! Do you have any topics in mind for us to discuss? Let us know in the comments below! Be sure to tune in next Wednesday as Toronto [checks notes] will be in the middle of a road trip again? Those schedule makers sure love the Raptors!