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HQ Roundtable: Can the Raptors hit shots as the games get tougher?

We talk about the road ahead for the Toronto Raptors, their shooting woes, recent sluggish play, and more in this week’s edition of HQ Roundtable.

Suspension Journal: Toronto Raptors all-time team honors, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the latest edition of the Raptors HQ Roundtable — I’m your host Sully Akbari. As per usual, we’re talking over recent news surrounding the Toronto Raptors and other bits from around the NBA. I’m joined this week by HQ contributors Mitch Orsatti and Justin Roberston to let fly on the issues of the day.

Let’s get right to the questions!

On the Raptors:

1) How do you think the Raptors will do in the month of December and what will their record for the month be?

Sully Akbari: There is something about the month of December, the Raptors, and success. Here is some context to back that up: Toronto had eight wins and six losses in the month of December in the 2013-14 season, 11 wins and four losses in 2014-15, nine wins and six losses in 2015-16, 12 wins and four losses in 2016-17, and 11 wins and three losses in 2017-18.

Even with a tough December schedule ahead, I see the Raptors posting a 9-4 record in December, giving them a 29-9 record overall. With only two sets of back-to-backs (at LAC, at GS, and vs. CLE, at PHI), Toronto will likely only rest Kawhi Leonard for two games — if that — which naturally favours the Raptors. My hope though is for the team to find a way to rest Kyle Lowry. With Kawhi more on the court than off it, there could be a chance for Lowry to get a night off. Still, taking this all into account, I think the Raptors will take care of the easy teams (they haven’t lost to a below .500 team yet) but will lose a few of the more contested games for the month.

Mitch Orsatti: December got off to one helluva start with a hard-fought loss to the Denver Nuggets and I see it starting a bit of a trend for the Raptors for the remainder of the month. I don’t believe Toronto will have a sequence in December where they win and then lose or lose and then win. It’s streak month!

With that, I think they lose to Philadelphia on Wednesday courtesy of a Jimmy Butler redemption game, but then we see two streaks form: a three-game win streak against the Nets, Bucks and Clippers, followed by a three-game losing streak to the Warriors, Blazers and Nuggets. That losing streak then fuels the Raptors who are tired of hearing about how they can’t beat the elites of the West (that’s right Clippers, I don’t think you’re elite!) and they go on to smash the remaining competition in December to close out 2018 on a 6 game winning streak.

The only problem is that the six-game winning streak is all against Eastern Conference opponents. This leads pundits to prattle on incessantly about the non-factor of such a glorious streak (in as much as pundits incessantly actually talk about the Raptors). The inane chatter finds it’s way into the Raptors collective conscience and begins to mix with the spite of never having been featured in a Christmas Day game. The Raptors then feast on that intoxicating concoction and use it to drive themselves all the way to the NBA Finals where they beat the Stephen Curry-less Warriors (more on that later) 4-2. Too far?

[whispers] Raptors finish December 9-4.

Justin Robertson: At 20-5, If the Raptors can keep up their rich, consistent form, I think they can go 9-4 from their 13 December matches. Wins over: 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Trail Blazers, Cavs, Pacers, Heat, Magic, Bulls. Losses to: Clippers, Warriors, Nuggets and 76ers — all away games.

For the winnable games, the 76ers, Bucks and Heat games could go either way. But a 29-9 record at the end of December would really set up the second half of the season. They could afford games where they rest Kawhi, Lowry, Serge Ibaka and even have a fresh, rested roster heading into playoffs which is something new to think about for the Raptors.

2) With their recent struggles from three-point land, do you think the Raptors need to make a trade to acquire better shooters?

Sully: After splitting games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets, I would certainly hope so! The Raptors had a poor outing from outside as they went 7-for-26 in their game against Cleveland. Fortunately it didn’t matter as much there. Bu they really shot themselves in the foot in Monday’s loss to the Nuggets. Toronto jacked up 21 shots from deep and only made three of them in the first half against Denver, and finished the game 11-for-41 (with a good number of them decent looks).

If a trade presents itself for Toronto, it could be worth looking into, but we should note: the nature of three-point shooting is high variance. At the start of the season it seemed like Toronto couldn’t miss, and now it feels like they’re missing everything. For now, the Raptors just have to focus on the process — generating open looks — and making their shots when they matter most.

Mitch: Full disclosure, I wrote these answers after the Nuggets game where Serge Ibaka was called for a foul he definitely committed but almost never gets called in those scenarios, so my blood is boiling!

Look, every team can use more accurate and efficient three-point shooting, but the real question here is can the Raptors make that trade without giving up what has made them wildly successful to this point? Do you try to move Delon Wright who will be a restricted free agent this year and could be priced out? Does anyone have any interest in Norm’s contract or C.J.’s PJ’s team-worst 7.0 PER.

Maybe C.J. finds his shot and keeps playing decent-for-him defense? Maybe Norman Powell picks up where he left off before getting hurt and is a serviceable role player who stays in his lane and doesn’t try to be DeMar-lite. Maybe both of those seem like less than an ideal scenarios when you’re knocking on the door of an NBA Finals berth, but the Raptors are pretty thin on options with the current amount they’re over the luxury tax and if we’re really looking at it, unless you’re making some big, potentially disruptive move, I think this team has as good a shot as any other team in the NBA at dethroning the Warriors. Let it ride!

Justin: The only replacement would be perhaps getting rid of C.J. Miles for another sharp-shooting type like Landry Shamet, (38 percent), Bryn Forbes (44 percent) or Allen Crabbe (34 percent). Crabbe has had a slow start to the season but I feel will hit his straps between now and end of the year. Forbes and Shamet have been fairly consistent. I think all three could rotate in with Green, Lowry, VanVleet quite easily.

3) What do you think about the Raptors’ sluggish play against the Cavaliers? Should you be concerned?

Sully: I’m not concerned at all about how the Raptors performed in their win against the Cavaliers. Yes, it was ugly, yes, it had no consistent flow from both ends of the floor, and yes, it was boring. However, even against a poor Cavs team, the reason why I’m not concerned is because it was the first game the Raptors played without Lowry.

The team is still getting into the mix of things when it comes to playing together as well as learning coach Nick Nurse’s system. With Lowry out, the Raptors’ heart and soul just wasn’t there. It was also Fred VanVleet’s first start at the point guard position this season and while he’s cut from the same cloth as Lowry, he can’t quite run Toronto the same way. I’m hoping that after the All-Star break, Toronto will be just fine without Lowry being in the lineup.

Mitch: If I had a dollar for every giant lead the Raptors have blown in my lifetime, I would have spent all of those dollars on some Jordans and have even less space in my closet because of all of the damn Jordans I now own. Thanks a lot, Raptors!

The answer to this question is 70% no and 30% yes. No, I am not concerned with the sluggishness that the Raptors showed in the Cleveland game. Everyone knows how terrible Cleveland is. Now, imagine having to go to your job to deal with a pile of colleagues who you know are mostly incompetent, don’t deserve to be in the same office as you, somehow continue to have a job and even make the same or more money than you do. You might be sluggish, disinterested and/or give a performance that might not be your best. Sure, this is a janky analogy that is not a direct correlation at all, but I think you get the picture; it happens to everyone, in every occupation at some point.

The yes portion of this answer is that the Raptors have to stop blowing those big leads. They started out in that hazy malaise of indifference during the first quarter but managed to shake it off and build a 21-point lead with two and a half minutes to go in the third quarter. There is no way that the friggin’ Cleveland Cavaliers should have been able to chip that away to a six point deficit. I don’t care if you run out Greg Monroe, Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Miles and literally anyone else — it’s the 2018-19 Cavs! Yes, all teams are going to go on runs, but you need to be able to extinguish them before it gets to the point where you are having to put in your top guys to close out games that your bench should be able to handle. Damn. Maybe I’m more than 30% concerned about this.

Justin: It was a case of grinding it out against the Cavs. I think it’s a good sign of depth when you’re able to win when playing poorly or having an off night. I know they played the Cavs, who are a dumpster fire this year, but the Raptors coughed up a 17-point lead at one stage and it looked like they were going to get overrun. The 2018-19 Raptors know how to score the steadying basket, defend to cause turnovers, and take calculated shots when needed which is what contenders do. Sometimes winning ugly tells us more about a team than just off play.

Around the NBA:

1) Which current teams outside of the playoff mix in the Western Conference make the playoffs and which teams will fall out?

Sully: The Western Conference is insanely close and competitive year-in-and-year-out with this season being no different. At this point, every team in the West is in the hunt for the playoffs except the Phoenix Suns. As of now, I would have to say the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently out of the playoffs, make it. The two teams that would fall out of the playoff mix would have to be the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies.

The main reason: the Rockets and Pelicans have better talent than the Mavericks and Grizzlies and it’s just a case of getting past the early season woes for Houston and New Orleans. In no order, here is my Western Conference playoff picture at season’s end: Denver, LA Clippers, Oklahoma City, Golden State Warriors, LA Lakers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, and Portland Trail Blazers.

Mitch: The whole damn entire Western Conference can flat out ball (except for the Phoenix Suns who are terrible and are wasting Trevor Ariza’s last good years) which makes this an insanely difficult question. The easiest part of the questions is, as of Tuesday, that the Dallas Mavericks are the 7th seed and are almost certainly going to fall out and be replaced by the Houston Rockets (who will not finish the season the 8th seed). Yes, the Mavs will get Dirk back at some point and yes, the Rockets got worse this off-season, but ‘not first in the conference to missing the playoffs’ worse.

The difficult part of this question is that I can’t fathom how the Pelicans miss the playoffs. You can make an argument for the Jazz, Spurs and hell, even the Timberwolves making the playoffs, but each of them have bigger flaws than the Pelicans and don’t have the probable MVP, Anthony Davis on their squad. So who do you take out? Definitely not Portland. You could surround LeBron with the contents of a dining-hutch filled with dinnerware you never use and LeBron would still make the playoffs, so the Lakers stay. So is it Memphis who are playing incredible basketball? Are the Clippers really for real? Or do the Pelicans go on a bad enough losing streak and fear losing Davis so they trade him and make this entire paragraph moot? I don’t have the answers, Sway, but if I had to pick, I say the Pelicans sneak in and the Clippers tumble out.

Just take a look at this (as of Monday):

Justin: I think Spurs, Rockets and Jazz all make playoffs. The Spurs are a perennial playoffs team. You can’t have a playoffs without the Spurs — Coach Pop will find a way. The Rockets got off to a slow start and Harden’s early-season injury has put him behind the eight ball a bit. Factor that in when considering the Rockets 11-12 record right now. Once he’s rolling they will flow a bit better. I didn’t expect the Jazz to be 12-13 after their second half of the year run in 2017-18. Expect them to do the same this year. They have tons of upside.

2) Looking at this current season, do you think the Golden State Warriors can win a championship without Stephen Curry?

Sully: I still think they have a good shot to win a championship. Put it this way, without Curry, the Warriors still have an NBA MVP in Kevin Durant, NBA Finals MVPs in Durant and Andre Iguodala, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Draymond Green, and one of the best shooters in NBA history in Klay Thompson. Those four players are all All-Stars and All-NBA calibre players. The one thing missing? DeMarcus Cousins, another All-Star and All-NBA calibre player (!) who has yet to return from his injury. When playing well, these players are more than capable of winning a championship.

Where I could see the Warriors struggle is with momentum swings. Curry can bring the Warriors back from large deficits by making several three-pointers in a matter of a minute or two, and completely change the flow of the game. This often feeds the Warriors’ defense, which fuels the offense, and so on — we’ve seen it for a few years now. I’m not saying those momentum swings won’t happen without Curry, it just wouldn’t happen as much. So, yes, the Warriors have a good chance at a three-peat, especially with no credible challengers in the West as of yet.

Mitch: I really, really don’t think so but it’s so, so difficult to bet against the Warriors in any scenario where they only lose one guy, even if that one guy is their best and most important player. I suppose this question truly hinges on when they would hypothetically lose Steph. Do they lose him midway through the first round for the entire playoffs? I think that’s a scenario where, maybe, they not only lose the Finals, but possibly they don’t even make it there to begin with. Do I believe the words I just typed? No, I don’t. I change my answer: I believe that the Warriors can win the Finals even if they don’t have Steph, because Klay and Dray, KD and Boogie is still a laughably insane amount of talent.

Justin: Of course, the Warriors with no Curry would still be OK. That’s why they are the Warriors. They are Pacific Ocean deep. Klay Thompson would take over Curry’s role and Quinn Cook would slide into the starting guard position. And then you have the likes of Durant, Dray and Cousins that can spread the floor, shoot threes, grab rebounds and play the muscle-man role. If he isn’t there already, Durant would become one of the greatest players of all-time.

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Let us know if you have any topics we should cover in the comments below. Be sure to check in next week as the Raptors will be in the middle of their 4-game west coast road trip which includes a game against the Golden State Warriors next Wednesday.