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The Rap-Up Road to 60: Picking winners from Mar. 5-11

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A possible trap game and a Finals preview are sandwiched between games against tankers.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know the Raptors have the longest win streak in the Eastern Conference?

Sure it’s only four, but stick with me here. Do you know how many win streaks of at least five games there are in the West? Five different streaks — or seven if you consider Houston, currently on their third consecutive five-gamer (15 and running!). Stretch this out over the last 10 games, and only three East teams have won at least seven — Toronto with nine, Philly with eight, Indy with seven — while the West have eight teams.

Maybe it’s a sign of an unstable East. Maybe it’s a scheduling coincidence. Or maybe, just maybe, the Toronto Raptors are hitting their stride and beginning to distance themselves as the class of the conference.

The Road to 60 returns from a red-hot week where the Raps won all four games — as predicted by yours truly — by an average margin of victory of 13.5 (I had it at 14.5). Toronto has 20 games left, needing 15 wins to hit 60. Coincidentally, they have 15 games remaining against the East.

Let’s hope we go in a better direction this week than what I’m about to predict.

Tuesday, March 6 vs. Atlanta Hawks

Nothing quite like a post-All-Star break home game against a tanking team. I’ve endured plenty of seasons where we were on the other side, playing for lottery positions. It’s definitely cool to be on this side.

The Hawks currently have the highest odds of nabbing the top pick in the draft among all East teams, a far cry from the old days when they had four starters in the All-Star Game. [checks paper] Holy crap! That was only three years ago?!?!?

Toronto has won all three matchups this season by an average of 20+ points. Atlanta is coming off a (disappointing) victory over lottery front-runner, Phoenix, where Taurean Prince inexplicably hit a game-winning three in the dying seconds. The Hawks will take a quick look at the standings, right the ship, and proceed with losses... beginning with tonight against the East’s best.

If the Raptors are looking for any additional motivation, look no further than our league-leading bench unit (#1 in Defensive Rating and Net Rating). Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet were each snubbed for the Rising Stars Challenge while Hawks rookie, John Collins — he of the inferior stats, playing for the most inferior of teams — was selected.

Prediction

Easy win. Raptors clean up some of the sloppiness from the Hornets game and make an example out of the Hawks. Raptors fly past the visiting Hawks, 119 - 94.

Wednesday, March 7 @ Detroit Pistons

TRAP GAME ALERT! The Raptors will enter the game with the number one seed and having just dismantled these Pistons the previous Monday. With the Pistons slowly slipping from contention and the Raptors being one of the league’s hottest ticket (#4 in attendance), Detroit essentially becomes another home game for Toronto. Combine this with the young Raptors possibly looking forward to Friday’s clash with Houston, and you’ve got yourself a trap game, ladies and gentlemen. Wait, that still doesn’t make any sense. How are the Raptors going to lose to a team they’ve beaten four straight times, and most recently by 29 points?

Since Blake Griffin started playing for the Pistons, there has been a strange pattern with all their victories.

Feb. 1 - home game vs. Grizzlies, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back
Feb. 3 - home game vs. Heat, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back
Feb. 5 - home game vs. Blazers, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back
Feb. 7 - home game vs. Nets, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back
Feb. 14 - home game vs. Hawks, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back
Feb. 28 - home game vs. Bucks, who were playing the 2nd game of back-to-back

In the eight other games, where the opponent actually had at least one day of rest, Detroit is 0-8. Wow. What an odd stat that doesn’t bode well for a Raptors squad that would be visiting Detroit, on the back-end of a back-to-back.

Prediction

Oh boy, I sure hope I’ve grossly over-thought this and Toronto ends up thrashing Detroit. Pistons squeak by the Raptors, 103-102.

Friday, March 9 vs. Houston Rockets

This is as close to a Finals Preview as we’re going to get for the remainder of the regular season. (Both Houston and Golden State would not have any more games against Boston, Cleveland, or Toronto) Tale of the Tape indicates the Rockets have a better offense (113.4 ORtg vs. 110.9 for Toronto), the Raptors have a better defense (102.6 DRtg vs. 104.5 for Houston), and both have almost identical margins of victory (Houston = 8.8; Toronto = 8.6). The teams also represent the greatest threats to Cleveland-Golden State IV (yes, it’s reached a roman numerical status now... and YES, Boston, I did just say Toronto is a greater threat than you).

The stat that you’ve probably heard/read a lot is the Rockets have only lost once in thirty-three games with James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all in the lineup. That’s a figure that should grow by two as Houston must first go through OKC (definitely starting to feel the loss of Roberson) and Milwaukee (3-6 vs. playoff teams under new coach, Joe Prunty).

There’s reason for hope that Toronto can become the second team to defeat the trio of CP BeardCap (sounds like a pirate, but I’m trademarking it anyway). Since Dec. 1, Toronto has either won a game or lost by single-digits (but within one possession in the final minute), except for the game in OKC. In other words, Toronto’s either winning or staying within striking distance at the end. How the NBA’s #1 bench handles Houston’s bench — especially if Mike D’Antoni staggers Harden and Paul’s minutes — will go a long way in determining the winner. Houston will see a lot of Siakam, Miles, VanVleet, and Poeltl that they didn’t in the earlier matchup in November (each played less than 20 minutes). The Rockets may also be coming in weary, playing in their sixth of seven road games over a two-week span.

Prediction

Houston goes as Harden does. He shot 31% in their last loss (the only one for CP BeardCap) vs. New Orleans, and has shot under 40% in four of his last eight games. Toronto comes out on fire, looking to move past the Detroit Debacle. They keep their foot on the gas, withstand a few barrages, and have another statement game. Toronto soars past the Rockets, 116 - 112.

Sunday, March 11 @ New York Knicks

Earlier this season, Kristaps Porzingis (remember him?) and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined for 60 points as the Knicks upset the Raps at MSG. Since then, Porzingis was lost for the season after tearing his ACL, consequently torpedo-ing New York’s playoff dreams with it. Meanwhile, a collection of other teams’ rejects have stepped up for the Knicks, including Michael Beasley, Trey Burke, and Emmanuel Mudiay. By “stepped up for the Knicks”, I mean they’ve stepped up the Knicks’ lottery chances. New York has lost 12 of 13 games overall, which is almost similar to their recent record against the Raps, having lost nine of ten.

Possible letdown game after a possible victory over a possible NBA finalist? That going to be a ‘no’ from me. Oh, look, another inferior rookie, Frank Ntilikina, made the Rising Stars Challenge over the Raps Bench Mob. Revenge, much?

Prediction

March break is about to start and the Raptors will already have the fourth-most wins in franchise history. Toronto avoids getting nicked by New York, prevailing 108 - 99.

Road to 60 Outlook

With a predicted 3-1 week, the Raptors need to go 12-4 the rest of the way. The next 16 games include ten vs. playoff teams and six lottery teams. How have the Raptors performed against their last 16 opponents (not including this week’s predictions)? 13-3, including eight vs. playoff teams.

What say you, Raptors fans, of this week’s predictions?