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The Rap-Up: Games of the Week for Mar. 11-17

The Raptors have three games this week — against the Cavaliers, Lakers, and Pistons — which means the squad has three chances to deal with past failures.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Are you familiar with Lent?

For (practicing) Catholics, it’s a six-week training camp for Easter. For everyone else who observes, it’s a time to give up something you love (chocolate, coffee, swearing, etc.). Why? Everyone has their own reasons — religion, self-improvement, personal challenge — and everyone has their own definition of sacrifice. (Trust me, I’m getting to the point. You have not accidentally typed in “Rapture” HQ. [Ed. note: oh wow, shots fired!])

Over the years, I’ve gone through Lent, 40 days and 40 nights, giving up something I’ve loved — coke (the drink), getting angry at my children (that was hard), and even sports (I won’t go into the gory details) — and come out of it feeling spiritually/emotionally refreshed.

For that reason, a part of me wonders what kinds of sacrifices NBA personnel give up for Lent (for those that observe).

The Raptors have officially clinched a playoff spot. I mentioned in last week’s Rap-Up that Toronto’s essentially locked into the two-seed. One week and three games later, we’re even closer to that reality. What does a team with 20 percent of its remaining games do if, (a) they’re not tanking; and (b) they’re unofficially locked into a playoff position? What’s the motivation? How will the team perform under these unique circumstances?

Is it possible Nick Nurse is “sacrificing” his best plays and lineups until Easter when the playoffs begin?

Toronto could sleep-walk their way to the Atlantic Division crown (and two-seed), while beating up on 11 of their 15 remaining opponents who are under .500. Maybe Fred VanVleet frustratingly runs the offense while more capable playmakers like Kyle Lowry or Marc Gasol are on the floor. Maybe Nurse runs a ridiculous iso for Jeremy Lin in the final seconds of a close game with the Knicks. Maybe Kawhi Leonard sits both ends of a home-and-home back-to-back with the Thunder.

All frustrating decisions. All throwing playoff opponents off the scent!

All right, I’ve been exposed to too much holy water. On to this week’s picks. Don’t forget to enter yours in the comments.

March 11 @ Cleveland Cavaliers

Once LeBron James announced he’d be taking his talents to Tinseltown, he might as well have packed the Cavaliers season along with him. This has been a lost campaign in Cleveland. As Raptors fans, we can appreciate what it’s like to lose the franchise cornerstone and endure the subsequent tailspin. Also as a Raptors fan, one who has endured playoff failure after playoff failure to these Cavs, I can appreciate witnessing this team dying a slow death. Allow me to take you back to October.

When these teams tipped off their respective seasons, Cleveland trotted out a lineup of Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Tristan Thompson. By game time on Monday, Love will have missed 53 games, Hill will still be on the East’s best team (only this time it’s the Bucks), Hood will be suiting up for the playoff-bound Blazers, and Thompson will be riding the bench (at Quicken Loans and with the Kardashians).

Prediction

Ohioans will argue that this hasn’t been much of a rivalry of late (or at all). However, a 4-game season sweep is still a 4-game season sweep. If the Raptors are able to pull it off, it’ll be the first of its kind between these two teams since the 2000-01 season, when Toronto was in the midst of a 10-game winning streak vs. Cleveland. Winning this game won’t erase the ghosts of playoffs past, but it’ll be a certain kind of sweet to accomplish it with the best two-way wing on the floor! It’s 10 months late, but the Raptors sweep away the Cavaliers, 120-108.

March 14 vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Would last year’s Cavaliers team sit atop the East standings?

Since opening the post-All-Star break with an inspiring victory over the Rockets, the Lakers have lost seven of eight and tumbled out of the playoff picture. They are now closer to second-last place in the conference (3.5 games ahead of Memphis) than they are to a playoff spot (7.5 games behind San Antonio and their Staples Center roommates).

Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are both out for the season (and their Laker careers?). Lance Stephenson, Kyle Kuzma, and Tyson Chandler are all dealing with injuries that kept them out of Saturday’s game against the Celtics. The roster turnover is getting so bad, they don’t even know each other.

Prediction

In their only other meeting this season, Kawhi sat out due to load management. What he witnessed on the sidelines — a first quarter 42-17 beatdown in his hometown — could have easily led to a different load needing managing. (Bazinga!)

The Scotiabank Arena crowd will be thirsty for blood. After losing their last two home games to LeBron’s Cavaliers (before being swept in Cleveland), this will be the first and last visit of the King north of the border. The Lakers will be under-manned, under-motivated (bye-bye playoffs), and under-King-ed (James will be on a minutes restriction). Raptors crown the Lakers, 118-105.

March 17 @ Detroit Pistons

It’s Selection Sunday. Michigan and/or Michigan State could be playing in the Big Ten championship. Whether they are or not, citizens of Michigan will be glued to the TV to find out where they land in the bracket on Sunday evening. If you thought last Sunday’s game felt like a Raptors home game, this one might as well have Herbie Kuhn screaming into the mic.

Home crowd or not, Detroit is one of the hottest teams in the league and look like a legitimate threat to disrupt the East. Dwane Casey can’t possibly complete the season sweep against the Raps, can he?

I’m sure this will be a well-played game between two playoff-bound teams, with all parties keeping their emotions in check.

Prediction

This game is the front-end of the Raptors’ final back-to-back of the season. Your brain is already asking if Kawhi will sit out in Detroit or the following game (at home to the tanking Knicks). By my scientific calculations of looking at his game log, I would venture to guess that Kawhi sits this one out. He hasn’t played three consecutive games since early February. Also, if you remember what I wrote earlier, Nurse may want to keep the Kawhi trump card for a possible first round match-up.

Detroit has only lost once in nine games since the All-Star break. Casey has the Pistons playing their best ball of the season. The five-game road trip that immediately follows this game will provide the additional motivation the Pistons need. Give the Detroit crowd one more good show before departing on a season-long road trip. Detroit sweeps the Raptors, winning 108-105. (I did not intend to have “sweeps” take over this post.)

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Season Record for Predictions (Last Week): 47 - 20 (2 - 1)