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The Rap-Up: Games of the Week for Mar. 18-24

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It may almost be time for March Madness, but a Raptors-Thunder mini-series promises to bring some of that same playoff energy. Let’s get a different set of picks in today.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Have you filled out your bracket?

This is one of my favourite times of the year. A time to dream of achieving the perfect bracket. A time to crunch some numbers and find my sleeper picks. A time to analyze kenpom.com and catch up on five months of college hoops. Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings site has been my March Madness go-to every year. It’s a great indicator of how a team ranks relative to the other 352 schools. Since the website’s inception in 2002, the eventual champion ranked in the top 20 in both Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense for every season (except 2014, when UConn’s offense was 39th). That’s 17 years — 33 out of 34 categories.

Looking at this season, seven schools fit the mould of ranking in the top 20 nationally in both Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense — Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky. In 14 of the 17 seasons, the overall ranking of the eventual champion was no lower than #3. For this season, those three would be Virginia, Gonzaga, and Duke.

In the NBA, the top three teams this season has fairly clearly been Milwaukee, Toronto, and Golden State. If we were to match NCAA team to its NBA equivalent, Gonzaga would be Golden State. Both rank first in offense and fairly good on defense (16th for Gonzaga; 15th for Golden State). Of the three teams, the best defensively is Virginia (5th), so their NBA counterpart would be Milwaukee (1st). That leaves Duke and Toronto.

I hate myself and will henceforth stick to the NBA. On to this week’s picks!

March 18 vs. New York Knicks

We’ve made it! The final back-to-back of the season. As is the mantra this season: Death, Taxes, Kawhi sits one game of a back-to-back. While Toronto will be without their elite superstar, New York will continue tanking to get one of their own.

The Knicks have only four players with fully guaranteed contracts next season (not including partial guarantees or team options): Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson. All of them are interesting prospects with varying degrees of upside and, most importantly, between the ages of 19-21. Correction: the most important factor is they collectively ($15,259,272) will earn less than Serge Ibaka ($23,271,604) next season.

In other words, this may be the last time Raptor fans see a crappy Knicks team at Scotiabank Arena for several years.

Prediction

Heading into Sunday, here the total number of wins for each team:

Raptors (since March 1) = 4

Knicks (since January 1) = 4

Toronto may have fallen into a similar trap last week (Second game of a back-to-back against a tanking East team) but there really shouldn’t be any cause for concern. Toronto completes a season sweep of the Knicks, blowing out New York, 120-99.

March 20 @ Oklahoma City Thunder

March 22 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Good news: No more back-to-backs!

Bad news: Raptors have only one day off between each of the remaining 12 regular season games.

Good news: Serge Ibaka returns from his three-game suspension.

Bad news: Russell Westbrook returns from his one-game suspension.

Good news: Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are 5-8.

Bad news: Since 2012, the Raptors are 4-9 vs. the Thunder.

Good News: Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have the second-worst Offensive Rating.

Bad News: Paul George is arguably having a better season than Kawhi, besting him in conventional stats (Points, Rebounds, Assists, Steals), advanced stats (Win Shares, BPM, VORP, Defensive Rating), and likely also award voting (MVP, DPOY, All-NBA First Team).

Good (and bad?) News: A home-and-home series with a Finals contender at this juncture of the season is a great barometer for the teams involved. I’ve been hiding behind “it’s only the Regular Season” and “we’ve got nothing to prove until the playoffs” excuses since the All-Star break. Both teams should be at full strength and willing to show how playoff-ready they truly are.

Prediction

When comparing two elite teams, it’s probably not a bad idea to start at their elite players. Kawhi Leonard, who has played at an MVP-worthy level and reclaimed his spot as a two-way superstar, is 6-2 when going head-to-head with Paul George. Yes, they were on the Spurs and Pacers, respectively, but Kawhi forced PG into 40.7 percent shooting, 3.3 turnovers, and held him to 19.4 points.

OKC has simply not been playing as the unstoppable force they looked like before the All-Star break. Whether it’s the weight of overcoming an early 0-4 hole to start the season, or the difficult schedule (just completed a 10-day span where they faced the Blazers, Clippers, Jazz, Nets, Pacers, and Warriors), the Thunder find themselves only two games ahead of the Clippers for the 8th seed.

The safe bet is to call for a split, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict a Raptors sweep. Since the All-Star break, Toronto is 5th in 3-pointers made and 1st in 3-point FG%. Over that same stretch, Oklahoma City are 25th in opponents 3-point FG% and dead last in opponents free throw attempts (Toronto is one of only five teams that hit 80% from the line). The Raptors steal one on the road, 106-102, then take care of business at home, winning 112-103.

March 24 vs. Charlotte Hornets

Sure, you’re reading this on Monday or Tuesday excited to be the first person to ever fill out a perfect bracket. You’ve already crossed this late-March instant-snooze game off your calendar. It’s an easy win that’s unwatchable compared to the perfect bracket you’ll undoubtedly still be tracking.

Let’s be honest. Your bracket’s already busted by Sunday. In fact, it’s probably already busted by halftime of Friday’s game against the Thunder.

I’ve got good news for you. This one is going to be worth your time. Why? Because regardless of the outcome, you’ll love it as a Raptors fan. Why care about a loss? The Hornets are currently (as of Monday morning) three games behind the Nets in the loss column for the 7th seed (Raptors likely first round opponent). Of their final 10 games, Brooklyn’s last eight games are all vs. playoff teams — Blazers, Sixers, Celtics, Bucks, Raptors, Bucks (again), Pacers, and Heat. Meanwhile, Charlotte still has games against the Timberwolves, Lakers, Pelicans, and Cavaliers. The list of “winnable” games for Charlotte increases if you add in the two games vs. Toronto. [wink wink, nudge nudge]

Prediction

I’m not one who likes to mess with karma, but a playoff lineup that still relies on Marvin Williams and Tony Parker is not exactly scary. It will shock no one if Kawhi sits. It might shock some if Nurse goes unconventional and starts anyone other than OG Anunoby in Kawhi’s spot. It will definitely shock many if Toronto loses to a Charlotte team they’ve owned recently (five straight, including a 21-point blowout in October), especially coming off a (hypothetical) sweep of OKC.

Letdown game + Sunday game (lost three of last four Sunday games) + Kawhi sitting + possibly messing with basketball karma = Hornets upsetting the Raptors, 113-103.

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Season Record for Predictions (Last Week): 49 - 21 (2 - 1)