The next five weeks of games don’t matter.
Alright, that’s a bit excessive. The next five weeks of games don’t necessarily matter.
Toronto currently sits three games back of Milwaukee in the loss column, but really four games back, due to losing the tiebreaker. Expecting Milwaukee to lose four out of the next 19 games is already a reach — Toronto would also have to go undefeated. Both teams have easy remaining schedules: Milwaukee has 10 games against sub-.500 teams, while Toronto has 14 games against sub.-500 teams. FiveThirtyEight.com has Milwaukee favoured to win all but one game (April 4 visit to Philadelphia). They also have Toronto favoured to win all but one game (March 20 visit to Oklahoma City). As we’ve seen in Nick Nurse’s cautiousness with load maintenance, it’s obvious he’s got eyes on the bigger prize (health for the playoffs). Even if the Raptors don’t get home court advantage throughout the East, they’ve already defeated the Bucks in Milwaukee.
As for the teams trying to catch Toronto, there’s an even larger gap to overcome. Indiana and Philadelphia are both six games behind Toronto in the loss column. With 18 and 19 games remaining, respectively, it’s fair to assume the Pacers and Sixers aren’t catching the Raptors for the 2-seed.
This is a long-winded way of re-iterating the importance, or lack thereof, of the final quarter of regular season games. The Raptors’ focus should be on finalizing playoff rotations and fine-tuning chemistry issues, rather than wins and losses.
Before moving on to this week’s games/picks, two winning streaks need to be brought to your attention. I am currently on a career-high 11-game streak of correctly picking Raptor game outcomes (which I’ve just jinxed and will obviously lose this week). A more note-worthy streak: Malcolm Miller has never lost in an NBA game in which he’s played... ever!
March 5 vs. Houston Rockets
Last season, the Rockets went on a magical run that spanned over two months, where they won 28 of 29(!!) games. That one loss — sandwiched between 17 and 11 game win streaks — you’ll surely remember happened in Toronto. The Raptors jumped out to a double-digit first quarter lead, and held off a fourth-quarter charge by the Rockets for a nail-biting win.
Fast forward to their next match-up, earlier this season. The Rockets jumped out to a double-digit first quarter lead, and held off a fourth-quarter charge by the Raptors for a nail-biting win.
This promises to be another entertaining game between teams with realistic championship aspirations. While James Harden has been simply other-worldly (see below), Toronto should have Kawhi Leonard back in the lineup. Allow me to re-use / revise the stats I mentioned last week. The Raptors are 9-2 in games following Kawhi Leonard load maintenance days. More importantly, Toronto is now 9-0 on Tuesdays.
Harden is a special basketball player with an insane ability to command his troops and maximize their potential. The tweet above has its positives and negatives. The Beard’s ability to take (and make) threes, unassisted, shows his positive value. Too bad for him, he’ll now have to figure out which Raptor to pick on... because that doesn’t exist.
Leonard will surely have a few cracks at guarding Harden. So will OG Anunoby, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Patrick McCaw — jeez, this team is stacked! Harden leads the league in turnovers, and the Raptors are ranked 4th in opponent turnover % since February 3rd (beginning of their 7-game win streak) . Kawhi’s return brings some stability that was lacking in Detroit on Sunday, and will surely bring his ‘A’ game for this clash. Between Kawhi’s clutch shooting and Kyle’s shooting overall (KLOE has returned!), the Raptors should blast off on the Rockets, winning 118-109.
March 8 @ New Orleans Pelicans
It seems like a lifetime ago that the Pelicans rode into Scotiabank Arena and handed the Raptors their first home loss of the season. New Orleans were showing signs of life, opening the season with victories over the Rockets, Kings, Clippers, and Nets. Anthony Davis dropped a Unibrow-esque line of 25 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks, 1 triple, in 40 minutes.
Now, the Pelicans are in full tank mode. Anthony Davis wants out and, after not finding a trade partner before the deadline, New Orleans is doing everything short of mummifying him in bubble wrap. AD hasn’t played more than 21 minutes since the All-Star break and has played in the 4th quarter once since mid-January.
New Orleans’ tank strategy doesn’t stop at Davis. Raptor killer, E’Twaun Moore, who was having a fine season, has been relegated to the bench and replaced with rookie Kenrich Williams [insert shoulder shrug emoji].
Having sat Sunday’s tilt in Detroit, and coming off a two-day break from the Houston game, I think it’s fair to assume Kawhi will be in the lineup. In their earlier meeting, Kawhi was 1-for-6 from deep, while Kyle was 0-for-6 — for each player, that was one of only four games where either has missed as many 3-point attempts. With both shooting the way they have lately, I expect a comfortable 121-108 victory... about as large as a Pelican’s beak.
March 10 @ Miami Heat
Don’t be fooled by Miami’s 28-34 record. They’re in a 3-way slap-fest (battle is too strong a term for this) with the Magic and Hornets for the Southeast division lead — and final playoff spot. Miami has recently earned confidence-building victories over the Nets and Warriors, plus narrow losses to the Rockets and Sixers. Of the last six matchups between the teams, four have ended in one-possession losses (1-3 points), with another needing overtime. Here’s the good news pertaining that last stat.
Raptors improve to 11-4 in games decided by 3 points or fewer. That's the most wins in the NBA and 2nd-best record (Denver is 10-2). Raps were 5-7 in those close games last season.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 2, 2019
At the time of this post, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are day-to-day with injuries, so they may be fully healthy by the time Toronto rolls into town. Over the last six games, Toronto has been lights out from beyond the arc, shooting 82-of-199 (41.2%). When opponents shoot that well against Miami, the Heat are 2-15. The Raptors keep throwing flames and extinguish the Heat, 110-102.