This is it. The final Rap-Up of the season. (Technically, I could have one next Monday, but it would only have one game.)
If you’ve been keeping track of my personal ticker at the bottom of every Rap-Up, you’ll notice that my game predictions (55-22) are currently one game ahead of the Raptors (54 - 23). I could take the coward’s way out and just predict all wins (meaning a Raptors loss would also mean a “loss” for me, thus, guaranteeing I finish ahead), but then my season record would feel tainted.
Before jumping into the picks, some quick shout-outs to everyone who helped this season. Thank you, Daniel Reynolds, for supporting me and my writing all year long. Thank you Raptors HQ fam, for plugging me in your various posts. Thank you, readers, for reading my articles, tweeting/re-tweeting, and engaging with me all season long. Thank you, Nick Nurse, for ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! I admire Nurse’s ingenuity in creating a health program to help Kawhi decide to stay in Toronto, but the unpredictability of load management games led to a bunch of unexpected losses in my Rap-Ups.
On to the picks!
April 1 vs. Orlando Magic
Don’t Google Fournier.
More importantly, don’t underestimate Evan Fournier. The Frenchman started the season poorly, shooting 37.4% from the field and 27.7% from three in October. His minutes have steadily increased — from 28.7 minutes in October, to 33.4 in January, to levelling out at 31.0 in March — but, thankfully for the Magic, so too has his shooting (45.4% / 38.9% in March).
This marks the fifth consecutive Magic game against an Eastern Conference playoff team. Orlando has won three of the four games, including a 21-point drubbing of the Sixers, followed by a win in Miami (on Chris Bosh’s retirement night and on the back-end of a back-to-back), plus a victory in Indiana. The one blemish in Detroit notwithstanding, the Magic enter this game with a chance to win the season series and inch closer to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2012.
You could pile up the excuses for both losses to the Magic this season. The embarrassing 29-point loss in December was without Lowry and during the Raptors’ worst stretch of the season. The no-show in February was without Leonard and followed the emotionally draining Spurs game a couple nights prior. The fact is, Toronto’s lone victory wasn’t especially inspiring, despite Danny Green’s buzzer-beater. Orlando has an All-Star centre (Nikola Vucevic) who owns the paint, a solid bench (7th in Net Rating and 3rd in Assist % since the All-Star break), and has just enough desperation to nab another win against Toronto. The Magic pull a win out of their hat, 110-108.
April 3 @ Brooklyn Nets
Can I let you in on a little secret? [leans in and whispers] F*ck Brooklyn... they’re not that good.
The Nets rank 6th in threes made, 4th in threes attempted, 5th in free throws made, and 3rd in free throws attempted. However, look a little deeper and this team is actually not a team full of James Hardens. Since the All-Star break, Brooklyn is 24th in 3-point FG% and 27th in FT%. They’ve ranked 27th in Offensive Rating, 27th in Assist/Turnover ratio, and 26th in Rebounding %.
That rebounding stat is worth noting because Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka should be featured and may even start together again. Jarrett Allen has struggled to protect the paint. Over the last few games, Joel Embiid, Jusuf Nurkic (#sadface), and JaVale McGee have averaged 34.7 points on 62.5% shooting.
Brooklyn looks like an ice skating dragon pic.twitter.com/yBzweTE90F— Nathan W. Pyle (@nathanwpyle) March 29, 2019
Many will focus on the Nets’ 3-point shooting, especially considering Brooklyn drilled 20 triples when these two last met in February. However, all eyes should be on the other end of the floor, as the Nets are 3rd in opponents 3-point FG% (32.2%) since the All-Star break. Over the same span, Toronto’s been head-and-shoulders above the league, hitting 41.4% of threes — well ahead of the Clippers (39.1%). Keep an eye on that 3-point FG%. If Toronto can hit at least 40% from beyond the arc — as they’ve done in seven of their last eight games — then they should prevail. My guess is they do. Toronto splashes the Nets, 122-117.
April 5 @ Charlotte Hornets
As of Monday morning, Charlotte is two spots back and three games out of the 8-seed, with only six games remaining. Jeremy Lamb may have hit a miraculous shot last Sunday, but it wasn’t season-saving. The Hornets kicked off a 4-game road trip with a loss to the lottery-bound Lakers, then a 47(!)-point loss to the Warriors. That’s not a typo.
The nightmare isn’t over for Hornets fans.
In addition to likely missing the playoffs, franchise cornerstone, Kemba Walker, is an unrestricted Free Agent. Charlotte didn’t improve at the trade deadline, didn’t trade Kemba to get a jump start on rebuilding, and already have $102 million in salaries next season (Salary Cap = $109 million). Charlotte hosted a great All-Star weekend, but facts are facts. They are 22nd in attendance and have only made the playoffs 3 times since getting the franchise back in 2004. Charlotte never made the second round in any of those appearances and are paying over $85 million next season to a core of Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (That was also listed in order of highest to lowest salary. Ouch!). Is this possibly one of Kemba’s final games as a Hornet?
I correctly predicted a Hornets victory last Sunday, not because I knew we’d lose in such heart-breaking fashion, but because the Raptors were primed for a letdown game. Coming off a home-and-home against the Thunder, it didn’t seem like a stretch that the Raptors could come out flat-footed. This matchup, however, should be much better with a more focused Raptors squad. Last Sunday’s game was the only one of the last nine games where Toronto did not earn the fans free fries. Toronto makes amends in North Carolina by stinging the Hornets, 115-102.
April 7 vs. Miami Heat
Look what we have here... a fourth consecutive playoff preview. The Heat are the latest team to try and take advantage of a cautious Raptors squad, while boosting their own playoff aspirations. This game also features Dwyane Wade’s final trip to Toronto, before possibly flying back for Game 1 the following Saturday or Sunday. With Delon Wright in Memphis, it’ll be interesting to see who Wade trades jerseys with. I’m guessing it’s Pascal Siakam because he’s taken over Wright’s title as the Eurostep king of the team — one of Wade’s go-to moves.
Things are tense in Vice City as the Heat are almost even with the Magic for the division lead. Five of Miami’s final six games are against East playoff teams: @BOS, BOS, @TOR, PHI, @BKN. The Raptors and Sixers games are probably easier than expected, as both teams will be locked into the second and third seeds, respectively, and likely managing loads for the playoffs.
Predicting a winner for this game is especially difficult because various Heat players are dealing with injuries at the worst time of the season. Rodney McGruder (Knee), Josh Richardson (Heel), Justise Winslow (Thigh), and Dwayne Wade (age) should all be limited, if they play at all. For the final regular season home game, the Raptors will likely trot out their playoff starters and use the playoff rotation. However, we may see some G League players in the second half and, thus, opening the door for a Heat upset, 105-99.
April 9 @ Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves close out their home schedule with a visit from their cold-weather neighbours to the north. Minnesota’s season was essentially over before it began. Jimmy Butler’s unhappiness with the team led to on-court struggles and off-court fireworks. Despite getting a fairly good return from Philadelphia, the Wolves never could get on track. Karl-Anthony Towns may have played his way into an All-NBA selection. If we assume Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are locks for All-NBA first and second team centres, I wouldn’t fault you for choosing Towns over Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Vucevic.
Andrew Wiggins, meanwhile, is wrapping up the first year of the 5-year max salary extension he signed on October 11, 2017. The Toronto native will finish his 5th season with his worst stats across the board: PER (12.0), shooting (48.6 TS%), and value (-0.7 VORP).
Minnesota enters this game having already lost Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, and Robert Covington to season-ending injuries. A couple of random predictions for this one. Jordan Loyd’s two-way contract gets converted, awarding him the 15th roster spot. Loyd’s day gets better when Nurse gives him the start. Chris Boucher also starts, and shows some flashes of brilliance while matching up with Towns. Norm Powell leads all scorers, but not far behind is Malcolm Miller. Toronto wraps up the regular season with a 118-107 victory.
Thanks again for following along all season. Now, on to the most important playoffs in franchise history!