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The Rap-Up: Raptors closing in on a fully healthy squad

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As the Raptors start getting some bodies back in the lineup, the team gets ready to roll into the second half of the regular season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is the Toronto Raptors are inching closer and closer to full health.

The bad news is... nope, let’s not go there. For all the head-hanging and narrow losses, there’s enough negativity and doubts among talking heads that I’m happy living on my estate on Everything is Fine island.

Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell returned to the lineup on Sunday. Powell’s return was anticipated as Nick Nurse spoke positively of his chances throughout the week. Despite his injury looking like the worst of the three suffered on December 18 (the anguished look on his face still haunts my dreams), Norm’s return was a welcome surprise to a roster in great need of his scoring punch.

Siakam’s, on the other hand, was a downright gift from the basketball gods. If Norm’s scoring was missing from the bench, the starters were basically begging for a Pascal return. Coming back after 3+ weeks from an injury that was initially projected to need four weeks is a positive sign that (a) Siakam healed faster than anticipated and/or (b) it wasn’t as bad as they thought. Either way, the soon-to-be All-Star didn’t wasted any time reminding us all what’s been missing.

With Marc Gasol close to returning, the Raptors are “just” a healthy Fred VanVleet away... and an entire half of the regular season(!)... from really showing what kind of a threat they pose in the East.

If you choose to be concerned over blown leads or losses to the NBA’s elite, how much confidence does that really instill knowing they beat a battered Raptors squad? Remember that Toronto acquired Gasol at the trade deadline and still had enough time to get everyone on the same page for a title-winning run!

January 15 @ Oklahoma City Thunder

If the heartbreak from the Spurs game had you steaming, it’s probably because the sting from the heart-breaking Blazers loss still seemed fresh. More appropriately, it may have been the dejavu from the tight home loss to OKC two weeks.

Regardless, the Raptors will be itching to exact some revenge in Oklahoma City. Despite playing a mere 2.5 weeks prior, the teams will look very different this time around. Toronto will not have the services of VanVleet, but will now be able to suit up Powell, Siakam, and Thomas. The Thunder may not have Nerlens Noel, but will have Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari in tow.

After starting the season slow (6-11 near end of November), Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schroder have formed a three-headed point god monster in OKC. They’ve won 16 of 22 since, including a 98-97 nail-biter at Scotiabank Arena on December 29.

Similar to Lowry mentoring FVV, it’s not bad having CP around to teach SGA a thing or two.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Thunder’s most recent loss is cause for concern though. The aforementioned three-headed monster missed open threes throughout (3-for-15 combined from beyond the arc). That’s a welcome stat for a Raptors squad that allows threes at a high rate (29th in opponents 3-pt FG attempts), yet also forces a ton of misses (3rd in opponents 3-pt FG%

Prediction

That OKC loss, by the way, was against a depleted Los Angeles Lakers squad missing LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green. Instead of a cake-walk victory, the Thunder were out-rebounded (54-37) and out-hustled (28-8 second chance points) and, ultimately, suffered a humbling 15-point defeat. Norm and Matt’s offensive contributions should more than negate what Schroder brings to this matchup, while Siakam will remind fans what they’ve been missing — especially when he gets Gallo guarding him. While OKC visits Minnesota, Nick Nurse will have an extra day to prepare for the rematch with the Thunder. Toronto comes prepared and picks up a big road win, 110-107.

January 17 vs. Washington Wizards

In an effort to divert your attention from an impending matchup with Raptor killer, Bradley Beal, allow me to take a moment to marvel at Davis Bertans.

He’s hit more threes than Luka Doncic, Paul George, and CJ McCollum. Hitting triples at a rate higher than Joe Harris, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver. His effective FG % is higher than Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Did I mention he’s earning less than half the salary ($7 million) as his fellow 6-10 teammate Ian Mahinmi ($15.45 million)?

The Latvian Laser (thank you, Basketball Reference) has hit 3.7 threes per game. That trails only one player, James Harden (obviously), who’s hitting 5.1 triples per game — but on 5 more attempts!

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Wizards are one of the only teams that claim to have worse luck with injuries than the Raptors. According to Spotrac.com, Washington more players’ games due to injury (175 games, 2nd-most behind Golden State) than Toronto (138, #4).

However, it’s the Raptors that have lost more ‘potential’ wins than any other team in the league.

Prediction

When these teams last faced, Bertans had one of his worst games of his career. His 3-for-15 shooting was his lowest FG% (minimum 15 FG attempts) and it also marked the first time he had ever missed as many as 10 attempts from beyond the arc (2-for-12). Beal, on the other hand, continued his wizardry (sorry) against Toronto. His 2nd-highest points, rebounds, and assists averages (against one team) are all vs. the Raptors. Having Siakam back in the mix should help this time. Toronto was very successful at limiting star players earlier this season. Now would be a great time to force Washington’s role players into the spotlight. I simply can’t see them coming through. Toronto defeats the Wizards, 123-108.

January 18 @ Minnesota Timberwolves

Happy Andrew Wiggins tribute video day!

Wiggins is (or at least was) having a breakout season for the Timberwolves. The Vaughan native is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, threes made, and eFG%. That should be good news for him, but, if you’ve been paying attention to his career, those aren’t really lofty goals to be surpassing.

Wiggins is averaging less points than Brandon Ingram, less rebounds than SGA, less assists than Nikola Vucevic, and shooting a lower percentage than Lonzo Ball.

On the bright side, the Timberwolves still have Karl-Anthony Towns and surround him with an excellent roster that compliments his ability to space the floor.

Wait a second. Towns hasn’t played in a month, and Minnesota has......one of the league’s worst group of shooters. (Ouch)

Seth Partnow, The Athletic

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Over their 31 seasons of existence, the Timberwolves have only had six seasons where they had a defensive rating better than league average. SIX! Four of those seasons were anchored by Kevin Garnett, and only one season they ranked inside the top-10. In 2003-04, the T-Wolves ranked #6 in defensive rating — unsurprisingly, the only season where they made the Conference Finals.

Prediction

The last 3 instances where the Raptors played a back-to-back and the second game was on the road have all been tightly contested nail-biters. On December 9, Toronto fielded an almost-healthy squad (missing “only” Thomas and FVV), yet only escaped Chicago with a 93-92 win. On December 23, less than 24 hours after The Comeback, the Raptors valiantly took the Pacers to overtime, but eventually lost. Last Wednesday, in Charlotte, was the Terence Davis redemption game, where the Raptors slipped by the Hornets in overtime. Minnesota may not be a playoff team, but you can also guarantee this will be an entertaining and close battle.

I’m kidding, this should be a cake walk. Toronto pastes the Wolves, 128-103.

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Last Week’s Record: 1-2

Season Record for Predictions: 25-14