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The Rap-Up: Ready for a Mid-Season Night’s Dream with Toronto?

The Raptors are at full strength (finally) and hitting a very winnable stretch in their schedule. Oh how great it feels to be the healthier team!

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

Do you ever just look at your significant other and wonder, “Wow, how lucky am I to have you?” Or, for the parents, marvel at your children? Or maybe it’s a family member, or a friend, or, even, your workplace. Whatever your situation, that reminder that life is actually good can feel like a dream sometimes.

Allow me to continue the mushiness with one more example: glancing over at your Raptors championship ring/shirt/hat/electronic background and remembering that Toronto houses the defending, reigning NBA world champions!

Before the season, it was generally thought that (a) no one can take away the luster of a championship (Kawhi Leonard departure be damned!), (b) this Raptors squad would be very good, but not championship contenders, and (c) the team could potentially make more noise if a number of factors occurred.

Pascal Siakam would need to make “the Leap”. Marc Gasol would need to take on more of a leadership role on offense, while maintaining his all-world defense at peak level. OG Anunoby would need to bounce back from a down year, stay healthy, and remind everyone of the defensive versatility he displayed in his rookie year.Norm Powell would need to be “Bucks Norm” more often. Fred VanVleet would need to be more post-FVV-jr, than pre-FVV-jr. Kyle Lowry, playing with house money at this point, would need to avoid the complacency that follows many after achieving the ultimate goal.

Well, we’ve officially surpassed the mid-point of the season and, hot damn, did these guys hit all the checkboxes!

Siakam has increased his scoring and usage, while maintaining efficient shooting splits, filling any holes in his offensive game, and headed towards his first All-Star game (likely as a starter!). Gasol has been the best defensive player for the NBA’s 2nd-best defensive, and is coming off a game where he hit a career-high six triples. Anunoby has missed the least amount of games compared to the other six key holdovers from last year’s squad. He has also played an integral role in shutting down some of the top scorers in the league, like LeBron James, Bradley Beal, and Zach Lavine.

Norm has never been more consistent. If you remove the Detroit game where he re-injured his shoulder, Stormin’ Norman has scored 20 points or more in seven straight games. Steady Freddy is 22nd in threes made per game, tied for 4th in steals per game (with Kawhi), and, despite his height/wingspan, sits 2nd in deflections. He’s also one of ten players averaging 18 points and 7 assists. Another one hitting those averages is none other than Lowry! The G.R.O.A.T. is 6th in the NBA in assists (7.8) and leads the league in minutes per game (37.7). Kyle epitomizes what this Raptors squad is all about — spitting in the face of complacency and giving 110% effort towards defending the chip!

If last June felt like a dream come true, then this season has been a constant reminder that it may not be time to wake up!

January 20 @ Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta fans haven’t had much to cheer about this season, so let’s start with some good news.

Now back to the negatives of the East’s worst team. John Collins was primed for a big year, having completed an outstanding sophomore season where he almost averaged 20-and-10. Instead, he was suspended 25 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, setting off a chain reaction of bad news for the Hawks.

The poorly constructed roster has been downright unwatchable in any minutes where Young has sat. It’s so bad that they’ve started Cam Reddish in 28 games. The Blue Devil rookie has statistically been one of the worst players in the NBA this season. Thankfully for Atlanta fans, last week’s acquisition of Jeff Teague should provide some much-needed help as a secondary ball handler.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

How big of a difference are Trae Young’s on/off numbers? According to nba.com/stats, the Hawks have a 108.2 offensive rating with Young on the court. That’s only good for 21st in the league. With him off the court, that rating drops to 90.7. The 17.5 rating difference is larger than any other player’s on/off differential in the NBA.

Unsurprisingly, the league’s worst offensive rating, 103.6, belongs to Atlanta.

Prediction

In case you’re wondering, this is not the last time the Raptors face Vince Carter. Toronto hosts VC on January 28 and April 10. When these teams faced off earlier this season, the Hawks gave the home crowd a good showing, but ultimately fell to the Raptors by three. Despite the negative statistics outlined above, offense wasn’t a problem for the Hawks. They simply had no answer for Siakam. Although Pascal is still working his way back from a groin injury, this wouldn’t be a bad place to work himself back into a rhythm. Toronto overpowers the Hawks, winning 120-105.

January 22 vs. Philadelphia 76ers

After Joel Embiid’s finger transformed into a plastic bendy straw, the 76ers have faced a situation quite similar to the Raptors. While Toronto managed to stay afloat without Siakam, the Sixers have seen a significant dip in offense, from a slightly below-average offense (109.2 offensive rating, which would rank 20th), to a horrible one (104.9 offensive rating, which would rank 27th... just ahead of the Knicks).

As of this writing, it also doesn’t look good for Al Horford to suit up. He hurt his left wrist on the weekend and could join his frontcourt mate on the sidelines. At the very least, he’d be playing hurt, as he complained of being “very sore” after Saturday’s game in New York.

Before the season started, hopes were sky high in Philadelphia. While they’ve shown signs of being a title contender, the Sixers haven’t done enough to validate those pre-season predictions, let alone stake their claim to the 2-seed. They’d better hope for a quick recovery for Embiid and Horford, as they face the Lakers next, and have an upcoming road trip with games in Boston, Miami, and Milwaukee.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Before Embiid suffered the gruesome bendy-straw-as-finger injury, the Sixers had an offensive rating of 109.2 and defensive rating of 105.5. For the 11 games Siakam missed with his groin injury, the Raptors had an offensive rating of 108.8 and defensive rating of 105.6.

Yes, I’m saying Toronto — without Siakam, Gasol, and Powell — are essentially equal to Philadelphia.

Prediction

Consider this your monthly reminder that the Raptors own the Atlantic division at home. Yes, the Celtics ended the Raptors’ 4-year-long streak of home wins against the division on Christmas. What better way to start a new streak, then against a Philly team whose dreams they surely haunt. Toronto has won the last 14(!) consecutive regular season games when the Sixers have come to town. The tables have surely turned as it’s the Raptors that are the healthier bunch. Toronto takes down Philly, 105-98.

January 24 @ New York Knicks

One of the only bright spots for the Knicks this season, has been the play of R.J. Barrett. His ankle injury, suffered on Thursday vs. Phoenix, is the latest nail in New York’s proverbial coffin.

From the team’s perspective, one of the few positives has been their offensive rebounding. There’s probably a correlation with the Knicks having the 27th ranked FG% — lots of rebounds available on the offensive end — but they’re grabbing more of them than any other team.

Despite that, Toronto managed to crash the glass more effectively in their previous meeting, grabbing 17 offensive boards, to New York’s 15.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

If you’re getting a sense of dejavu with these games, it might be because this schedule sequence already occurred a couple months ago. On November 23, the Raps beat the Hawks in Atlanta by three. Two days later, they won by five at home to the Sixers. Toronto then finished off the Knicks at home by 28 points on November 27.

The dejavu shouldn’t stop there, as I’m also envisioning similar results.

Prediction

The Raptors have won 15 of the last 16 meetings with New York. They’ve won seven of the last eight at Madison Square Garden by an average of 14.4 points. As mentioned, the last matchup resulted in a 28-point blowout for the Raptors... and that was without Lowry and Ibaka. Toronto adds another blowout to the rivalry, pounding the Knicks, 128-99.

January 26 @ San Antonio Spurs

Just two weeks ago, the Spurs came into town and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, aided by a 27-4 run in the 4th. DeMar DeRozan punctuated a great performance by ending Chris Boucher.

Raptor fans will be quick to point out that Gasol and VanVleet had yet to return. That’s exactly what it looks like... an excuse!

San Antonio was able to undo the stranglehold Toronto had over the first three quarters by effectively instituting a zone defense. Gasol’s playmaking and/or VanVleet’s ability to break down a defense could have been enough to keep the Spurs comeback at bay.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Spurs are now in the middle of a 5-team battle royal for the final playoff spot in the West. In one of their last home games before the annual rodeo road trip, San Antonio will look to make it 11 consecutive wins when the Raptors visit.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

I’ve gone way over my preferred word count for this post. This tweet says it all. (Note the last sentence.

Prediction

We’ve seen this before with Nick Nurse and the Raptors. In the last month, Toronto has answered early-season losses to Dallas, Boston, and Oklahoma City with resounding, statement victories. It’s a measuring stick of the team’s resilience, a testament to the coaching staff’s ability to adjust game plans, and a reminder that you can [extreme Rudy Tomjanovich voice] never underestimate the heart of a champion. The Raptors get their revenge, beating the Spurs 114-111.

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Last Week’s Record: 3-0

Season Record for Predictions: 28-14