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The Rap-Up: Raptors survive December and ready to thrive in January

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Toronto kicks off the new year/decade with three games against sub-.500 teams, including a return home for a Raptor great.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

December was always going to be tough.

With the schedule getting more top-heavy, the rash of injuries that befell the Raptors was supposed to be the beginning of the end. Thankfully, Toronto has Nick Nurse — who can coach me, two random rec league guys, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet to a win over the Cavaliers — who can maximize whatever talent is in front of him. The Raptors rode the next-man-up mantra to a respectable 8-6 record in December, including statement victories over Utah, Dallas, and Boston.

What lies ahead this month is a much more manageable schedule.

This week alone, Toronto is facing teams that are all below .500, including a return of a former crowd favourite, Jakob Poeltl DeMar DeRozan.

January 7 vs. Portland Trailblazers

The last time these teams faced in Toronto...

Yes, that’s a 4-bounce, tie-breaking, game-winning, buzzer-beater in front of the Raps bench and a rabid home crowd. If only we knew this was just foreshadowing what was to come!

The last time the Raptors played the Blazers this season, Toronto was hit with some big injuries to Lowry and Serge Ibaka, yet they still pulled out a victory. The Raptors rode the hot-shooting of VanVleet, an unstoppable Pascal Siakam, and uplifting bench performances from Terence Davis (15 points, 3 triples, 6 rebounds, team-high +19) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (16 points, 11 rebounds — 8 offensive).

Maybe there’s some foreshadowing again.

The Raptors are still dealing with injuries to Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norm Powell. However, FVV’s hot-shooting (tied a season-high with 5 triples in Brooklyn on Saturday), an unstoppable Lowry (the F-U mode he hit during the Brooklyn game was a microcosm of his All-Star worthy play of late), and uplifting bench performances from TD (career-high 19 points vs. Cleveland) and RHJ (team-high +21 and 4 steals in Brooklyn) will all come in handy against a struggling Portland squad.

The Blazers are coming off a 5-game losing streak that included home losses to the Pelicans and Suns, plus an embarrassing 24-point loss at Madison Square Garden.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Damian Lillard had arguably his worst game of the season when these teams met on November 13. He had nine points on 2-for-12 shooting (0-for-5 on 2-point attempts) — all still season-lows. In fact, that performance ended his 230-game streak of double-digit scoring (the 3rd-longest active streak in the NBA at the time). The Box-and-1 is the gift that keeps on giving!

Prediction

Toronto has won eight of the last nine meetings with Portland — after losing 12 of the previous 13. Outside of Hassan Whiteside, the Blazers do not have anybody taller than 6’8. With injuries to Skal Labissiere, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic, the Raptors finally get a break from the absences of Siakam and Gasol. Even Portland’s top scorer from the previous meeting, Rodney Hood (25 points and 5 triples), is now out for the season. There aren’t many bright spots to choose from with Portland, so let’s go with the Raptors winning 115-107.

January 8 @ Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are exactly who we thought they were. Actually, they’re even worse.

The standings show the Hornets in 9th place, just two games behind the Orlando Magic. However, according to Basketball Reference’s Pythagorean Wins/Losses calculation, the 15-23 Hornets, are playing more like an 11-win team. Charlotte’s +4 over-achievement in wins is the highest in the NBA. In addition, their strength of schedule is 25th in the league (Raptors, unsurprisingly, have had one of the toughest schedules to date, ranking 6th).

To sum up, Charlotte has won more games than they’re supposed to, have taken advantage of one of the easiest schedules....and still aren’t in a playoff position. What else do you expect from a team that didn’t plan ahead and lost Kemba Walker for nothing (and filled his position, financially at least, with Terry Rozier)!

One of the only bright spots in Charlotte, has been the emergence of Devonte Graham. The second-year guard out of Kansas is projected to threaten Walker’s franchise record of 260 threes made in a single season (projected: 255). Graham only ranks behind James Harden in threes made, and sits third in total assists, trailing LeBron James and Ben Simmons.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Charlotte is the only team with multiple players in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage — Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. The Hornets are good at crashing the offensive glass, but Toronto has been improving in that area lately. The Raptors have not been out-rebounded in offensive boards since Christmas, a span of five games.

Prediction

If we remove the two Jeremy Lamb game-winners last season, Toronto has handily won each of the last six meetings between the teams, including a 36-point rout on November 18. Toronto is 16-5 when reaching double-digits in offensive rebounds and, you guessed it, they grabbed 16 in the earlier game vs Charlotte (1 shy of their season-high). Before assuming Gasol or Siakam were big contributors in that area, it was actually Chris Boucher who stepped up with seven, and Hussle-Jefferson snaring another four. Those two will play huge roles again as the Raptors dismantle the Hornets, 118-109.

January 12 vs. San Antonio Spurs

DeMar DeRozan leads his band of ex-Raptors into Scotiabank Arena, hoping to turn around a mediocre season (by Gregg Popovich’s lofty standards). Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, Jakob Poeltl, and Demarre Carroll are the ghosts of playoff failures past.

While the league adopts Moreyball and focus on hoisting more and more triples, San Antonio, in very Spurs-ian fashion, are taking their game inside the arc. No team has a higher frequency of their shots (70.2%) in the 2-point range. If you’re thinking they’re following Houston’s other pillar of scoring in the paint, guess again. The Spurs have the lowest percentage of field goal attempts within 10 feet. Long live the midrange!

That strategy may be difficult to employ against these Raptors. Toronto is still one of the stingiest defenses inside the arc, despite all the injuries. The Raptors rank 2nd in opponents 2-point field goals made, and 2nd in opponents field goal percentage.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

LaMarcus Aldridge, 3-point specialist. Stop laughing. While DeRozan continues hoisting mid-rangers, Aldridge has been given the green light to extend his game beyond the arc.....and he’s thriving! He’s hit 14-of-20 3-point attempts over the last four games, including 5-of-6 against the Pistons and 8-of-11(!!) over his last two games, against the Thunder and Bucks. Aldridge may become the most unlikely member of the 50/40/90 club (currently at 51/45/84).

Prediction

Toronto has won four of the last five home meetings with San Antonio, but none of the wins were larger than five points. Where the Raptors may struggle is in transition. Toronto rank #1 in percentage of points via fastbreak (16.0%). However, San Antonio has always been effective in limiting transition opportunities. They typically don’t crash the offensive glass (23rd in offensive rebounds), in favour of getting back on defense. Popovich has a good history against the Raptors, but this is not your older brother’s Spurs. They’re several games below .500, and haven’t had their dreaded rodeo trip yet. Toronto is still perfect against sub-.500 teams, so I’ll stick with them. Raptors prevail over the Spurs, 103-100.

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Last Week’s Record: 2-1

Season Record for Predictions: 24-12