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The Rap-Up: We’re finally (w)rapping up 2020

Before 2020 comes to a close (finally), will this dreadful year bring any more surprises to the Raptors? Or will 2021 be the start of something special for Toronto (and the rest of the world!).

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

2020 is finally over!

In what feels like the longest year in human history, consider the following were all true when the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020:

  • Kobe Bryant was still alive;
  • The Toronto Raptors’ record-setting 15-game win streak had not even started;
  • Pascal Siakam had never been selected to an All-Star team; and
  • Toronto would still have to play Brooklyn and Boston 15 more times combined.

Yet, despite all of the unexpected turns this year took 2020 wraps up the same way 2019 did. The Raptors find themselves having to prove doubters wrong after losing two key championship players to the Clippers and Lakers. There’s another diamond in the rough from draft night patiently waiting on the bench to prove he’s ready. Meanwhile, their conference rivals have all improved over the off-season and will dominate the dregs of the East.

There is, however, one not-so-great stat for Raptors fans: For the first time since January 2017, Toronto will NOT finish a month with a record above .500. Let’s see if they can right the ship this week.

December 29 @ Philadelphia 76ers

This should be a great early-season test for both teams, as neither has faced a 2020 playoff team. The Sixers won their first two games against the Wizards and Knicks but losing to the Cavaliers. With one less game against each other this season, there’s extra pressure to nab this first game between Atlantic division rivals.

Siakam will have his hands full trying to score on Ben Simmons. The Fresh Prince just bullied RJ Barrett into a horrible shooting night (1-for-8, 4 points, 2 turnovers when guarded by Simmons), after the Canadian put on a shooting display in the Knicks’ season opener (11-for-15, 26 points, 1 turnover).

On the flip side, Joel Embiid may not get a break against Toronto’s bigs, despite the departure of Marc Gasol. Aron Baynes has faced Embiid five times in his career — all while with Boston — with a 3-2 record and, more importantly, defended him very well. He’s held Embiid well below his career averages in FG% (41% H2H vs 48% career), points (22.4 vs 24.0), 3pt FG% (15.8% vs 32.0%), and turnovers (3.8 vs 3.2). They even matched up in the playoffs — with the Celtics taking out the Sixers in five games — and Baynes again limiting Embiid, this time in FG% (44.1% H2H vs 48% career), steals (0.6 vs 0.8), blocks (1.0 vs 1.8), and points (23.0 vs 24.0). Will Nurse match Baynes’ minutes to Embiid’s? (No, stop laughing, he may actually do it)

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Since this game isn’t in Tampa, or Toronto for that matter, Danny Green still won’t get his 2019 championship ring. The Raptors host the Sixers for back-to-back games in February. Would a crowd of 3,800 bandwagon Raptor fans suffice as a “home crowd” for Green to accept his ring (or for Toronto to give it to him)?

If Seth Curry knocks down one or two early triples, I really hope Nurse throws VanVleet into a box and-one on him, if only for the jokes!

Prediction

Check those Sixers opponents again. Washington (29th), New York (23rd), and Cleveland (30th) aren’t exactly a murderer’s row of team defenses. Toronto will be hungry for a first win and, as this is the only visit to Philadelphia this season, I expect Kyle Lowry to go OFF! Raptors notch one for the win column, defeating the Sixers 112-106.

December 31 vs. New York Knicks

The Raptors return home to Tampa, where the Knicks will be overwhelmed by a crowd that’s still larger than what they’re accustomed to at Madison Square Garden. (That was supposed to be a joke but the Knicks are not allowing any fans at games while the Raptors, as of Sunday morning, have a league-leading attendance of 3,800 fans! 2020 everybody!)

In addition to a surprising 20-point blowout of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks started the season with some inspired basketball in competitive losses to the Pacers and Sixers. In his previous head coaching stops, Tom Thibodeau turned around the Bulls to make them championship contenders, then led the Timberwolves back to the playoffs after a 14-year drought. Asking him to make the Knicks relevant again is an impossible task, but if anyone can whip this team into shape, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more capable. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s had success coaching against the Raptors (13-5 with Chicago; 2-3 with Minnesota).

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Over their first 17 seasons as a franchise, the Raptors played the Knicks fairly even, posting a 33-36 record, head-to-head. Then Toronto traded Andrea Bargnani to the Big Apple. Since that trade, the Raptors have won 21 of the last 26 matchups.

Prediction

Is it possible the Knicks could topple the top two defenses from last season in the same week? Could there be a more fitting end to 2020 than a loss to New York? No, that’s not going to happen. At least not in this article. Toronto is in the midst of a rivalry record eight-game win streak against New York. The Knicks are more likely to shoot 35% from beyond the arc (their average over the first two games), then the scorching hot 59.3% they fired against Milwaukee on Sunday — especially against the NBA’s best 3-point defense last season. A game-winning Siakam three may not be required this time, as the Raptors breeze by the Knicks, 118-98.

January 2 @ New Orleans Pelicans

This season will have its fair share of back-to-backs against similar opponents, specifically to help reduce travel. While this doesn’t qualify as a back-to-back, you’d better believe Nurse has been studying film from the opening night loss and figuring out what went wrong heading into the rematch.

Daring Eric Bledsoe to fire from deep was a strategy that worked when he was in Milwaukee (specifically a playoff game), but that not so much last Wednesday. JJ Redick may get the Lowry treatment he received in his Sixers days because 6-of-11 shooting from deep simply won’t be happening again. OG Anunoby did a solid job defending Zion Williamson, limiting him to three field goal attempts (he made them all) in 6+ minutes matched up, while forcing five turnovers.

The most surprising aspect of last week’s game was that despite forcing 24 turnovers — a hallmark of their aggressive defense — Toronto was only able to muster 16 fastbreak points — a hallmark of their transition offense.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

When the Raptors arrive, the weather in New Orleans will be 13 degrees celsius. That’s not cold by Toronto standards, but it might be for the Raptors. After this game, the team will embark on a 4-game west coast trip before playing most of their January games in the warm confines of Tampa Bay. Back-to-back games in Indianapolis (January 24/25) may be the only time they’ll need winter coats until February!

Prediction

The Pelicans shoot a ton of threes (#1 in 3-point attempts rate). The Raptors give up a ton of threes (similar to last season, they’re bottom-5 in opponents’ 3-point attempts). The huge difference so far has been the percentage of those attempts falling (33.7% last season vs 43.4% this season). I don’t anticipate Redick will be allowed to get 11 attempts or that Bledsoe will knock down 4 triples again. Will that be enough to swing this in Toronto’s favour? If the Raptors play as well as I’m predicting they will this week, then it should be enough. Toronto wins 110-108.

Enjoy your holiday season and have a happy new year!

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Last Week: 0-2

Season Record for Predictions: 0-2