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The Rap-Up: Toronto prepares for the fourth act of their season

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The Raptors first season as defending champs has been an epic play, with Shakespearean plot twists keeping us on the edge of our seats!

Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Welcome to Act 4 of the Raptors season!

Looking back on Toronto’s season thus far, you can break it down into three acts.

In the first act, the Raptors were a stubborn bunch, determined to out-perform pre-season prognostications and show all the doubters that they could succeed in a post-Kawhi world. Nick Nurse adamantly stuck to playing his seven holdovers from the championship core. The team jumped out to a 6-2 record, but didn’t turn any heads because the losses were to potential playoff foes, Boston and Milwaukee.

The second act was characterized by Toronto’s resiliency. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka went down with injuries in New Orleans, forcing Nurse to finally tap into his reserves. While the schedule will say the Raptors game against the Lakers was their ninth of the season, one could argue that it was the unofficial beginning of Toronto’s title defense. The short-handed Raptors would upset the Lakers on their home floor and kick-start Nurse’s Coach of the Year campaign. Toronto would go on to win 60% of their next 30 games, despite missing at least two core players for 60% of the time.

The third act was all about winning. Marc Gasol’s return from injury sparked a 7-game win streak, until he re-aggravated his hamstring injury. The Raptors rode that momentum for an additional eight consecutive wins. The 15-game win streak had everything from impressive road wins (in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Indiana), intense nail-biters (vs. Indiana, in Atlanta, vs. Brooklyn), and good old-fashioned beat-downs (vs. Washington, Atlanta, and Chicago). During the streak, the Raptors had the number one offense, generated more turnovers than any other team, and scored more points off those turnovers than the rest of the league.

The fourth act of the Raptors season may not generate another franchise-best win streak, like the third act, but it promises to be healthier than the second act, and definitely as stubborn as the first act. Toronto has shown time and again that they can never be counted out against any opponent, regardless of who Nurse trots out. As every team returns from a much-needed break, the Raptors have momentum from the winning streak, the advantage of a battle-tested core, the guidance of an All-Star coaching staff, and the pedigree of a championship contender — with the Larry OB still firmly in their grasps! How this act plays out will go a long way in determining how the Raptors can defend their championship and how this team will look beyond this season.

February 21 vs. Phoenix Suns

These teams last faced each other 13 months ago, yet the lineups still have a lot of similarities. Swap the departed Danny Green for OG Anunoby — who missed the last meeting due to injury — and you have the same starters. Actually, all signs point to Marc Gasol returning from injury. For Phoenix, bump Kelly Oubre up to the starting lineup in place of De’Anthony Melton, and replace the 3-and-D versatility of T.J. Warren, with the offensive artistry of Ricky Rubio.

Phoenix started the season as one of the biggest surprises. The Suns jumped out of the gate with five wins over their first seven, including victories over the Sixers, Clippers, and Warriors (this was the game where Steph Curry injured his hand). Since then, they’ve fallen back to Earth as the schedule has been unforgiving. In their last 10 games, eight have been against playoff teams. Unsurprisingly, they’re 3-7 during that stretch.

Rubio and first-time All-Star, Devin Booker, form one of the best offensive backcourts in the league. Their combined 14.9 assists per game are better than any other duo, just ahead of James Harden & Russell Westbrook (14.5), and Lowry & FVV (14.4).

Phoenix has a couple of other surprising gems on the squad. Leading the team with 2.0 threes made per game is not Booker, but Kelly Oubre. (This is the rare time I miss Delon Wright) Normally a lock to lead the team in steals, Rubio (1.4) ranks second on the team to Mikal Bridges (1.5).

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Deandre Ayton is only the 5th player born in Bahamas to play in the NBA. Yet, he’s not the highest scorer among active Bahamian players (Buddy Hield owns that mark), nor is he the highest scorer among Bahamian players born in Nassau (Mychal Thompson is).

Prediction

Assuming Gasol is back in the lineup, this should be an easy victory for the Raptors. Phoenix has lost their last 4 road games, including visits to the only teams with better records than the Raptors — the Bucks and Lakers. While the Suns have an impressive win over the Rockets recently, they simply don’t have the horses to disrupt the Raptors. Toronto’s losses this season have been characterized by poor shooting and being out-rebounded. Well, the Suns allow opponents to score at an efficient rate (47.3 FG%, #23 in the league) and aren’t a good rebounding team (#23 in offensive rebounds, #21 in total rebounds per game). If there’s one matchup to keep an eye on, it’s the possibility of OG Anunoby guarding Booker! Regardless of how the teams line up, Toronto starts the second half of the season the same way they started the first half, with a victory. The Raptors upend the Suns, 123-108.

February 23 vs. Indiana Pacers

For the third time in as many weeks, the Raptors have a date with the Pacers. Toronto hasn’t been a pleasant city to visit for the Pacers. Two weeks ago, the Raptors used a game-ending 11-0 run to pull off a miraculous comeback against the Pacers.

Last December, this missed call almost started a war.

Oh, and who could forget this gem from four years ago.

It’s safe to say the Raptors own a good piece of real estate in the Pacers’ heads.

In addition to owning a 12-game home win streak in this rivalry, Toronto will have the added incentive of attempting to claim the season series. It’s been well-documented how poorly Toronto’s record looks when facing the other East teams. A victory tonight would silence some of the doubters.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The last time the Pacers defeated the Raptors in Toronto, Indiana rookie, Goga Bitadze, was 13 years old. Goga started playing at the age of six and idolized Zaza Pachulia. PLEASE PROTECT PASCAL SIAKAM AT ALL COSTS IF BITADZE GETS ON THE FLOOR!

Prediction

On one hand, the Raptors have owned the Pacers at Scotiabank Arena. Third time was a charm for Nurse’s boys, as the Raptors were able to limit Indiana to 10 made threes (after allowing 19 and 18 in the first two meetings). However, the Pacers really deserved to win their last visit to Toronto. Indiana will have T.J. Warren back, who paced Indiana (sorry!) with 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists in their only victory over Toronto this season. If Gasol is not back from injury, then the Pacers may be able to pull this out. But it does appear that Gasol will be ready to return, and he truly elevates the play of this team — on both ends of the floor. Toronto clinches the season series by defeating Indiana 119-109.

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Last Week’s Record: 1-1

Season Record for Predictions: 40-15