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The Rap-Up: Toronto enters the Ides of March

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After taking advantage of the soft part of their schedule, the Raptors are ready to rev things up against a pair of Finals contenders in Milwaukee and Denver.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors are entering the Ides of March.

The meaning of that term actually refers to the first full moon (i.e. “Ides”) of the new year (March was the first month of the consular new year, up until 45 B.C.). On the actual date, March 15, several religious observances were marked and, specifically, Romans would settle their debts.

What debts do the Raptors need settling?

For starters, Toronto’s pre-season acquisitions, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, owe a debt of gratitude to Masai Ujiri.

At some point this week, RHJ will be playing for a 43-win team. He’d never experienced that over his first five seasons with Brooklyn. A couple wins later, Johnson will be playing for a 45-win team. He’d never experienced that over his first four seasons with Detroit and New Orleans. Reminder, the calendar still reads February!

The Raptors owe the Bucks a dent in their relatively unblemished armour. Over their last 26 games. dating back to Christmas, Milwaukee has played only six against teams with +.500 record. The Bucks were 3-3 over those games.

Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, and Serge Ibaka owe the basketball analytics community for capturing how versatile they’ve been all season. Siakam taking the top spot shouldn’t be a huge surprise. He’s played whatever role Nick Nurse has needed, whether it’s handling the ball up the court and directing offensive possessions, or banging down low with the NBA’s biggest behemoths — only to put them through the spin cycle!

While this season has often felt like basketball karma for all the health luck the Raptors enjoyed last playoffs, the biggest debt the Raptors may want to settle, is with the basketball gods, who owe Toronto a healthy playoffs.

February 25 vs. Milwaukee Bucks

Exactly nine months ago, Milwaukee’s last visit to Scotiabank Arena ended with the biggest (at the time) victory in Raptors franchise history.

Nine months later, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a father (insert eyes emoji), and Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA. Granted, it’s a February game with both teams possibly missing their starting Centers, but you’d better believe the Bucks had this date circled on their calendars since the schedule was released.

Said schedule, though, has placed the Bucks in Toronto on the back-end of back-to-back, and playing the Raptors on the third game in four nights. Milwaukee’s 3rd-ranked offense will be put to the test. Here’s how the other five best offensive teams fared when they last played Toronto

  • Mavericks: Season = 117.4; vs. Raptors = 106.0
  • Rockets: Season = 114.1; vs. Raptors = 116.2 (James Harden held to his lowest FGA/min; Ben McLemore and PJ Tucker combined for 13 threes made)
  • Lakers: Season = 113.6; vs. Raptors = 103.1
  • Celtics: Season = 113.3; vs. Raptors = 99.5
  • Heat: Season = 112.6; vs. Raptors = 94.4

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Khris Middleton is on track to joining the elusive 50/40/90 club. A feat that hasn’t been achieved since... last season, when another Bucks guard, Malcolm Brogdon, joined the club. Middleton would become only the 5th to join that club while also averaging at least 20 points per game. Steph Curry, Larry Bird (twice), Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki were the others.

Prediction

Milwaukee may be without Brook Lopez with a lower back injury, while Toronto will likely still be missing Marc Gasol and Norm Powell. Bucks fans should feel relieved to avoid facing Bucks Killer, Powell, but Serge Ibaka is still playing. He’s feasted on Milwaukee’s defense since last season and, as has been the case throughout his recent surge (no pun intended), will make defenders pay as the PnR roll man. With a national audience eager to see this ECF rematch in Toronto, the Bucks’ have more pressure to perform. They are the team to beat, with the reigning MVP, and a dinosaur-sized impediment in their way of history. Nurse’s boys will be prepared and hungry to make a statement. Toronto wins 109-108, strengthening their hold on the 2-seed, and casting doubt in the minds of Milwaukee fans.

February 28 vs. Charlotte Hornets

If there’s one area that will concern Raptors fans with this matchup — outside of the constant replays of Jeremy Lamb buzzer-beaters — is the Hornets ability to limit fouls. Charlotte leads the league in the number of free throws allowed and made by opponents. Ranking 6th in fouls called per game, Raptors fans should be prepared to not getting many calls.

In the previous two meetings this season, Charlotte held Toronto below their season average (22.1 FTA/game) for free throws attempted (15 & 20 in each game respectively). If Toronto is going to win this game, it will be on the heels of constant ball movement and scoring in the paint. The Hornets are 30th in assists allowed per game, as well as 29th in opponents 2-point FG%.

When Toronto thrashed Charlotte 132-96 earlier this season, the Hornets’ top scorers were Marvin Williams (now with Milwaukee) and Bismack Biyombo (possibly bought out and with the Raptors by the time this game rolls around).

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Unless an upset occurs on Tuesday in Indiana, the Hornets are going to stroll into the home of the defending, reigning NBA champions, with a grand total of two victories over teams with winning records. Both of those victories were in overtime, with one of them occurring back on November 5 vs. the Pacers. In other words, Charlotte is approaching four calendar months with only one victory over team with a +.500 record.

Prediction

Raptors close out another month with a winning record. This is the 22nd consecutive winning month for Toronto - the longest active streak in the NBA. The aforementioned settling of debts is relevant in this game too. The teams may be very different, but Toronto is still re-paying Charlotte for the two heart-breaking losses last season. This game has all the makings of an upset loss, whether it is a let-down game after Tuesday’s marquee matchup with Milwaukee, or a game where the Raptors are caught looking forward to their trip to the Mile High City. Regardless, Toronto pulls this victory out, winning 125-110.

March 1 @ Denver Nuggets

Toronto kicks off one of their largest road trips of the season with a trip to the Mile High City. Denver hasn’t been too kind to the Raptors recently, winning three of the last four meetings, including a rare season sweep last year.

Nikola Jokic has recovered from a slow start to his season and is putting up MVP-type numbers. I’m not sure if it’s more upsetting that Jokic is younger than two Raptor rookies — Matt Thomas and Paul Watson — or that his other nickname on Basketball Reference (outside of Joker) is Big Honey!

Denver is 5th in the NBA in percentage of shots coming below the arc, and 6th in points in the paint. Those rankings will be put to the test, as the Raptors are 2nd in opponents points in the paint, and 5th in opponents 2-pt FG%.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Considering the hype entering the season, Jamal Murray has underwhelmed. Among Canadians, Murray is NOT the leader in points per game (18.9 vs. Andrew Wiggins’ 22.5), win shares (3.6 vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 4.8), PER (18.0 vs. Brandon Clarke’s 21.9), or VORP (1.1 vs. Clarke’s, SGA’s, and Dwight Powell’s 1.3).

Prediction

With Jokic at his play-making best, this promises to be a tough matchup for Toronto. Denver is 4th in assists per game, 6th in offensive rebounding, and 6th in turnovers per game. In other words, the Nuggets have the passing to break down the Raps defense, the offensive rebounding ability to create second chance opportunities, and are solid in protecting the rock and, ultimately, neutralizing Toronto’s fast-break chances. With no promise of a fully healthy lineup, Denver will hand Toronto a loss, winning 109-97.

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Last Week’s Record: 2-0

Season Record for Predictions: 42-15