While it’s best not to ascribe too much signficance to head-to-head regular season matchups, it’s fair to say the Pacers want nothing more to do with Toronto. That’s the main takeaway from a short week for the Raptors, one that first saw them casually beat the setting Suns before absolutely walloping Indiana by a franchise-record 46 points. Before we reflect on that, it’s worth noting: the Raptors have now lost just one game since January 13th — a solid six weeks of action.
A comparison between the Raptors and Pacers is instructive regardless. Once thought to be two teams deadlocked in the middle of the East, it’s become clear the Raptors are now in a tier above — and the poor Pacers are listing further and further away. What’s more, if these two teams were to meet in the playoffs, the Raptors appear to have little fear as to what Indiana brings to bear against them. Their regular season games have been entertaining — yes, including that insane blowout — but the Raptors now have their sights set on something bigger. (And the Pacers will likely get wiped out by the Celtics or Heat in the first round.)
All of which is to say, the Raptors remain in firm control of their destiny. They continue to be unperturbed by their injury situation, or the jockeying of other teams. They just keep going out there and winning games, come what may. And with a pair of showdowns against the first place Bucks looming, that’s a nice, confident spot to be in.
Now let’s see what is confirmed by this week’s Power Rankings.
First up, we hand the baton over to ESPN’s Andre’ Snellings:
3. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 3)
The Raptors have been on a torrid winning pace in the new year, with only one loss since Jan. 15, but they’ve been unable to make up any ground on the Bucks nor open up much space from the Celtics for the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors do have the 12th-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to BPI, as compared to the Celtics’ 19th easiest, which gives Toronto a bit of an edge as it races down the stretch.
Is it funny that Snellings didn’t include Jan. 13th and 14th in his historical look back? I mean, Jan. 13th is a Monday, the week we tip this column off; that’s just called narrative symmetry, man. Anyway, once again, he is not necessarily wrong in his assessment of the coming schedule — but raise your hand if you’re worried about the Raptors falling to third. [keeps hand down]
This week’s game from Zach Harper of The Athletic is to rhyme off the best lineup of every team. You can already guess where this is going:
3. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 4)
The lineup: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Nothing sexy or creative about choosing this lineup for the Toronto Raptors. I could’ve explored them going big with a frontcourt of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Maybe even bigger with OG Anunoby on the wing with that trio and either Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet at the point. But this lineup here is their most dangerous, and it’s the one I believe will give teams the most problems in the postseason. They can switch anything. They can play zone defense easily with this lineup. It may give up a little on the boards because Gasol isn’t a strong rebounder, but it gives them a ton of shooting, ball movement and versatility. This is the Raptors’ most used lineup (280 minutes) and it outscores opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Good luck against it in the postseason.
Why the ranking? Raptors moved up a spot this week because of the Celtics losing at the Lakers. Toronto took care of business by absolutely destroying Indiana this weekend. Couple that with its victory over Phoenix and it was a short, perfect week for the defending champs. That pushes them to 17 of their last 18 games coming in the form of victory. The Raptors definitely earned this third spot.
Obviously having OG in place of Kawhi Leonard tracks as a step down, but the current version of Fred VanVleet is quite valuable (yes, even compared to the beloved Danny Green), and that’s before we get to where Pascal Siakam currently is. Good luck indeed!
Now we turn to the doctor, John Schuhmann of NBA dot com:
3. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 4)
The Raptors seemed to have learned a lesson from their last game before the All-Star break, when their 15-game winning streak came to an end after an ugly, 40-point first half in Brooklyn. In their first two games out of the break, the champs outscored the Suns and Pacers, 130-75, before halftime. Pascal Siakam totaled 39 first-half points and the Raps assisted on 33 of their 49 first-half buckets over the weekend.
Regardless of the standings, you could make a strong argument that the Raptors are the Eastern Conference team best equipped to beat the Bucks. They have an elite defense that’s practiced at protecting the paint and rotating out to shooters, and they have an offense that can take advantage of the Bucks’ protect-the-rim-at-call-costs defensive scheme by moving the ball (the champs lead the league in secondary assists) and making open shots (third in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage).
With or (most likely) without Marc Gasol on Tuesday, the first quarter could be critical. While the Raptors have been dominant early in their first two post-break games, the Bucks’ differential of plus-17.3 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter is the best mark for any team in any period. Milwaukee outscored Toronto, 36-17, in the first quarter of a wire-to-wire victory in the teams’ first meeting.
Let’s jump right to that second paragraph and say what we’re all feeling: giddy up! Yes, the Bucks are on a mission to get to the Finals and win the title — but that was the case last year too. The Raptors may have it in them to do it all again. (They’ll need Marc Gasol healthy though, so as I warned off the top: best not to put too much into the outcome of the coming games against Milwaukee.)
And finally, what does the rainmaker Colin Ward-Henninger of CBS Sports bring us?
3. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 3)
Their 15-game winning streak was snapped in the final game before the All-Star break, but the Raptors wasted no time starting another one, beating the Suns before putting a 46-point beatdown on the Pacers on Sunday. At this point Toronto will give Marc Gasol all the time he needs to recover from a hamstring injury, with Serge Ibaka playing some of the best basketball of his career.
That’s threes across the board for the Raptors this week — and a mention of Serge Ibaka, who is indeed playing out of his mind right now from everyone on the court (including beyond the three-point line).
Now, onto the poll.
Are the Raptors being ranked fairly in Week 19 of the Power Rankings?
This poll is closed
No, they’ve lost once in a month and a half!
Yes, they’re a notch below, but it’s close
No, that hamstring is hamstrung
Yes, if only because I enjoy everything coming in 3s