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The Rap-Up: Toronto restarts its title defense in the Bubble

With the Raptors back on court this week for a pair of scrimmages, The Rap-Up also makes its triumphant return and previews this week’s games.

Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Hello. My name is Jay and I write this weekly article that prepares you for the week ahead in Raptors games. Sorry, it’s been so long that a re-introduction seemed necessary.

In fact, the gap between the Raptors’ last game (March 9) and this Friday’s scrimmage with Houston (137 days) is longer than last year’s off-season (June 13 to October 22 = 131 days).

This season is unlike any other. While that appears to be the understatement of the year, it rang true even before the league abruptly shut down in early March. The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat were allowing three-point attempts at a record pace — each allowing at least 38 per game. Before this season, no team had ever average 37 3PA/game. Despite this, the Bucks and Raptors rank first and second in Defensive Rating (with the Heat still ranking above average in 12th).

The Houston Rockets took Moreyball to another level, trading away Clint Capela and inserting P.J. Tucker (yes, all 6’5” of him) as the team’s starting Center.

All of these facts pale in comparison to the growing reality that the San Antonio Spurs were on their way to missing the playoffs. The last time that happened, their head coach was Bob Hill, their leading scorer was Dominique Wilkins, and Tim Duncan was dominating the court... for Wake Forest.

Of course, the elephants in the room are the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movements that are engulfing the world. I’ve said this on the podcast every week and it bears repeating: I do not agree with this season re-starting. Not while the coronavirus is without a vaccine. Not while COVID-19 numbers continue climbing in the U.S., especially in Florida, where all these games are being played. Not while Breonna Taylor’s killers continue roaming free. Not while a number of NBA players are in the midst of using their far-reaching platforms to help enact long-overdue changes.

Adam Silver, the NBA, and many of its team’s Owners feel otherwise. The season must go on, deadly virus notwithstanding. As such, I will continue writing and podcasting. I also recognize The Rap-Up is normally only done for regular season games, but it’s been too long and, like you, I’m just as eager to see some basketball.

One more note: please excuse the literal nature of this week’s headline. Two of my previous versions of The Rap-Up, waaaaaay back in March were ominous, to say the least — Toronto enters the Ides of March and A long break awaits the Raptors before the stretch run. Hindsight is 20/20 (2020?) but expect nothing other than positivity over these last four editions of The Rap-Up.

July 24 vs. Houston Rockets

For Toronto, the season was filled with stunning victories and thrilling comebacks. Even the losses were exciting until the bitter end. The December 5th matchup with Houston at Scotiabank Arena, though, was possibly the oddest game of the season.

Nick Nurse doubled down on doubling James Harden, throwing a second defender at him every time he crossed half-court. The ensuing 4-on-3 advantage left Raptors defenders scrambling all night and, in the end, short on energy and total points.

Former Raptors (kinda), Ben McLemore and Tucker, combined for 13-for-27 beyond the arc. The strategy of daring Houston’s role players to make shots was one that Nurse was comfortable with. In a playoff series, it would probably work in Toronto’s favour, but on any given night, a perennial scrub like McLemore can hit a career-high eight triples.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

In the aforementioned matchup, Harden played 40 minutes and only attempted 11 field goals. For a player that’s led the league in field goal attempts in three of the last five seasons, including the last two, that’s quite an accomplishment (albeit in defeat).

This marked the 8th such occasion in his career where he played at least 40 minutes and attempted as little as 11 from the field, and 2nd time since January 2014.

Prediction

After trading Capela, the Rockets won seven of nine, including victories over Utah, Memphis, and Boston (twice). However, they lost four of their next five before the hiatus, with two of those losses to New York and Charlotte. Those games have little to no effect after 4+ months without basketball, but you’d better believe Nurse reviewed enough video to cook up a game plan. Russell Westbrook is still recovering from COVID-19 and doubtful to play. Harden likely won’t see a bevy of double teams this time around, but this is worth the price of admission, if only to watch Kyle Lowry guard him. While Toronto’s finally operating at full strength, Houston will be without Westbrook and (probably) newly signed, Luc Mbah A Moute. Raptors’ depth carries them to an easy 123-109 victory.

July 26 vs. Portland Trailblazers

Portland is one of very few teams to claim victory over Toronto in 2020. Carmelo Anthony’s go-ahead bucket with four seconds remaining complete the Blazers comeback from the fourth quarter, 12-point deficit. It was shocking at the time because the Raptors had shown time and time again that, despite being short-handed (Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol were all out), they would always find a way to win.

When these teams line up on Sunday, not only will Toronto have their core intact, but so will Portland. Zach Collins, who only played three games before suffering a shoulder injury, and Jusuf Nurkic, who hasn’t played all season, will be in uniform for the Blazers. Their additions should more than make up for the loss of Trevor Ariza, who opted out of the bubble.

What continues to perplex me is why any of the Blazers are allowed to suit up at all. Isn’t everyone supposed to be wearing masks and practicing social distancing?

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

If we ignore the fact that this is essentially a pre-season game, Toronto’s matchup with Portland marks the second time in franchise history they’ll face a Western Conference team more than twice in a single season. Math is pretty simple on this one. Teams only face the other conference twice a year, except if they meet in the NBA Finals.

Warriors fans can rest easy knowing their record-tying 6 losses to an opponent of the other conference will remain intact.

Prediction

Earlier this week, Nurse hinted that he’s been experimenting with a jumbo lineup, meaning Gasol and Serge Ibaka would share the floor. It’s not a bad idea, considering Philadelphia and Milwaukee could be potential playoff opponents. The Blazers present a good trial for this lineup with the prospects of Collins, Nurkic, and Hassan Whiteside likely sharing some court time together. If Toronto’s bigs can hit their outside shots and keep bringing Portland’s bigs out of the paint, this could be a Raptors blowout. I say Nurkic’s long absence ends up being rustier than anyone else’s. Toronto wins a tight one over Portland, 115-112.

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Last Edition’s Record: 0-1

Season Record for Predictions: 46-18