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The Rap-Up: It’s a week full of Eastern Conference clashes

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After a 5-game Western road swing, following by a 4.5 month hiatus, the Raptors finally see some familiar Eastern Conference foes this week.

Toronto Raptors Vs. Boston Celtics at TD Garden Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Great team. No ifs, ands or buts... well coached... Championship DNA.” - LeBron James, after his Lakers were upended (again) by the Raptors on Saturday.

Game recognize game.

With Golden State and Cleveland not in the bubble, majority of the championship DNA in Orlando was on the court in Saturday’s possible NBA Finals preview. In fact, any player that’s even participated in the NBA Finals is either not in the bubble (Steph Curry, Kevin Love), injured (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving), or retired (Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade).

What do the Raptors starting lineup have in common with the starters of the other Eastern Conference teams in the bubble?

Nothing. They’re the only starters with championship rings!

Ian Mahinmi, Udonis Haslem (yes, he’s somehow still active and in the bubble), Justin Holiday, and Andre Iguodala. That’s it. That’s the list of non-Raptors Eastern Conference players who have raised the Larry OB. If the criteria is loosened to add in any players with Finals experience, George Hill and Kyle Korver join the mix. Not really a murderer’s row of championship pedigree.

Milwaukee may have a historically great defense. Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami may each have generational talents on their respective teams. But it’s Toronto that knows what it takes to win 16 games in one playoff season. Each of the top seven players have made marked improvements in their respective games. Add in that championship DNA, and Toronto is the team no one wants to face in the bubble.

Now let’s see what’s in store for the Raptors this week.

August 3 @ Miami Heat

For all the talk about Toronto staving off Boston for the 2-seed (a four-game difference), there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about Miami catching Boston for the 3-seed (a mere 1.5-game difference).

After demolishing the Nuggets on Saturday, here are Miami’s remaining opponents (season series): Toronto (2-0), Boston (0-2), Milwaukee (2-0), Phoenix (1-0), Indiana (2-0), OKC (1-0), and Indiana (again).

As for Boston, their “easier” re-seeding schedule includes dates with Brooklyn (lost two of three this season), Toronto (The Patrick McCaw Game), and Washington (lost to Wizards without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans).

This matchup has a bit of a pick-your-poison feel to it. A victory could further solidify a Boston as the 3-seed, while a loss could help Miami jump the Celtics. Would the Raptors prefer a possible second round date with a Heat team that handed them their worst loss of the season — an 84-76 eye sore on January 2? Or will the stars finally align for a Raptors-Celtics playoff series which, on paper, figures to be more difficult than a date with the Heat?

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

6-for-42 from beyond the arc.

No, that’s not a “fun” fact for Raptors fans. No, the absence of Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell — while a valid, albeit cop-out, excuse overall — does not justify the numerous missed open looks Toronto had against Miami’s vaunted zone.

However, it does justify that, despite the worst three-point shooting performance in franchise history, (and lowest FG%, FG made, 3-pt FG made, and point totals of the season) the Raptors’ own vaunted defense will always keep Toronto in striking distance.

Prediction

As you’re about to read in the Orlando blurb, Miami found multiple ways to defeat Toronto. Bam Adebayo locked up Pascal Siakam in the first matchup, while Jimmy Butler revived his Raptor Killer instincts in the first meeting. The second matchup was a group effort — Miami’s defense and Toronto’s horrible offense. Maybe there’s a little recency bias with Miami’s beatdown of Denver and, alternatively, some letdown potential from the Raptors’ win over the Lakers, but I think the Heat complete the season series sweep, edging out the Raptors 99-97.

August 5 @ Orlando Magic

With each Brooklyn Net player dropping like flies — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler, Nicholas Claxton, Michael Beasley — the collective groan from Raptors nation about another Raptors-Magic first round series became louder with each Woj bomb. For you (yes, you reading this right now), are you groaning because the Magic are, on paper, a more difficult out than the Nets? Or are you getting bored with whooping Orlando?

Your answer indicates how closely you’ve been paying attention to these matchups. Yes, the Magic handed the Raptors two of their worst regular season losses last year. Yes, the Magic became the latest in a long line of Raptors opponents to steal Game 1 of a playoff series in Toronto. But what’s happened since? The Raptors have won their last seven meetings by an average of 12.4 points.

Orlando is not known for its offense, but even considering their poor shooting (44.3 percent average for the season, ranked 27th), Toronto easily held them below average in all three meetings this season. The last time they met, the Raptors held the Magic to season-worst totals in FG%, FG made, turnovers, and points.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Magic are the only team in the NBA that rank in the top 10 in both personal fouls (league-low 17.7 per game) and steals (sixth with 8.3 per game, an astounding 26 percent jump from last season).

The Raptors are also among the league leaders in steals (second with 8.8 per game), but that’s a product of their aggressive ball-hawking style of defense — one that lends to a bottom-10 ranking in personal fouls.

Orlando’s defense is predicated on discipline and sound principles, allowing for a top-10 defense without any All-Defense candidates (Yet, I see you Jonathan Isaac. I hope your knee injury isn’t too serious).

Prediction

Each of the three victories over Orlando provided different recipes Toronto can use. On October 28, Steve Clifford conceded defeat with Nikola Vucevic, and benched him in favour of Jonathan Isaac. Nick Nurse countered with the Siakam-Lowry pick-and-roll that has been a near-unstoppable offensive set. On November 20, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher showed that the bench could carry this team over Orlando if the starters were being held in check. On November 29, the Raptors showed that the Magic are simply outmatched on the defensive end and can win a game on that side of the floor alone. Toronto thrash the Magic 119-101.

August 7 vs. Boston Celtics

As of this writing, the magic number for the Raptors to clinch the 2-seed is four. For all intents and purposes, a victory over Boston would dictate how Toronto attacks the back-half of their re-seeding schedule. Defeating the Celtics would likely solidify their seeding and allow Nurse to use the final four games to play his bench more, try different lineups/plays, and keep his top-7 fresh for another long playoff run.

A loss to Boston shouldn’t be too deflating because of a rolodex of reasons (excuses?): don’t want to give away anything for a possible playoff series; team is still in control of the 2-seed; secret weapon Patrick McCaw sat out.

Regardless of who wins, this figures to be the most important game of the Raptors’ re-seeding schedule (Lakers slaying notwithstanding). Lowry and Siakam can put to rest any debates of who’s better vs. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, respectively (at least until they next meet). OG Anunoby and Marcus Smart can take turns showing off their All-Defense merits. Gordon Hayward and Terence Davis can help teach each other something about Black Lives Matter and the benefits of wearing masks.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Tatum’s first game in the bubble was memorable for all the wrong reasons. His 2-for-18 performance against the Bucks was amplified by fact that Boston still had a chance to steal a victory.

Glass half-full: Boston has enough firepower to (almost) overcome this off-night of epic preportions.

Glass half-Raptors: In the Tatum-Siakam debate, this outing is one of three with lower FG% than Siakam’s worst (4-for-22 vs Orlando) — and this wasn’t even the lowest! Tatum was 2-for-16 against the 28th-ranked Hawks defense, and 1-for-18 against the 18th-ranked Mavericks defense. Woof!

Prediction

In the first four minutes of each team’s first games, Boston trailed Milwaukee 17-2 and Toronto led L.A. 13-0. As much as I’d love to make predictions based on how teams start, what matters most is how they finish. When looking at the three matchups this season, we can wax poetic over the December games, which the teams split while the Raptors were short-handed (no Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell, or Marc Gasol). The first matchup, which Boston won against a fully healthy Raptors squad, probably isn’t too indicative because it was almost literally a year ago (actually October 25). What hurt Toronto in that game was offensive rebounds and turnovers. Those areas were cleaned up in subsequent matchups, more so with turnovers in the December 28 victory. In Saturday’s victory over the Lakers, Toronto kept both of those totals low and, dating back to their inspired play post-All-Star break, have consistently kept them in check.

Whether or not Walker is fully healthy for this game is another factor in Toronto’s favour. The Raptors beat the Celtics, 110-103, evening the season series and, most importantly, locking the 2-seed.

August 9 vs. Memphis Grizzlies

The last time the Raptors shared the floor with Jonas Valanciunas, Draymond Green karate chopped the Lithuanian (no foul call by theway) into Raptors oblivion. Toronto would go on to win that game (and three more at Oracle Arena), trade JV for Marc Gasol (that worked out, right?), and almost literally survive a global pandemic just to reunite.

On the other side, this is a bittersweet reunion for Gasol and the Grizzlies organization he led for 11 seasons. It’s bittersweet because there are almost zero ties between the current team and the one he suited up with in his final Grizzlies game. Only four current Grizzlies were present in his last game (Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Yuta Watanabe), with only JJJ actually playing.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Both teams will be wearing their retro jerseys. If you told me in October 2000 — the last time the Naismith Cup was played between the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies — would be returning in Orlando, of all places... Actually, if you told me anything that happened in 2020, I wouldn’t believe you.

Prediction

The word count on this is almost double the usual Rap-Up, so let’s keep this short and simple. If Memphis has shown us anything over their first couple of bubble games, they’ve overachieved this season and experience (or lack thereof) is starting to show. Losing a pair of nail-biters to the Lillards and DeRozans of the NBA is one thing, but their final three games (Celtics and Bucks after this) could likely shove them into the play-in showdown. As for this matchup, experience wins out as the Raptors defeat the Grizzlies, 117-103.

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Last Edition’s Record: 1-1 (I won’t count scrimmage, which was wrong anyway, to the season total)

Season Record for Predictions: 47-18