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The Rap-Up: Toronto adjusts sails through the winds of change

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After enduring a rough patch to start the season, the Raptors appear to have weathered the storm and look ready to battle three East rivals — and former playoff foes — this week.

Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When the winds of change blow, some build walls, others build windmills. — Chinese proverb.

This past week our southern neighbours inaugurated the first female, and first BIPOC Vice President, Kamala Harris. I’m not one to normally comment on politics, nor do I have the correct knowledge base, but this did seem like a long time coming.

If everything remained status quo, our world would never grow. Change has always been the driving force towards building a better future. Let’s bring this back to basketball. In recent years, the NBA has experienced a change in how points are scored. More and more teams have adopted the offensive philosophy that assistant coach, Chris Finch, used with great success while coaching the Rio Grande Valley Vipers — avoiding the mid-range as much as possible and taking shots at the rim or beyond the arc.

In three of the last four seasons, the Raptors have been a bottom-4 team in mid-range shots, with the exception of the Kawhi-led Raptors. The ineffectiveness of Aron Baynes and, recently waived, Alex Len has forced Toronto to lean more into three-pointers (#1 in 3-point attempts) than shots at the rim (#14 in % of attempts at the rim). On the defensive end, Toronto continues living and dying by the three, ranking 27th in corner three attempts allowed and 25th in all three-point attempts allowed.

The change has really occurred at the individual level.

Stanley Johnson ranks in the 89th percentile among Forwards in Points per Shot Attempts (after ranking in the 4th percentile last season) and in the 98th percentile in Assists to Usage ratio. He’s finally carved out his role as an enabler on offense and defensive stopper. His 106 defensive rating is second only to Chris Boucher, among those who’ve played at least 100 minutes for Toronto.

Speaking of Boucher, his name is all over Basketball Reference’s Leaders page for traditional and advanced stats on both ends of the floor. He’s the only non-starter in the top-10 for PER, a list littered with the early-season MVP candidates. Even if/when he regresses, Boucher should garner MIP and 6MOY buzz all season long.

For OG Anunoby, he continues building his case as one of the best defenders in the league, but he’s added more assertiveness on the offensive end. His percentage of fouls drawn on shot attempts has risen from 27th percentile last season to 66th percentile this season among Forwards. Anunoby’s been lights out from downtown of late, hitting 26-of-43 threes (60%) over the last seven games.

As the Raptors continue their ascent from the NBA’s basement, Toronto’s ability to blow with the winds of change will determine their fate in this week’s games. Let’s get to some picks!

January 25 @ Indiana Pacers

Nick Nurse won the first round against former Assistant Coach, Nate Bjorkgren.

As has become customary under Coach Nurse, the Raptors keyed in on Indiana’s stars in Sunday’s 107-102 victory. Malcolm Brogdon got a heavy dose of Fred VanVleet, shooting 5-for-22 and turning the ball over four times. It was the seventh game of his career with 20+ field goal attempts, and easily his worst shooting performance. Meanwhile, Domantas Sabonis was double-teamed all game long, with the help always coming from his left side. Anunoby and Aron Baynes took turns frustrating him to the tune of 1-for-10 shooting and three turnovers.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Player A (career): 12.0 points; 7.3 rebounds; 2.1 assists; 0.3/0.9 3-pt FG; 57.4 TS%

Player B (career): 12.6 points; 8.2 rebounds; 2.8 assists; 0.3/1.0 3-pt FG; 57.6 TS%

Player B, Domantas Sabonis, has put up eerily similar numbers to Player A, his Hall of Fame father, Arvydas Sabonis. The main difference is that, at 24 years old, Domas is still seven years younger than when his father started playing in the NBA.

Prediction

The Raptors played Sunday’s game, quite surprisingly, without Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam. Considering the Raptors needed 4th quarter minutes from Deandre’ Bembry and that the team went uncharacteristically cold from the line (69% in the game vs. 81% on the season), it’s a testament to the team’s hard-nosed defense that Toronto dominated the game. Don’t let the final score hide the fact that Indiana only led for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. If any of these factors change (i.e. Siakam/Lowry plays, better free throw percentage), the Raptors should win again. Toronto comes away with a mini-sweep, defeating the Pacers 113-103.

January 27 vs Milwaukee Bucks

All the pre-season hate I hurled towards Milwaukee will surely come back to haunt me in this game.

The Bucks kept Mike Budenholzer, despite another playoff flameout, screwed up the Bogdan Bogdanovic acquisitions, and mortgaged future picks for Jrue Holiday, but Milwaukee ranks #2 in net rating and in the mix for a third consecutive season atop the Eastern Conference standings.

After falling just short of the elusive 50-40-90 club last season, Khris Middleton is again knocking on the door. Middleton has 52-44-92 shooting splits with career-high averages in points (21.9), assists (5.7), and threes made (2.6).

Meanwhile, 2-time reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo may be entering the Hack-A-Shaq zone. He’s down to 58% from the line, including a recent 1-for-10 abomination against the Mavericks.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Bucks allow opponents to shoot 39.8% from beyond the arc (according to Cleaning The Glass, which removes heaves), which ranks 29th in the NBA.

The Raptors have shot 39.6% from three over the last seven games. At their current volume, that translates to 17 made threes a game.

Prediction

I am salivating at the thought of Anunoby guarding Antetokounmpo. In their last matchup, OG limited Giannis to two field goal attempts and zero free throw attempts in 4:38 of defensive coverage (plus a turnover). But this is a team game and the Bucks have owned the Raptors in the regular season, winning six of the last seven non-playoff meetings (not including the Bubble finale where most starters rested). While I truly believe the Raptors defense can neutralize Antetokounmpo and grind out a victory, I’ll hedge my bet and predict a Bucks win, 113-104, while Nurse continues to hold his cards for a playoff matchup!

January 29 vs Sacramento Kings

Since the 3:09 mark of the first quarter of their earlier meeting, the Raptors outscored Sacramento by 50 points (123-83). The Kings haven’t looked any better since that January 8 game, winning only two of their subsequent seven games while also having both games against Memphis postponed.

If you’re a Kings fan looking for a bright spot, Richaun Holmes leads the NBA in FG% (67.7%), ranks 9th in blocks (1.7), and, despite their 6-10 record, ranks 12th in offensive win shares (1.4). Tyrese Haliburton has been on a mission to prove doubters that passed on him in the draft were wrong. He’s in the top-20 in eFG%, 3-pt FG%, and offensive rating.

Where Sacramento could get under the skin of Raptors fans is on offense. The Kings get to the line at a high rate (4th in free throw rate) and can get hot from deep (9th in 3-pt FG%), as seen in the first quarter of their previous matchup.

Everything else about the Kings has been a disaster.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

How bad is Sacramento’s defense? The gap between the #2 defense (Memphis 106.1) and the #18 defense (Orlando 110.4) is almost the same gap between the 2nd-worst defense (Washington 114.7) and Sacramento’s (118.7)

Prediction

The way Toronto is playing right now it’s hard to see anything but a victory. Sacramento’s transition defense is the worst in the NBA — among other defensive areas — which should fuel the Raptors if their offense needs a pick-me-up (spoiler: it won’t). I’d be shocked and disappointed if this was anything less than a double-digit blowout. Toronto wins easily, 132-115.

January 31 vs Orlando Magic

After playing the Magic approximately 14 times to start last season, this is surprisingly the first meeting of the year between these Floridian neighbours.

Nikola Vucevic will be happy to not see Marc Gasol roaming the paint and taking his lunch money. Although it should be noted that his new defender, Baynes, owns a 12-3 record head-to-head.

Any glimmer of hope that remained in Orlando after Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL in August, disappeared before this season really got going. The Magic got off to a hot start, winning six of their first eight games. In that eighth game, Markelle Fultz, who was leading the charge and finally looking like the 2017 #1 overall pick, tore his ACL and was also lost for the season. Since then, the Magic have lost eight of nine, with the only win coming on a miracle buzzer-beater against the NBA’s worst team, the Timberwolves.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Vucevic is having his best season yet and looking for a second All-Star selection, after missing out last season. He has career-high averages in points (23.3), steals (1.3), PER (26.1), TS% (58.1%), and threes (2.8 on 42.7% shooting). What’s most shocking is where a large chunk of his buckets are coming from.

Prediction

This is essentially the same Orlando Magic team we’ve seen for several years. Terence Ross will get 15 off the bench. Their defense will be aggressive, somehow not get a foul called, and annoy Raptors fans. Orlando’s offense will look as stagnant as Toronto’s does when the ball stops moving. After suffering two embarrassing losses to Orlando a couple of seasons ago, the Raptors have figured out the Magic and have won their last five meetings by an average of 10 points. Toronto claims a relatively boring but important victory over the Magic, 109-99, before hitting the road next week.

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Last Week: 1-3

Season Record for Predictions: 6-10