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The Rap-Up: The Raptors prep for another west coast swing

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Toronto faces a familiar foe before heading west where they’ll meet a rising team, a spicy opponent, and a fallen champ. Get your picks in now.

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’ve clicked through looking for Pascal Siakam trade ideas or strolls down memory lane of Centers past or more jabs at a punch-less offense, you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s a new year and you’ll find nothing but positivity here!

Yes, the offense has been stagnant, they’ve also managed to build double-digit leads in each game. For a team that could conceivably be 4-1, I’d rather deal with late-game execution problems than figuring out why the Raptors are blown out all the time.

Yes, Siakam has struggled with his scoring but is averaging more rebounds than LeBron James, more assists than Devin Booker, more steals than Patrick Beverley, and more made threes than Bradley Beal. Let’s all cut some slack to someone who has the capability to play better, especially someone who’s only four games into his new contract.

Yes, the Raptors have lost four of their first five, but have you looked around the Eastern Conference? The four Conference semi-finalists last season are a combined 10-13 with zero teams in the top five. Meanwhile, the five East teams that missed the Bubble are a combined 16-16 with three in the top four. It’s early, folks! If you believe the Cavaliers and Magic are not legitimate title contenders as they sit near the top of the standings, why would you think the Raptors are in dire straits?

Over his two full seasons as head coach, Nick Nurse has used the regular season as a testing lab for the playoffs. With the shortest off-season and ten fewer regular season games, why wouldn’t he use the early part of the season to play around with different lineups and schemes against Western Conference teams he won’t see in the playoffs? Expect some more tinkering this week as the Raptors head out for a four-game west coast road trip after a date with a familiar rival.

January 4 vs. Boston Celtics

Last season, the Celtics were 1-4 when playing the second game of a back-to-back against a playoff team, including losses to the Bucks, Sixers (twice), and Raptors (the Patrick McCaw game). Why is that relevant?

Boston comes to town on the back end of a road back-to-back with the Pistons. This is also the tail end of a 3-games-in-4-nights stretch (first two in Detroit) and the middle of another 3-games-in-4-nights stretch (ending in Miami). A trip from Detroit to Toronto would be a typical road back-to-back due to their close proximity. But Detroit to Tampa is not ideal, both from a travel perspective and a perceived jump in competition level.

So far, Boston’s season has had mixed results. They defeated the Bucks on opening night and split a pair for games against the surprising Pacers. However, they were thrashed by the Nets and gave the Pistons their only win of the season. The absence of Kemba Walker, who is still battling a knee injury and didn’t make this road trip, has forced Brad Stevens to insert Jeff Teague and/or Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup. Depth was always going to be an issue with the Celtics, even before Gordon Hayward left via free agency.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Keep an eye on Boston’s shooting from deep. The Celtics have won each game where they’ve hit 40 percent or better from beyond the arc while losing the other three games where they didn’t. Some outlier performances from New Orleans and San Antonio shouldn’t hide the fact that Toronto’s 3-point defense still ranks 4th in opponents’ percentage.

Prediction

Kemba’s absence may actually work in Boston’s favour this time. A frontcourt of Thompson and Daniel Theis forces OG Anunoby to guard a Celtic big — keeping him off Boston’s dynamic wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Just as Boston was able to neutralize Siakam on the offensive end in the playoffs, keeping Anunoby on Theis can be even more impactful. Boston edges out Toronto, 103-102. Mass hysteria ensues.

January 6 @ Phoenix Suns

For the second time since their last game at Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors embark on another west coast trip. Last March, they kicked off the trip with a visit to the eventual conference finalists in Denver. It’s too early to predict the same outcome for Phoenix, but Suns fans couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season.

When Chris Paul was acquired, expectations were sky-high for Devin Booker as an All-Star backcourt, as well as Deandre Ayton, as CP3’s de facto lob threat. However, the biggest beneficiary has been Mikal Bridges. The third-year pro out of Villanova is off to a scorching start with per-game increases in points (9.1 last season to 14.1 this season), rebounds (4.0 to 5.6), and threes made (1.0 to 3.0), with shooting splits of 49/46/93. It may be too early to start campaigning for Most Improved, but with three higher usage stars ahead of him in the pecking order, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue feasting on opponents’ lesser defenders.

This game also marks the second consecutive reunion game for Aron Baynes. After spending two productive seasons with Boston, Baynes has a career-best season in Phoenix last year. Can we just play this on loop in the locker room to get him fired up?

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Over their hall-of-fame careers, Chris Paul has played for five franchises while Kyle Lowry has played for three. Not only will this be the 27th meeting between the two (CP leads 16-10), but also the 7th different team matchup: Memphis-New Orleans; Houston-New Orleans; Houston-Clippers; Toronto-Clippers; Toronto-Houston; Toronto-OKC; and now Toronto-Phoenix.

Prediction

Toronto’s currently riding a franchise-best six-game win streak against Phoenix. Baynes’ recent stint with the Suns should help him identify some of their sets while also giving him a chance to improve the impression he’s made on his new team so far. I really feel for the referees in this game — if it’s not Lowry barking on one end, it’ll be Paul on the other. The Suns have proven that their undefeated run in the Bubble was no fluke. They’re in the top-10 in assist-to-turnover, assist rate, true shooting percentage, defensive rating, and opponents points off turnovers. That’s a recipe for disaster for Toronto. Phoenix burns the Raptors, 118-106.

January 8 @ Sacramento Kings

From Phoenix, the Raptors travel to Sacramento to face the only team other than the Clippers to defeat the Suns. The Kings will be playing their second game of a season-high (for now) 7-game homestand. They’ve defeated the Denver Nuggets twice already, including an absolutely ridiculous ending on opening night.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Of the Kings’ five starters, Marvin Bagley has the second-highest usage rate, behind De’Aaron Fox. However, Luke Walton has left Bagley on the bench for most of the 4th quarter of every game, especially the closing lineups. While that could be due to his 70% FT%, it must be frustrating for the 21-year-old... and his dad.

In case you thought Lavar Ball was the only over-bearing parent in the NBA, may I present to you Marvin Bagley’s father.

Prediction

Similar to the game against Phoenix, Toronto enters this matchup having won a franchise-best six consecutive games against Sacramento. Unlike Phoenix, the Kings don’t have the right pieces to cobble up an upset. They rank 29th in three-pointers made and attempted, 26th in opponents’ FG%, and 1st in offensive rebounds (which means they’re crashing the boards and allowing for leak outs to transition opportunities). Buddy Hield is taking a career-high 68% of his shots from three, so expect the Raptors to sell out on forcing him off the line. In their last matchup on March 8, Norm Powell, Lowry, and Siakam combined for 84 points with the latter saving his best for the 4th quarter (11 points on 100/100/100 shooting splits) in a Raptor victory. This may be the Siakam game we’ve been waiting for. Toronto prevails in Sacramento, winning 119-115.

January 10 @ Golden State Warriors

After seeing Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka for consecutive home games against the Clippers, the Warriors face the rest of the Raptors (well, most of them) that made Golden State feel like home.

Steph Curry had a career-high 62 points on Sunday in a win over Portland. With no Klay Thompson this season, he’s going to need performances like that all season for the Warriors to have any shot at the playoffs.

It’s not even “janky” to assume Curry’s going to see some box-and-one against Toronto.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Curry’s 62-point outburst was filled with notable facts. Of the 42 instances of 62 points scored or more in NBA history, Curry tied Kobe Bryant for the fewest field goals made (18 vs Dallas, 12/12/05), fewest field goals attempted (31 vs Dallas, 12/12/05), and most threes made (8 vs Portland, 03/16/07). He also accomplished it in the second-lowest number of minutes (36) behind, who else, but Kobe (33 vs Dallas, 12/12/05... in only 3 quarters, actually!).

Prediction

Pick your favourable Raptors stat and the Warriors are the ideal opponent. Toronto ranks 1st in FT%. Golden State allows more free throw attempts than any team. Toronto ranks 3rd in three-pointers made. Golden State allows more made threes than any team. Toronto ranks 5th in opponents’ FG%. Golden State has the worst FG% in the league. Ask fans of either fan base and they’ll both agree that no matter how tough this season ends up being, banners fly forever and nothing will ever take them away. Raptors win their sixth straight in Golden State, 116-108.

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Last Week: 1-2

Season Record for Predictions: 1-4