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The Rap-Up: Road sweet road

Raptors put their road resilience to the test with a six-game swing that will take them through four different time zones.

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors are road warriors.

For all the hype that went into the team’s return to Scotiabank Arena, it’s their games back in the good ol’ United States where they’re finding more success. The Raptors are 2-6 at home and 5-1 on the road.

Raptors opponents shoot considerably worse when Toronto’s the visitor (43.6%, which would rank 24th) than when games are played in Canada (47.6%, only the Phoenix Suns shoot a better percentage). That may be a case of a small sample size, especially since that hasn’t been the case for the Raptors while Nick Nurse has been Head Coach, but the gap between the percentages is still noteworthy.

The process may be different but the results should not be a surprise. Here are the Raptors’ road record and ranking over the last few years:

2020-21: 27-45, #1 (yes, the Tampa games were NOT home games)

2019-20: 27-9, tied for #1

2018-19: 26-15, #2

2017-18: 25-16, #4

2016-17: 23-18, tied for #4

2015-16: 24-17, tied for #3

The Raptors are well on their way to making it seven straight seasons as one of the top four road teams. Why is the team so successful outside the confines of Scotiabank Arena? Maybe the team is comfortable playing in front of fans of other teams (106 straight games away from home can do that to you). Maybe the newest additions to Scotiabank Arena’s food menu aren’t to the liking of the players. Maybe Kyle Lowry is actually over everything.

Whatever the reason, there’s something to be said about a team’s resolve and makeup that they constantly perform well under hostile conditions. The road ahead looks daunting but haven’t we learned not to doubt this group when they’re outside of Canada?

November 15 @ Portland Trailblazers

The Raptors kick off their first of two six-game road trips this season with a visit... up North.

Damian Lillard is questionable for this game as he continues battling an abdominal strain. It’s an issue that he’s played through over the last three years and would appear to have affected his play thus far. A surprising (at least to me) member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, Lillard is shooting 38% from the field, 26.8% from three, and 84.1% from the line — all career-lows — while averaging 20.0 points (only his rookie season, at 19.0 points, was lower).

No discussion about Portland-Toronto isn’t complete unless it involves Norm Powell. Between Powell, Lillard, and CJ McCollum, it’s Norm who has led the backcourt this season with higher VORP, BPM, Win Shares, and PER figures. For more about Norm, where he keeps his championship ring, and a ridiculous story involving Kyle Lowry, you should definitely check out his interview on The Raptors Show.

As for the Powell-for-Gary Trent Jr. trade which will be discussed approximately 1,092 times on the broadcast, it’s fair to say that both teams are happy with their respective returns.

Powell may be behind McCollum and Lillard, but he’s a bucket-getter (17.5 points per game) who shoots at efficient levels (50% FG%, 45.5% 3-point FG%) that neither of them has ever reached in their incredible careers. GTJ has filled the scoring void that Powell vacated (16.0 points per game) while making an impact on the defensive end that Powell could never reach consistently. Trent Jr. leads the NBA in total steals, total deflections, and deflections per game, and is second in steals per game.

Fun fact about Assistant Coaches that may only interest me

This week’s slate of games is filled with interesting (at least to me) facts about Assistant Coaches with ties to the Raptors.

Take Blazers Assistant Coach, Roy Rogers, for example.

If his name rings a bell, it’s because he was once a Toronto Raptor. Dig a little deeper and he is part of a rare piece of history — Roy Rogers is one of 6 NBA players to have played for both the Grizzlies (when they played in Vancouver) and Raptors. The other players were Milt Palacio, Darrick Martin (long live the 3-point streak), Aaron Williams, Tony Massenburg, and.....well, I’ll save the last one for another Fun Fact below.

Prediction

This matchup pits one of the best home records against one of the best road records — both 5-1. The Raptors always seem to play their best against the Blazers, winning eight of the last 12. Even during the fake Tampa season, the Raptors lost the two games to Portland by a combined 6 points. With Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, and Precious Achiuwa all questionable (plus Yuta Watanabe out), Toronto could be very short-handed. The Raptors lead the NBA with 13.4 offensive rebounds per game, but the Blazers rank 5th in opponents offensive rebounds allowed (Detroit and Dallas, who have beaten the Raptors already this season, rank 2nd and 4th, respectively). On the other end of the court, Toronto’s Achilles — the corner three — is Portland’s deadliest shooting zone, as their 43.8% ranks 4th. The road trip gets off to a rocky start as Portland defeats Toronto, 113-108.

November 18 @ Utah Jazz

The Jazz have picked up from where they left off last season. Similar to the 2020-21 campaign, Utah is #1 in 3-point frequency with 45.5% of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Their shooting percentage may not be good (32.1%, which ranks 27th), but they use a similar philosophy as the Raptors where they’re banking on volume to overwhelm opponents.

Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson collectively shoot more threes per game than the entire Raptors team. That’s 3 starters plus 1 reserve — each of whom play fewer minutes per game than 4 of the Raptors starters (OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, GTJ, and FVV).

Fun fact about Assistant Coaches that may only interest me

These Assistant Coach facts are getting more obscure... and I thoroughly enjoyed this rabbit hole I’ve entered!

The Rudy Gay trade that brought the UConn alum to Toronto (look at that, another Grizzly-Raptor connection) had franchise-altering repercussions that would lead into the Kyle-DeMar era and, eventually, an NBA championship (I understand the weight that “eventually” carries in that last sentence). From Memphis’ side, Gay’s departure left the Grizzlies needing a veteran presence who could also help a lackluster bench. Enter Keyon Dooling... who also happens to be an Assistant Coach for the Jazz.

Prediction

Similar to the Portland game, corner threes will be a really big problem on defense. The Jazz are also excellent at getting to the line (#3 in FT rate), which is an area that Toronto’s aggressive defense gets them into trouble (#29 in opponents’ FT rate). Utah can also give Toronto a taste of their own medicine, as they rank #2 in offensive rebounding percentage. The Raptors have a glimmer of hope in two areas. Utah’s a bottom-10 team in turnovers, so Toronto needs to capitalize on points off turnovers. Utah is also #29 in assists, averaging 20.4. When Toronto holds opponents to 20 assists or less, they’re 4-1 on the season. I should note that I originally wrote this as a Utah win, but I can’t shake the feeling that the theme of this post will bear fruit this week with an upset win over Utah or Golden State. Consider this your spoiler alert for my Warriors prediction: Toronto squeak by Utah, 115-114.

November 19 @ Sacramento Kings

Ah yes. Nothing like a SEGABABA to test your stamina and roster depth!

Toronto’s depth is a strength that can hopefully be used during this game, as every injured player is close to returning and with the team for the road trip. As for Sacramento, Luke Walton appears to love his depth because Mo Harkless(!!) has started 11 of the team’s 13 games, while Buddy Hield has only started two.

Hield is the highest-paid player in the NBA who is currently NOT in his team’s starting lineup (Kevin Love is actually higher, but it’s no surprise why he’s behind Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley in the depth chart). Walton’s reasoning makes sense because De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are the team’s present & future backcourt. At 6’4, Hield is small by today’s NBA standards to battle other starting Wings. Between Anunoby, Siakam, and Barnes (heck, even GTJ is taller than him), Hield’s better off trying his luck with Toronto’s bench.

The biggest surprise from Sacramento isn’t Haliburton, whose traditional stats are similar to his impressive rookie season, or Fox, who’s off to a slow start with numbers down across the board.

Harrison Barnes is having a renaissance of a season so far. He’s embraced his role as the team’s veteran leader (only Tristan Thompson is older), leading the team with 21.4 points per game on 50/43/85 shooting splits — almost all career-highs (he shot 86% from the line in one of his seasons with Dallas). Barnes has a Jekyll and Hyde personality when playing Toronto as the opponent he’s had his highest offensive rating AND lowest defensive rating.

If you think I’m still bitter that Richaun Holmes, who signed for a ridiculously cheap 4 year / $46 million contract this offseason, is not a Raptor, a quick Twitter search doesn’t make me feel any better.

Fun fact about Assistant Coaches that may only interest me

Remember that 6th player I left out of the Blazers Fun Fact? It was Benoit Benjamin. Before he joined either Canadian franchise, he was traded to the Lakers for Sam Perkins. Joining him in the trade was current Kings Assistant Coach, Doug Christie.

You thought I was going to write about Roy Rana or Rico Hines, didn’t you?

Prediction

The Kings are excellent in transition, ranking 2nd in points per possession and 1st in points per play (Raptors rank 19th and 25th respectively in those stats defensively). The problem with Sacramento is actually getting to those opportunities. They rank 27th in steals, while Toronto is better than every team in steals allowed. The Raptors rank #1 in offensive rebound percentage, points per putback (plays after an offensive rebound), and plays per miss (another way of saying Toronto’s the best offensive rebounding team). Sacramento ranks 25th in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage, which contributes to the Kings’ league-worst mark of field goal attempts allowed. Nick Nurse has consistently stressed that winning the field goal attempts battle by at least five is the team’s path to success. Sacramento will offer those up in bunches and Toronto should make them pay. Raptors defeat the Kings, 113-109.

November 21 @ Golden State Warriors

From January 2013 to January 2018, the Warriors dominated this matchup, winning 11 of 12 against the Raptors. Since then, every meeting has been popcorn-worthy entertainment, mostly because it ended in Toronto’s favour!

In their last matchup, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Kyle Lowry were on the sidelines as the Raptors set a franchise record for margin of victory with a 130-77 annihilation of the Warriors. The matchup before that was the first (of multiple times, unfortunately) of Siakam’s missed buzzer-beating game-winners. The season before was interrupted by the pandemic and only allowed these foes to face once. It ended up being the one and only game Curry would play after returning from injury, as Golden State lost and didn’t qualify to play in the Bubble. The season before that, Toronto would face Golden State eight times, winning six, closing the doors for good at Oracle Arena, and, oh right, claiming the Larry OB. No big deal!

This year, the Warriors look primed to make a return to the NBA Finals. They have the league’s best record (11-2, plus the #1 net rating), best defense (#1 in defensive rating & points/possession), and best home record (8-1, outscoring opponents by 16.5 points). The skeptic in me can’t help but notice that their wins have come against a fairly soft schedule. Seven of the victories came against teams currently under .500: Kings, Pelicans, Rockets, Timberwolves, Hawks, Thunder (twice). Meanwhile, only two wins have come against teams with records above .500 at the time: Hornets and Bulls.

Regardless, you play who the schedule says you have to play and the Warriors have been the best this season in beating the teams they’re supposed to and showing very little sign it’ll be any different against tougher competition.

Fun fact about Assistant Coaches that may only interest me

The Warriors have an Assistant Coach who has an award named after him at his alma mater. The award is presented in recognition of excellence in the areas of selfless dedication, leadership, and spirit as a student-athlete. Unlike other awards, this one is NOT given annually — only when a candidate is worthy of the honour. In the first 10 years of the award’s existence, it’s only been presented twice.

The name of the award is the Jama Mahlalela Award.

Prediction

All of those skeptical words I wrote about the Warriors schedule doesn’t change the spoiler alert from the Jazz prediction. Golden State has been on a tear this season and has the right formula to subdue Toronto. They’re #1 in offensive rebounds allowed, get to the paint (#7 in frequency of shots at the rim), and score effectively (#4 in accuracy of shots at the rim). As noted above, Toronto thrives off the offensive glass. Their lack of size works to their detriment down low as they rank 25th in opponents FG% at the rim. The Raptors will be able to hang around via steals (Warriors rank 20th in steals allowed), but it won’t be enough to pull off the win. Warriors put away the Raptors, 110-95.

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Last Week: 1-2

Season Record for Predictions: 6-8