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The Rap-Up: Nick Nurse has a problem

The Raptors have a deeper lineup to juggle as they face two division foes and one former coach. Can Toronto stay in the mix in the East?

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Nick Nurse has a problem on his hands.

Don’t worry, it’s a good problem. In fact, it’s a problem that most teams in the NBA would be envious of, especially this week’s opponents.

While the Boston Celtics is relying on 35-year-old Al Horford to provide 30 minutes a game (29.5, to be exact) at a position of need (Celtics rank dead last in opponent’s rebounds), 35-year-old Goran Dragic can’t even get garbage time minutes for the Toronto Raptors.

Tobias Harris is the Sixers’ second-leading scorer (19.8 points per game), playing 33 minutes a game, and ranks 19th in the NBA in Win Shares per 48. One spot behind Harris in 20th is Svi Mihailiuk — who may be out of Nurse’s 10-man rotation soon.

The 7th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft, Killian Hayes, has started eight of Detroit’s first nine games. He’s contributed a grand total of -0.1 Win Shares so far. The 29th pick from that Draft, Malachi Flynn, has only played 29 minutes total and has already given Toronto 0.2 Win Shares.

Consider those three Raptor names listed and you can arguably name two whole lineups that would actually see the floor.

Starters: Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam

Bench: Dalano Banton, Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch

Alright, that was a bit dramatic, as Svi, at the very least, has earned a rotation spot. However, you can see the dilemma that Nurse and his staff face.

Achiuwa has not looked good lately, especially when forcing shots on offense. But do you DNP-CD a player who just had a three-game streak of double-doubles a mere two weeks ago?

With Flynn starting to see minutes again, does Banton return to the original plan of seeing more time with the 905? Dalano’s been a revelation so far and the numbers match the eye test. He’s put together a 17.6 PER with a 61.9 TS%. The NBA player who closely matches those figures is Buddy Hield (17.7 PER, 61.5 TS%).

Deciding who does and doesn’t get reserve minutes are a headache on its own. The starting unit isn’t guaranteed either. On nights like this week (hello Joel Embiid), a traditional centre will be needed. If Birch is called upon, does the NBA’s steals leader (3.1 per game), GTJ, or the Rookie-of-the-Year frontrunner, Barnes, go to the bench?

Nick Nurse has a problem on his hands, indeed. We can only hope that’s the biggest problem he faces this week!

November 10 @ Boston Celtics

The good news is that Toronto wraps up its two visits to TD Garden before Remembrance Day.

The great news is that the Raptors manhandled the Celtics in Boston just over two weeks ago, 115-83 — a.k.a. The Scottie Barnes coming out party.

The greater news is that the Celtics have yet to win at home (while the Raptors have yet to lose on the road) and they’re falling apart internally. Head Coach Ime Udoka has already called out his players. Marcus Smart has complained that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown don’t pass. The team has already held a players-only meeting to air grievances. While that may have sparked some inspired ball in consecutive throttlings of Orlando (92-79) and Miami (95-78), the Celtics found themselves on the losing end of another buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer.

Whoops, sorry. Force of habit.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Jaylen Brown will miss the game due to a leg injury he sustained during the victory in Miami last week. Udoka will hope for a number of Celtics to step up while Tatum carries the load. Al Horford, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart, and Josh Richardson combined to shoot 0-for-13 with 3 turnovers while being guarded by Barnes or VanVleet.

His superstar teammate had issues of his own with Toronto’s defense in their first meeting of the season. Tatum had a turnover rate of 21.1% — his worst of the season. The Raptors also hold the distinction of forcing Tatum into his worst turnover rate two seasons ago (we all agree that last season was a fake season, right?), when he turned the ball over 34.3% of the time - the 2nd worst of his career!

Prediction

It’s only been a couple of weeks, but these teams will look very different in the rematch. Brown’s absence particularly stings for Boston because he was the only Celtic with a positive +/- in the previous meeting. Toronto will be replacing Achiuwa (who was actually quite amazing in the first meeting, posting a 15 pts / 15 boards line) with Siakam. Dragic’s minutes (the only Raptor with a negative +/- in the previous meeting) will likely go to Banton or Flynn (both were +7 in less than three minutes). These teams are headed in opposite directions. Toronto keeps Boston winless at home with a 110-99 victory.

November 11 @ Philadelphia 76ers

When the schedule was released, I circled games against Philadelphia as scheduled losses. Joel Embiid is the one player that Toronto’s current roster construction has no answer for. As inspiring as Birch has been in playing the intelligent-passing-Marc-Gasol role on offense, he’s nowhere near the brute force Gasol provided on defense.

The absence of Ben Simmons has helped the Sixers in multiple ways. Forget how his presence alone would impact the locker room, but with one less non-shooter on the floor, the team’s spacing has improved. Philadelphia owns the #1 offense, ranking 1st in FG% and three-point FG%, while ranking 3rd in two-point FG%, and 4th in FT%. They’re taking fewer shots (30th in field goals attempted) but making them at an astronomical rate (49.6%). The gap between the Sixers and the 2nd-best shooting team, Suns (47.6%), is almost as large as the gap between Phoenix and the 14th-best Sacramento Kings (45.5%).

Over the last decade, only seven teams have finished with a team shooting percentage of 49% or better. Three of those teams won championships (‘13 Heat, ‘17 & ‘18 Warriors). Three more made the Finals (‘14 Heat, ‘19 Warriors ** snickers **, and the ‘21 Suns). Kevin Durant’s big toe prevented the list from being 7-for-7 as NBA Finalists, at least.

Fun fact that may only interest me

This marks the 6th regular-season game with Danny Green facing the Raptors since helping the team win an NBA title... and the 6th time he won’t receive his championship ring!

While Danny waits to receive his ring in front of a raucous Scotiabank Arena crowd, he will have faced the Raptors in Orlando (a.k.a. The Bubble), Tampa (a.k.a. not Toronto), and Philadelphia. In fact, it’s been over seven months since Green received his Lakers championship ring!

Prediction

Timing is everything. I’ve alluded to predicting a Raptors loss, especially on the back-end of a road back-to-back, but Toronto might be catching Philly at the right time. Matisse Thybulle, Isaiah Joe, and Tobias Harris have all missed time due to Health & Safety protocols. Harris is the only one who may be in the lineup, but his conditioning could be a factor after missing almost two weeks of games. Green is also dealing with a hamstring injury, so his status is questionable. Oh, and now there’s the very fresh news that Embiid may also miss the game.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Raptors pulled off the upset, especially with Toronto ranking 1st in offensive rebounding and Philadelphia ranking 28th in offensive boards allowed, but I’ll play it safe as the team continues working Siakam back into the mix especially with Embiid now possibly missing the game. Toronto keeps their perfect road record....umm perfect...defeating the Sixers, 104-96*.

*This was originally predicted as a Sixers win but my procrastination has afforded me some useful information.

November 13 vs. Detroit Pistons

The last game that’s previewed every week typically gets the short end of the stick, in terms of analysis. Blame it on my procrastination. Blame it on my tunnel vision towards seeing the finish line. For this week, though, blame it on the opponent.

Detroit’s 1-8 record is what it is. However, just as Golden State has taken advantage of a cream puff schedule to open the season, the Pistons have lost their 8 games to the Bulls, Sixers, Nets (twice each), Hawks, and Bucks. All of those teams could finish in the top-6 by the end of the year.

Regardless, Dwane Casey’s squad fields the league’s worst offense and worst net rating. They’ve only topped 100 points on three occasions. Their 94.9 point per game average is over three points less than the next closest team, Sam Presti’s tank-tastic Thunder, and 5.6 points less than the lottery-bound Magic.

Fun fact that may only interest me

For all the #FadeForCade folks, he’s come out of the gates with improved shooting in each of his first four games.

1-for-8 (12.5%)

2-for-14 (14.3%)

4-for-17 (23.5%)

6-for-17 (35.3%)

Ouch. It’s probably not worth mentioning, but I’m petty. Scottie Barnes has played nine games and he’s shot a better percentage than Cunningham’s best game in all of them!

Prediction

Among the many stats that are working against Detroit in this matchup, they’re also the league’s worst defensive rebounding team. Birch (if he’s available), Barnes, Boucher, and Achiuwa are going to feast on the offensive glass. The Pistons are slightly below league average (#19) in turnover percentage, but last year, two of their worst five games for turnover percentage occurred against the Raptors. VanVleet and GTJ will be licking their chops as Detroit’s young backcourt of Cunningham and Killian Hayes (recovering from a thumb injury) bring the ball up. Toronto gives the Scotiabank Arena crowd an entertaining Sunday evening show, destroying the Pistons 115-90.

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Last Week: 1-3

Season Record for Predictions: 5-6