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The Rap-Up: Gauging the Raptors against the NBA’s best

Will the Raptors ever have a healthy roster? Can somebody from the bench please stand up? How does this current iteration of the team, injuries and all, stack up against a pair of championship contenders? This week offers an early holiday gift of Raptors games that will surely entertain!

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

How good are the Toronto Raptors, really?

With each passing game, It’s looking more and more like the team will never have a fully healthy roster this season (or at least for the “foreseeable future.”).

So, with each Conference’s top team on the schedule on deck, one-third of the schedule in the books, and the team perpetually missing key players, this week figures to be a good barometer of how the Raptors stack up.

With a carousel of injuries, Toronto’s depth has been put to the test. The starters have been carrying the load, ranking among league leaders in minutes (1st), points (4th), field goals made (3rd), 3-point field goals made (5th), and offensive rebounds (3rd). Nick Nurse has had a heavy reliance on the starters (league rank in minutes per game) — Fred VanVleet (1st), Scottie Barnes (7th), and Gary Trent Jr. (24th), while OG Anunoby (2nd) and Pascal Siakam (34th) would also rank high if they played enough games. It’s the bench where the team has failed thus far with a league-worst 23.3 bench points per game. To be fair, the bench has also played a league-low 13.8 minutes, but there’s a bit of cause-and-effect at play here. The three players with the most minutes off the bench have each had their struggles.

Svi Myhailiuk started the season hitting 50% or better from beyond the arc in six of the first nine games. Unfortunately, his shot has abandoned him recently, negating his biggest reason for a spot in the roster. He’s shot 21.4% from three over the last seven games.

Dalano Banton’s play has also dipped significantly after a promising start to the season. Rexdale’s finest started the year with a positive plus/minus in five of his first six games. However, he’s now posted negative ratings in six of his last eight games, including three where he was held scoreless.

Chris Boucher. Oh, Chris.

Is this the week the Raptors get Anunoby and/or Khem Birch back? For the sanity of Raptors fans, I sure hope so. As it stands, Toronto faces a week full of interesting matchups. Let’s dive into each of them!

December 13 vs Sacramento Kings

Warning: There’s a distinct possibility that redacted will be in the starting lineup when the Kings come to town. In back-to-back wins over the Clippers last week, Terence Davis averaged 25.5 points on 60/55/100 shooting. Richaun Holmes’ recent eye injury has forced interim Head Coach, Alvin Gentry, to play around with his starting lineup. Up until Saturday’s game in Cleveland, Davis had been inserted with the starters and was playing really well.

Since Alvin Gentry took over as Head Coach, the Kings have won half of their 10 games, which doesn’t sound impressive until you remember it’s the Sacramento Kings. During this stretch, they rank 5th in scoring, 1st in free throw attempts, and 5th in offensive rebounds. The defensive side is a different story. They rank 25th in defensive rating, 27th in opponents’ 2nd chance points, 26th in opponents’ fastbreak points, and dead last in opponents’ points in the paint.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Buddy Hield’s real name is Chavano Rainer Hield. Before you ask the same question I did, “Why would he possibly change his name from something as cool as Chavano?” His mother gave him that nickname after Bud Bundy! Yes, the same Bud Bundy from the iconic 90’s sitcom, Married...with Children.

Prediction

Despite my pessimism, the Kings are not as bad as the frontrunners for Chet/Paolo sweepstakes — Pistons, Magic, and Thunder — which means you shouldn’t be as concerned about a head-scratching upset loss. They are, however, still “probably-lottery-bound bad”, which places them in the Pacers/Knicks tier of beatable Raptors opponents. Toronto wraps up the 7-game homestand on the positive side of .500, beating Sacramento, 107-95.

December 14 @ Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant is just not fair.

I’m not sure what’s scarier about KD. Maybe it’s his 29.4 scoring average, which ranks as his 3rd-highest of his illustrious career. Or maybe it’s that he’s averaging 40 minutes over his last 7 games, which at 33-years-old and just a year shy of returning from a possible career-ending Achilles injury is damn near impossible to believe. Or maybe it’s because Basketball-Reference notes that Durant has played 44% of his time this season as a Center!!

If rumours are true that Kyrie Irving may be returning to the team this season, KD getting reps at the 5 is a death sentence for the rest of the league. Slim Reaper indeed!

Fun fact that may only interest me

Durant has built a first-ballot-hall-of-fame worthy resume and will ultimately end his career as one of the game’s greatest. How great exactly?

Not a single member of the Basketball Hall of Fame has averaged at least 25 points AND a true shooting percentage of 60% or better. To be exact, KD is averaging 27.1 on 61.5% for his career.

There is, however, one active player who has achieved those benchmarks. With a career average of 25.0 points and 61.1% TS%, KD is joined by... James Harden.

Prediction

This looked like a schedule loss when the schedule was released and that feels the same now. Brooklyn kicks off a 5-game homestand with an extra day of rest against an opponent on the back-end of a back-to-back — the first time Toronto’s traveling in 2.5 weeks too. On the bright side, the Raptors are 9-2 in their last 11 visits to Brooklyn. Only one visit was against this version of the Nets (this was the KD in-out-in-out-COVID-protocol game), which Toronto won as well. Brooklyn boasts the #1 defense in eFG%, which doesn’t bode well for Toronto’s 27th-ranked eFG%. The Nets also have the #1 three-point defense (overall, from the corner, and non-corner). That’s not necessarily a strength of the Raptors but certainly came in handy in their comeback against the Thunder and the victory over the Knicks this past week. Without a fully healthy squad, especially with Anunoby still out, the Raptors fall to the Nets, 111-102.

December 16 vs Chicago Bulls

Due to the Bulls having 10 players in Health & Safety protocols, they do not meet the league minimum of 8 active players. As such, the game has been postponed and you’ll have to wait a little bit longer for my Chicago-related fun fact.

December 18 vs Golden State Warriors

By the time this game rolls around, Steph Curry surely would have gotten the record for most career 3-point field goals in NBA history. As of Sunday evening, Curry was six short of Ray Allen’s record with games in Indiana, New York, and Boston before this one. I’d probably gamble a decent amount of money that he’ll break the record at The Mecca a.k.a. Madison Square Garden.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, this is not your box-and-one-friendly Warriors. If Nurse were to attach VanVleet to Curry’s hip, Golden State still has three reliable shooters — Andrew Wiggins (41.3%), Otto Porter (41.1%), and Chris Chiozza (40.3%) — who shoot higher 3-point percentages than every single Raptor (VanVleet shoots a team-high 38.9%). Don’t forget about Jordan Poole, who’s hit more 3-pointers this season than any Raptor other than VanVleet (you think FVV is kind of important?). Did I mention Klay Thompson has returned to practice and could be returning any day now?

While the offense has returned to its championship season levels, Golden State’s defense has never looked better. Their 100.5 defensive rating is better than any of the seasons where they made five consecutive Finals trips. The gap between themselves and the 2nd-place Phoenix Suns (104.1) is as large as the difference between the Suns and 10th-place Los Angeles Lakers.

Draymond Green is the catalyst behind the improvement and is a leading candidate for his 2nd Defensive Player of the Year award. Green ranks 1st in defensive rating, 2nd in defensive win shares, and 2nd in defensive box plus-minus. His criminally hard screens will annoy Raptors fans, as will his expressive hollers after a teammate makes a good play. But I’m personally immune to all of his antics because this is seared into my memory forever.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Before Ray Allen held the three-point record, Reggie Miller was the three-point king. Before Miller, the throne belonged to Dale Ellis. When Miller overtook him, Ellis had drained 1,461 three-point field goals.

If you only took the four seasons where Curry had his highest number of made threes, add in his first playoff trip in 2012-13, Steph drained 1,461 three-point field goals.

Prediction

This is the part where I try to convince you that Toronto can pull off a massive upset. Exhibit A: Saturdays are the only day of the week where the Warriors have a sub .500 record (1-2). Exhibit B: Not only will the Raptors have 4 days rest due to the Bulls game postponement, but for the Warriors, this is the back-end of a back-to-back AND the final game of a grueling road trip where they play 5 games in 8 nights. Exhibit C: The last time Toronto “hosted” Golden State, it was the 53-point annihilation where the Raptors outscored the Warriors 81-30 in the middle two quarters. Yes, I know that last home game was very different as Curry and Green didn’t play. I also realize that even if they’re road-weary, Golden State is THAT much better than Toronto. But stranger things have happened and I’ve saved one self-serving stat for you.

Toronto is 2-1 this season when I’m at Scotiabank Arena covering the game, with the only loss coming on Justin Champagnie’s slightly long fingernails. If the Raptors' defense (ranked 4th over the last 2 weeks) can keep the Warriors' offense (ranked 24th over the last 2 weeks) at bay, Toronto may have enough fuel for the upset.

In the clutch this season, Toronto has scored more points (6.7 to 5.6) on better shooting (37.7% to 35.6%) beyond the arc (40% to 22.2%), and in less time (2.6 minutes to 3.3). The Raptors also rank 3rd in steals generated in the clutch, which bodes well against a Warriors team that ranks 29th in turnovers.

Raptors pull off their biggest win of the season, upsetting the Warriors 105-103.

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Last Week: 1-1

Season Record for Predictions: 12-14