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The Rap-Up: Previewing the games that shouldn’t be happening

Looking at this week’s games feels emptier than most NBA benches. But as long as games are still being played, I will continue previewing them — even as players continue dropping like flies!

Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

What are we doing here, folks?

That screenshot was from Saturday morning. This was from Monday afternoon.

Seriously, what are we doing here?

I’d normally use this section to write many words about the state of the NBA and/or the Toronto Raptors. But why? The global pandemic that has shut down the NBA once already and is threatening to do so again. Except it hasn’t.

Whether players or staff members are vaccinated or not, COVID-19 can still be caught and spread. That’s not to say you should not get vaccinated — quite the contrary, Karen. Getting vaccinated gives you a better chance of not being hospitalized if you’ve contracted the virus. Arenas, such as Scotiabank Arena, are starting to catch on to what really works by reducing contact. With capacities cut by 50%, concessions closed, and mask-wearing strictly enforced, MLSE is finding that somewhat-happy medium of hosting live sporting events in Toronto.

But what about the players and coaches? They’re not wearing masks and breathing heavily within 6 feet of each other. You certainly can’t ask them to wear masks while playing. Nor can you maintain the requisite distance from each other.

The only solution is to pause all games until the numbers subside and 20% of the league is not constantly in protocols.

Otherwise, games will continue to feature G League players and overseas recruits, results will be skewed towards who survives best, and, most importantly, the virus will continue spreading.

Also, you’ll continue reading crossed-out game previews with dad jokes!

December 20 vs Orlando Magic

This game has been postponed because the Magic are still trying to figure out who Aleem Ford, Hassani Gravett, and B.J. Johnson really are.

December 22 @ Chicago Bulls

No, this is not a makeup for the postponed Raptors-Bulls game from last week. However, Nick Nurse did say he’d be open to a double-header in Chicago. While that doesn’t seem fair to the Raptors, would anyone be surprised if Toronto eventually has zero fans allowed in Scotiabank Arena?

The Bulls were decimated with health & safety protocols, had two games postponed (Pistons and Raptors), and lost two games short-handed (in Cleveland and in Miami) that they may have even lost at full strength. They seem to have weathered that storm with players returning and the team still in second place in the East.

On Sunday, DeMar DeRozan returned and restored order in Chicago.

I’d normally gripe over any non-Raptors-related reference to “We The North,” but DeRozan is the exception. He scored a career-high 19 fourth-quarter points. Doing that against LeBron James is **chef’s kiss**.

DeRozan (26.8) and Zach Lavine (26.0) — who should be wrapping up his stint in protocols in time for this game — are on target to becoming the first teammates in franchise history to average 25 points or more in the same season.

After acquiring DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in the off-season, the Bulls’ offense was expected to be among the league’s best. Instead, it’s the addition of Alex Caruso and Chicago’s defense that has propelled the Bulls to the top tier of the East standings. Their defense ranks 3rd in opponents’ FG% at the rim, 5th in opponents’ mid-range FG%, 3rd in 2-point FG%, and 7th overall.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Don’t be surprised if you see a ton of dribble hand-offs because every single pass is an invitation to hungry hands!

Half of the league’s top-10 players in deflections per game will be sharing the court: Gary Trent Jr. (#1), Alex Caruso (#T3), Fred VanVleet (#T3), Lonzo Ball (#5), and Scottie Barnes (#10).

Prediction

Playing the 3rd game in 4 nights would normally be a flag for most teams. But Chicago is fresh from an 8-day hiatus, thanks to their postponed games. The Bulls ratchet up the offense against the “middle-10” teams like the Raptors. On the other hand, Toronto’s had the 5th-best defense over the last two weeks, and this will only be their second game in a week. With Siakam also missing the first meeting, lineups on both sides look fairly similar to the October 25th game where the Bulls survived a late Raptors comeback and secure a win at Scotiabank Arena. Ultimately, Chicago’s ability to get to the line (6th in free throw rate), an area that Toronto perpetually struggles with containing (26th in opponents’ free throw rate), will do the Raptors in (plus breaking news that Gary Trent Jr. has joined Siakam and Dalano Banton in health & safety protocols). The Bulls outlast the Raptors, 106-104.

December 26 @ Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s Boxing Day but the Raptors will have a leftover gift.

The Cavs were playing like the best team in the East before health & safety protocols ravaged the team. Jarrett Allen is generating all kinds of All-Star buzz. He’s 9th in rebounds (10.8), 15th in blocks (1.4), 3rd in FG% (70.2%), 3rd in win shares, and 10th in VORP. It’s cliche to tag Allen and his frontcourt running mate, Evan Mobley, as Twin Towers, but the rookie standout has been equally remarkable. Mobley ranks 6th in blocks, 5th in defensive win shares, and 6th in defensive rating. Raptors bias aside, Mobley and Barnes will be neck-and-neck for the Rookie of the Year award until the final day of the regular season!

Not to be outdone, Darius Garland has been outstanding since Cleveland lost Collin Sexton for the season. His plus-minus so far this season ranks 4th in the NBA behind Steph Curry, Rudy Gobert, and Donovan Mitchell. When healthy, this is a FUN team to watch.

Fun fact that may only interest me

I’m cheating here because I know this will not only interest me. Shall we do a statistical comparison of Barnes and Mobley?

Barnes: 15.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks. 49.4 FG%, 35.6 3-pt FG%, 72.6 FT%, 17.6 PER, 2.7 win shares, 0.7 VORP, leads all rookies with 109.2 offensive rating.

Mobley: 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.8 blocks, 47.4 FG%, 33.3 3-pt FG%, 77.3 FT%, 15.8 PER, 2.4 win shares, 0.6 VORP, leads all rookies with 98.2 defensive rating.

What doesn’t get captured in the numbers — which evidently favour Barnes — is that while Scottie is guarding the Durants and the Beals of the NBA and no Center protecting the pain, Evan has the security blanket of Allen waiting for anyone attacking the rim. If (when) the Raptors close the gap in the standings with the Cavaliers, there will be no more arguing who should win Rookie of the Year.

Prediction

Is this game even happening? Assuming it does, the Raptors being down two starters and a key reserve is STILL not detrimental as the Cavaliers missing three of their four best players (including Sexton, who was Cleveland’s early All-Star candidate before being lost for the season). Almost all of Cleveland’s sparkling defensive statistics can be attributed to Allen and Mobley. Without them, this team will need something special from Ricky Rubio, Lauri Markkanen, and Kevin Love to keep Garland from carrying the load. Toronto may be short-handed, but they’ll have enough to pull through. Raptors defeat the Cavaliers, 105-98.

Despite my grumpiness at the top, I truly hope you and your families have a safe and happy holiday season!!

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Last Week: 3-0

Season Record for Predictions: 15-14