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The Rap-Up: All the King’s horses put Toronto’s fears together again

As the Raptors embark on their longest road trip of the (half-)season, the team’s perseverance will be put to the test. Can they weather the storm of OG Anunoby’s absence while facing three possible playoff foes?

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men,

couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Yes, we’ve entered the “comparing the Raptors to nursery rhymes” portion of the pandemic! The story of Humpty Dumpty, as one Writer has surmised, is one of risk, failure, and perseverance.

The Raptors have exhibited their fair share of risk since hoisting the Larry OB in 2019. The departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green allowed Nick Nurse to go all-in on his switch-heavy defense (#2 defensive rating) while transitioning the shot profile away from the mid-range, ranking 3rd in percentage of shots at the rim and 6th in percentage of shots from three last season.

With two more key championship roster cogs departing for Los Angeles in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the failure has come in the form of communication. Without Gasol in the paint quarterbacking the defense or Ibaka’s glue guy presence, the team has not displayed the plucky upside that defined this era of Raptors basketball.

Now is the time for perseverance to come through — for both players and fans. The Raptors embark on a 6-game road trip, playing nine of their next ten away from Amalie Arena. Toronto had the 6th-easiest schedule to start the season and are about to face all of their main East rivals over the next three weeks. They’ve had moral (and actual) victories over Dallas, Milwaukee, and, if you still consider them contenders, Miami. How they perform during this stretch could go a long way in determining if the Raptors are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline (March 25).

As for the fans, when did we actually care about regular season wins and losses? Three seasons ago, the Raptors’ first (and only) season as the East no. 1 was considered a flame-out because of a second round sweep at the hands of LeBron James’ Cavaliers. Two seasons ago, the regular season was just 82 practices. Last season, Nurse used the entire season as a testing lab for the various sets/plays/lineups he’d use in the playoffs. Yes, the team is struggling to find their identity, but as long as the roster is healthy and everyone knows their roles come playoff time, isn’t that what really matters?

While it’s true that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty together again, it’s never indicated how many times Humpty kept climbing that wall. The final word, “again”, implies it wasn’t the first time Humpty had played with risk, failed, or persevered. As we enter the second quarter of this disjointed season, and into this week’s games, allow me to continue risking any shroud of credibility, possibly failing in my predictions, but persevering to do it all again next week!

February 2 @ Orlando Magic

The Raptors played their final game before the Super Bowl road trip by handily dismantling the Magic 115-102. While the team was held to a season-low 12 three-pointers made, they balanced the scoring by attacking the paint. The 50-32 advantage in the paint was the second-highest margin of the season (+20 vs Dallas). Leading the charge was Pascal Siakam who, for the second game in a row and the third time this season, hit the 30-point plateau, including a season-high 24 points in the paint.

Not to be outdone, Kyle Lowry notched a season-high 15 assists, Aron Baynes snared 16 rebounds, and Yuta Watanabe swatted 3 shots.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Over the last eight seasons, the Raptors’ best record vs any opponent is against the Magic with a 25-5 record. Mind you, 20 of those games occurred during the start of the 2019-20 season, but impressive nonetheless.

Prediction

In each of their other three mini-series’, the Raptors have had at least one flat performance between the two games. However, a lot would still have to go right for the Magic to win. Nikola Vucevic was more aggressive in the second half (4-of-9 shooting with 12 points and 6 rebounds). Terrence Ross was noticeably quiet (season-low fou points on only five attempts). Still, with Aaron Gordon likely out after rolling his ankle, the karma gods are probably not done with Orlando. Toronto completes the mini-sweep and squeaks by the Magic, 105-102.

February 5 @ Brooklyn Nets

Toronto’s first meeting with Brooklyn’s Big 3 has been circled on my calendar since the schedule was released (although, at the time, it was simply for the excitement of facing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant).

If you’ve read this column before, you know I normally use this portion to update you on the opponent. But Brooklyn is the most talked-about team in the NBA. You already know they field one of the most gifted offensive trios in NBA history, while also fielding an average-at-best defense.

My giddiness stems from seeing Nurse face Mike D’Antoni again. The last time they played each other, Nurse employed an oddly effective defensive scheme to limit James Harden’s production. That definitely won’t happen in this meeting, but the prospects of some juicy defensive matchups make this must-watch.

Will Siakam and Stanley Johnson be able to frustrate Durant? How will the defensive strength of Lowry and VanVleet fare against the offensive firepower of Irving and Harden? How long into the game does Nurse wait until unleashing Watanabe? Few teams have the number of individual defensive stoppers that Toronto employs.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

During last season’s playoff series between Brooklyn and Toronto, the Nets had seven different players who played in all four games. Of those seven, five are no longer on the team. The other two — Timothe Luwawu-Caborrot and Chris Chiozza — are not even in the top-7 in minutes played.

Prediction

I said it on the pod and I’ll say it here again (albeit with less confidence now that OG Anunoby won’t be suiting up). The Raptors will beat the Brooklyn Nets! Toronto’s biggest flaw — the Center position and defensive rebounding — will be met with Brooklyn’s lack of an imposing Center nor a threat on the offensive glass (#23 in offensive rebounding). The defensive matchups listed above should each limit Brooklyn’s stars to below-average numbers. The Nets are 17th in threes allowed and 20th in opponent threes attempted. If Toronto can make 40 percent of their triples, that will be just enough offense to pull off a 114-113 upset of the Nets.

February 6 @ Atlanta Hawks

Should the Nets prediction hold true, you know what follows the night after... a let-down loss to the Hawks!

Actually, should the Raptors lose to the Hawks, it may not even be a let-down performance. Atlanta has the right recipe to frustrate Toronto.

Trae Young leads the NBA in free throws made (and taken). His ability to draw fouls is something Lowry could only dream of.

Clint Capela is second in the NBA in offensive rebounding. Toronto gives up 9.8 offensive rebounds per game. Capela corralled nine offensive rebounds alone in his last meeting with the Raptors!

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Hawks have only produced one triple-double this season and it wasn’t produced by Young. On January 22nd, Atlanta was playing a professional basketball team called the Timberwolves, where Capela produced 13 points, 19 rebounds, and an eye-popping 10 blocks.

Prediction

Atlanta will be without De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic (as well as Kris Dunn who has yet to suit up for the Hawks this season). The Hawks have lost their last 10 straight against Toronto. Young has been held in check against Toronto (4 of 6 games held under 20 points; 27% from three overall). The aforementioned offensive rebounding (#3 in the NBA) and free throw rate (#1 in the NBA) should make up for the absence of two key rotation players. However, the recent showing against Orlando — limiting the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team to 6, which is 50% of their average — is enough to convince me that the Raptors will pull off a tight 115-114 victory over the Hawks.

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Last Week: 2-2

Season Record for Predictions: 8-12