Predicting games a week in advance has its challenges. Of course, it would be tough.
If it was easy, then I’d be rich and living in a COVID-free utopia (a.k.a. New Zealand).
The temptation for every Raptors fan is to find a competitive edge or positive fact that convinces you Toronto will not lose. For fair-weather fans, something as simple as “Pascal Siakam is the best player on the floor for both teams” is an affirmative statement that’ll do the job. For the seasoned fans, you’re likely to hear some form of analysis like, “they don’t have a forward mobile enough to hang with Siakam.” Whatever the reason, you’ve convinced yourself the Raptors will win that particular game.
Take last week as an example. I predicted one loss out of four games. The lone defeat, I surmised, would be to the Celtics. After researching the matchup, I almost convinced myself that Toronto could prevail (the teams had traded regular season wins at an alarmingly even rate). In the end, I leaned on some tried and true tools to identify why the Raptors would lose.
When I make these predictions, I try to combat my personal bias by discovering the typical regular season pratfalls. A couple of weeks ago, I correctly predicted a win over the heavily favoured Brooklyn Nets, followed by a letdown loss to the Hawks (all right, I hinted at the letdown loss possibility but chickened out at the last moment and flipped to a Raptors win). Last week, I correctly predicted the scheduled loss to the Celtics (sixth road game in ten nights, on the back-end of a back-to-back. Who cares that Semi Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard went off, the Raptors were never winning that one).
The one loss I forgot about was the trap game loss. With a return to Amalie Arena, an easy home game against the worst team in the NBA — an opponent they had defeated 16 consecutive times at home — a Timberwolves team missing their star guard, D’Angelo Russell, and a final tuneup before a mini-series with the hated Bucks... all of the symptoms of a trap game were right there. Since I missed this, I also missed out on my first perfect week of predictions for the season.
Let’s see if perfection lies ahead for me this week — but not so much for the Raptors!
February 16 @ Milwaukee Bucks
February 18 @ Milwaukee Bucks
What a disappointing pair of teams! According to CleaningTheGlass.com, Milwaukee (-3.4) and Toronto (-2.4) are the two worst teams in the NBA in win difference (games won vs expected wins based on efficiency differential).
The similarities don’t stop there. Milwaukee’s offense has improved since last season with a jump from 113.1 points per 100 possessions (#6) to 120.7 this season (# 1). Their defense, however, has dropped significantly, allowing 111.8 points per 100 possessions (# 11), compared to 103.2 (# 1) last season.
Toronto has also seen an improvement offensively — from 111.0 (# 16) to 114.3 (# 8) — and decline defensively — from 105.3 (# 2) to 112.6 (# 16).
Each team has also been dealing with the absence of their best on-ball defenders. Jrue Holiday has been out of Bucks games since Wednesday, due to health and safety protocols. It’s usually hard to predict how long a player will be out since the reasons could range from an inconclusive test (one game, assuming the next test is negative) to testing positive for COVID-19 (Karl Anthony Towns recently missed 26 days due to a positive test). Khris Middleton accidentally spilled the beans in a recent post-game interview about which end of the spectrum Holiday was, “You definitely think about it, especially for Jrue. It’s nothing to play around with. And once he tested positive, you immediately think about his health, his safety, and then his family back home.”
For Toronto, OG Anunoby should be returning to the lineup after missing 10 games due to a left calf strain. The first game he missed was the only other time these teams met this season, a 115-108 Bucks victory.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
On Sunday, Milwaukee suffered their 11th loss of the season. With 16 victories so far, that’s a large drop-off to last season’s standard, when Milwaukee had 53 wins before getting loss # 11. The last time the Bucks had 11 losses this early was the 2017-18 season — the last before Mike Budenholzer was hired. That season, Milwaukee finished as the 7th seed and couldn’t get past the first round.
Let’s not beat around the bush — the Raptors will win at least one of these two games. Milwaukee’s 3-point defense is the reason for the Bucks’ overall defensive decline. Opponents are shooting 39.7% (3rd-highest mark in the league) from beyond the arc. Toronto hit a franchise record-tying 22 triples in their previous matchup. With the addition of Anunoby — to defend Antetokounmpo and add to the 3-point arsenal — the subtraction of Holiday, and Norm Powell in peak Buck Killer form, the Raptors will remind folks they’re not laying down. Toronto wins one, 116-110, and loses one, 110-102.
February 19 @ Minnesota Timberwolves
Yes, the Raptors played down to the Timberwolves’ level.
Yes, the Raptors allowed Minnesota — one of the worst shooting teams in the league (43.9%, 28th in the NBA) — to shoot 52% from the field.
Yes, the Raptors tried to cover up a game’s worth of blown coverages and poor play with a spirited comeback to fall short (on a Siakam layup, no less).
Despite all those bad vibes, do you really expect the Raptors to do anything other than exact revenge?
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
After Sunday’s victory over the Raptors, Minnesota is 5-4 when playing on Saturday or Sunday... and 2-16 from Monday to Friday. Thankfully for Raptors fans, this game falls on a Friday, where the Timberwolves are 1-4. (Toronto’s best day of the week is Friday, where they’re 3-1)
There’s no hiding the fact that the Raptors mailed it in on Sunday against the Timberwolves. There’s also no hiding that Toronto should — and will — unleash hell in Minnesota. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not even bothering with much stats or analysis. Toronto thrashes the Timberwolves, 138-114.
February 21 vs Philadelphia 76ers
For the second season in a row, Danny Green will hit the road and visit his old team, the Raptors. For the second season in a row, the road game will not happen in Scotiabank Arena — in front of 19,800 adoring fans and likely a video tribute — but in the state of Florida. For the second season in a row, Green is probably not getting his Raptors championship ring. Ouch!
Green, along with Dwight Howard, are two of the newest additions to a Sixers squad with championship aspirations. Even though they’re also the two oldest players on the roster, they also happen to be the only two to play all 27 games.
The biggest change to this Sixers squad has been the separation between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the team’s alpha. Embiid’s averaging 29.6 points per game (#3) on an absurd 54/40/85 shooting split. With the Sixers firmly grasping the top spot in the East, Embiid has thrust himself into the MVP conversation.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, the Raptors’ leaders at getting to the line, have combined to take 211 free throw attempts.
Joel Embiid has made 212 free throws so far this season.
Philadelphia opponents take 35 percent of their shots at the rim, which a bottom-10 mark for the Sixers. However, opponents’ FG% is a paltry 59.3% (second-best percentage in the league). That doesn’t bode well for Pascal Siakam, who’s been attacking the paint with confidence and purpose of late. With Minnesota’s win on the Raptors’ home floor, Philadelphia now holds the dubious record of the longest road losing streak against Toronto (15 games and counting). This is one of those games where I could convince myself the Raptors can win. It wouldn’t qualify for any of the three types of losses I described at the beginning. No, this would be a different kind of loss: they’re-simply-better-than-us-loss. This is the first of a two-game mini-series with their Atlantic Division rivals. The Raptors fall to the Sixers, 112-108.