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The Rap-Up: To vote or not to vote, that is the question

The Raptors finish off their longest road trip of the half-season and are on the cusp of getting back to .500. Before getting to the picks, consider this writer’s plea by not voting for any Raptors to the All-Star game.

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

To vote or not to vote, that is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The tests and contact tracing of outrageous fortune.

Or to place ballots against a sea of COVID cases

And by opposing end them. To vote — to reap,

No more; and by reap to say we end

The head-ache and the thousand of dollars

That contract incentives would bring: ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To vote, to reap;

To reap, perchance to play — ay, there’s the rub:

For in that reaping of rewards what nightmares may come,

When we have shuffled off this voting privilege,

Must give us pause — there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

Sorry to get all Shakespearean on you, but the current state of the NBA has me thinking the league is going back in time. Adam Silver has backtracked so far beyond the pre-pandemic days that his latest PR release has me as confused as to when I first read Shakespeare in high school.

I’m sorry what? If the NBA was truly exhibiting an “abundance of caution,” shouldn’t Kevin Durant have been held out of Friday’s game entirely? Oh wait, that wasn’t the only confusing NBA statement released this week.

A plethora of NBA players has already expressed concern over adding unnecessary games and travel to a period when they were supposed to have a break. Wasn’t the mid-season break supposed to be used for making up postponed games? What additional evidence is needed to support the notion that less is actually more? We’ve just passed the quarter-point of the season and 22 games have already been postponed, affecting 24 of the 30 teams. (Brooklyn, Denver, San Antonio, Toronto, and both Los Angeles teams have not had postponed games to date.)

Going back to my cringe-worthy remix of Hamlet’s famous monologue — should you or should you not vote? At this time every year, we default to stuffing (virtual) ballot boxes with our favourite Raptors. However, this season is unlike others. Wouldn’t it feel safer to keep the Raptors as far away from the Peachtree Dish as possible? Besides, this team has always excelled in the “nobody believed in us” mentality anyway!

Now on to this week’s picks.

February 8 @ Memphis Grizzlies

Welcome to the Jonas Valanciunas revenge game!

The Raptors have won eight of the last nine meetings with the only loss coming in the rookie season for Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. The tie game in the final minute was broken by game-winning free throws from Marc Gasol.

When they faced off in the bubble last Summer, it was Valanciunas’ first game against his former club... and Yuta Watanabe’s last game against his future team.

Memphis sports one of the youngest lineups in the league (sixth youngest). Led by last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have a plucky defense that has them in the thick of another playoff run. They hang their hat on defense, where they rank 5th overall, 1st in steals, and 2nd in opponents turnover percentage. Memphis has 7(!) different players that average at least one steal per game.

The offensive end is a different story. If you thought the Raptors didn’t get to the line enough, Memphis is dead-last in free throw rate. When not at the line, which is often, their effective FG% ranks 25th. There’s no need to worry about their outside shooting either. The Grizzlies rank 25th in threes attempted and 26th in threes made.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

If we assume a road-weary Raptors squad playing their third game in four nights will be turnover-prone to a handsy Memphis defense, the game’s outcome may not be as bad as you’d assume. For Toronto, Friday’s victory over the Nets was the first time this season they’d won despite turning the ball over 10 times or less (0-4 before Friday). However, when Toronto turns the ball over 16 times or more (Memphis averages 16.4 takeaways per game), the Raptors are 4-2.

Prediction

In the aforementioned bubble matchup between these former Naismith Cup rivals, Valanciunas was held scoreless, thanks mostly to the defensive genius of Marc Gasol. This time around, he’ll have his hands full against an improving Aron Baynes. The Grizzlies will already be without Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr., while Brandon Clarke is questionable with a calf injury.

Even if fully healthy, Memphis does not have the profile of a team that can beat Toronto. Their offense is not geared towards bombing from beyond the arc — the main area that Toronto allows/dares opponents to beat them with. On the offensive end, Toronto has done a good job of taking care of the basketball, turning it over less than 16 times per game (remember Memphis’ average?) in each of their last 6 games. Toronto takes care of business and defeats Memphis, 118-109.

February 10 @ Washington Wizards

Welcome to the Alex Len revenge game!

Before this season’s 144-123 drubbing of the Kings, Toronto had only scored 140 points on two other occasions. In 2019, the Raptors outlasted the Wizards in double-overtime, 140-138. Last season, the Raptors annihilated the Wizards 140-111. Could we see another barnburner?

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Beal started the season with an NBA-record 17 games with at least 25 points. That streak came to a crashing end against Miami on Friday when he shot 1-of-14 and only scored 7 points. He still, however, leads the league with 33.2 points per game — a healthy 3.7 points clear of second place, Durant. If Beal and the Wizards continue down this path, Beal would become the third player since 1985 to lead the league in scoring while missing the playoffs (Russell Westbrook in 2015 and Tracy McGrady in 2004 were the others).

Prediction

Raptors have won the last seven meetings. The longest win streak in this rivalry was 8 games, held by Toronto between November 2014 to November 2016. It’s not too hard to imagine what the Raptors will do defensively to limit Beal’s effectiveness. Heck, Toronto could run the same defensive strategy they threw at James Harden last season. The Wizards are defensively challenged across the board but especially at the rim where they rank 28th in opponents’ FG%. Pascal Siakam should feast all game long. Raptors take down the Wizards, 132-120.

February 11 @ Boston Celtics

Welcome to the... ummm... Tristan Thompson revenge game?

The Raptors wrap up their Super Bowl road trip by playing their sixth game in nine days. It’s also the back-end of a back-to-back. Oh, did I forget to mention that it’s also against their main division rival (sorry-not-sorry Philadelphia and Brooklyn) who has won four of the last five regular season meetings? This is the very definition of a Scheduled Loss.

When these teams last played each other on January 4th, the Celtics were a shell of themselves (missing Kemba Walker, Jeff Teague, and Marcus Smart), as well as the Raptors — albeit in a much darker form. The final tally, 126-114, does not illustrate how dominant Boston was in the game, nor how putrid Toronto looked.

Payton Pritchard almost single-handedly outscored the Raptors bench (23 to 29). Siakam still looked like Bubble Siakam with five fouls, plus/minus of -13, lazy defense, and indecisiveness with the ball. Norm Powell, OG Anunoby, and Stanley Johnson had all yet to find the groove they’re each currently experiencing.

It may have only been a month ago, but these teams appear to match up a lot better this time around.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Raptors are undefeated this season when playing on a Thursday (2-0), while Boston will be playing their first Thursday game of the season.*

*This is your monthly reminder of the title of this section

Prediction

Ridiculous day-of-the-week stat aside, Toronto will enter this rematch with a few positives on their side. OG Anunoby should be back in the lineup after missing time due to a calf strain. Smart will continue to miss time with his own calf strain. Boston may have won the last two regular season meetings, but over the last 18 meetings, neither team has managed to string together three consecutive wins over the other.

Alas, I’ve underestimated the Celtics (or overestimated the Raptors) too many times to fall victim again. The Raptors simply have too much mileage on their bodies after this grueling road trip to put up the near-perfect game they’d need to beat the Celtics. Boston defeats the Raptors, 115-107. Predicting a loss to Boston never feels good, so allow me to lift my own spirits.

February 14 vs Minnesota Timberwolves

Welcome to the RHJ revenge game?? Seriously can the Raptors sign Rondae Hollis Jefferson so that he can terrorize Karl-Anthony Towns again?

It’s looking like another lost season in Minnesota with the team stuck in last place in the West, Ryan Saunders on the hottest coaching seat, and an uninspiring roster with no cap space for the next two seasons. Every season, there’s at least one superstar that whines his way off the team that groomed him — Kawhi Leonard (2018), Anthony Davis (2019), and James Harden (2020). This week alone, the Raptors could be facing two of those types in Beal and KAT.

I’m already well over my word count and frankly don’t need to spend too much time analyzing this joke of a franchise, so let’s spice things up. Who would you rather have for the next four years?

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

If there’s one area they are doing well, it’s defending the three. Minnesota allows a league-low 30.6 three-point attempts, while Toronto ranks 2nd with 41.9 three-point attempts per game.

In the three games Toronto had their fewest attempted triples, the Raptors owned the paint. They outscored the Mavericks 56-38, the Kings 56-48, and the Nets 64-40.

Minnesota allows opponents to shoot 63.7 percent at the rim, which ranks 20th in the league. This sounds like another Siakam game!

Prediction

The Raptors have won the last 16 (not a typo) straight home games against Minnesota. The last time the Timberwolves on Toronto’s home court, the Raptors’ leading scorers were Donyell Marshall and Milt Palacio, and Minnesota’s #1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, was two years old. On a day when love will be celebrated, the Raptors should show none towards the Timberwolves. Toronto thrashes Minnesota, 125-103.

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Last Week: 2-1

Season Record for Predictions: 10-13