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The Rap-Up: Toronto hypothetically closes out its first half schedule

If the Raptors are able to play, they’ll finish the oddest first half schedule in franchise history. Let’s make some picks as Toronto faces their former coach and their bitter rival.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Rap-Up recently surpassed its third anniversary as a weekly fixture on Raptors HQ. Previewing the Raptors’ games of the upcoming week is typically challenging because player information, supporting statistics, and subsequent analysis changes with each passing game/day/datapoint. This season has been especially difficult because the looming cloud of COVID hovers over everything.

Team-by-team, games have been postponed. Up until last Friday, 26 of the 30 teams had at least one game postponed game due to COVID-related issues that prevented teams from dressing the league minimum of 8 players. Brooklyn, both Los Angeles teams, and Toronto had managed to navigate their first-half schedule, postponement-free.

Until Sunday.

First off, I pray for the entire team, especially the individual(s) that tested positive for coronavirus. It’s scary to think that, despite all the safety precautions, multiple daily tests, and various obstacles overcome, the team couldn’t escape the deadly virus.

Secondly, what the heck happens now? This is the 31st postponed game of the season. The schedule for the second half of the season was released last week and incorporated makeup dates for the other 30 postponed games. By my count, only six of those games were “one-offs”, where the affected team only had one game postponed.

Finally, this week has been the latest reminder of how far Adam Silver’s star has fallen. Pre-pandemic, he could do no wrong. Racist team owner? Banned for life. Controversial transgender law in North Carolina? Pulled the All-Star game from Charlotte. However, once the coronavirus forced the postponing of last season, it’s been misstep after misstep. He stated players’ safety would be the league’s top priority, yet added an All-Star weekend to an already compressed schedule. As for the “apology” he finally gave to Masai Ujiri, it was as insincere as it was poorly executed.

As of this writing, Toronto’s final two games have not been postponed. In case that remains the case — because why would Silver turn down an opportunity to make some extra revenue — here are this week’s picks, as the Raptors finish up the first half of the season.

March 2 vs Detroit Pistons

After losing three consecutive nail-biters to Dwane Casey and the Pistons, the Raptors let Kawhi Leonard go and have reeled off three straight double-digit wins over their former coach!

The story in Detroit, as was the case during a confusing off-season, has been their Forwards and Centers.

In separate trades — each one more baffling than the previous — Detroit traded away Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, and Christian Wood(!) for Saddiq Bey, Rodney McGruder, and Delon Wright.

Their free agent signings were a who’s who of mediocre bigs. Mason Plumlee, Jahlil Okafor, and Isaiah Stewart joined an already packed front court of Blake Griffin, Sekou Doumbouya, and Jerami Grant.

Griffin has never recovered from multiple surgeries on his left knee. He’s currently benched — along with his two-year, $75 million dollar contract — while the team tries to find a trade partner. Once that venture fails, they will surely buy him out.

One of very few bright spots has been Grant. He’s taken the leadership role in stride, nearly doubling his career-high points average from 12.0 in his last season with Denver, to 23.5 this season. That’s been helped by an equally surprising leap in FT% (from 75.0% to 89.1%).

It’s too bad there aren’t any fans allowed into Little Caesars Arena because there would definitely be more “let’s go Raptors” chants to soothe our eardrums.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Yes, the Pistons have the worst record in the East. But take a look at who they’ve beaten: Lakers, Sixers, Suns, Heat, Nets, and Celtics (x2).

On the flip side, they’ve lost to every single non-playoff team (as of Sunday’s standings) they’ve faced so far. In other words, maybe a Toronto victory isn’t the greatest thing to look forward to?

Prediction

As you’d expect, it will be hard to predict who will be allowed to play (if a game is even played). For now, let’s assume that everyone but Siakam is available. Plumlee is one of the best rebounders in the NBA and will surely test Toronto’s small ball lineup early on. Wright is among the league leaders in steals. His duel with former teammate, Fred VanVleet, should make things interesting on both ends. Detroit is also a top-10 team in getting to the line — an area that Toronto still ranks last in. All of these could add to a Pistons upset, but the Raptors have been clicking of late (#5 net rating over the last 15 games; Detroit #27) and will have an additional two days of rest. The Raptors squeak out a victory over the Pistons, 110-108.

March 4 @ Boston Celtics

Everything is fine in Boston.

Frustration has started settling in on and off the court in Boston. The Celtics had lost six of their previous eight before squeezing out a pair of tight weekend victories over Indiana and Washington. The teams has missed Marcus Smart, who should return after the All-Star break, going 6-9 in his absence.

But we’ve seen this movie before. The Celtics had previously lost five of seven before dismantling the Raptors 120-106 in their last matchup on February 11.

Mind you, Toronto was at the tail-end of playing five road games in seven nights, and the back-end of a back-to-back. You could forgive the Raptors for not having enough in the tank for what could easily be described as a schedule loss.

Boston was able to squeak out a victory on Sunday over the Wizards without Jaylen Brown (day-to-day, knee), but they’ll need their All-Star duo, along with Jayson Tatum, if they want to complete the season series sweep.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The Raptors have held Kemba under 20 points in 50% of their meetings (15 of 30 games). However, the percentage drops to 20% (1 out of 5) when only focusing on his games as a Celtic.

His primary defender has been Fred VanVleet. In the four Boston victories, Walker has hit at least one three-pointer when guarded by FVV. In the lone Toronto victory (December 28, 2019, a.k.a. the Patrick McCaw game), Freddy held him to 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. Forcing Kemba to drive while also keeping him under 20 may be a tall task, but with Lowry and VanVleet healthy and active as ever, it could go a long way in securing a much-needed victory.

Prediction

Another thing to keep an eye on is how these teams start and finish the game. That doesn’t sound very intuitive but Toronto is one of the best starting (1st Quarter net rating ranked 5th) and finishing teams (4th Quarter net rating ranked 1st) in the league. Meanwhile, Boston ranks 23rd and 27th, respectively, in those quarters. OG Anunoby missed the last meeting and was sorely needed on both ends. VanVleet (2-for-9) and Powell (0-for-4 from three) were impacted most by the difficult road trip. Finally, the Raptors should be the hungrier team. They have zero All-Stars to Boston’s two. Toronto hasn’t been swept in the season series since 2010. Toronto ends the first half of the season with a convincing victory over Boston, 114-101.

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Last Week: 1-2

Season Record for Predictions: 16-18