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The Rap-Up: Toronto’s playoff push begins... now!

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For any Raptors that survived weeks of trade speculation, congratulations! Now get ready because the playoff push gets a jump start with three winnable games this week.

Portland Trail Blazers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The second half of the season starts now!

Yes, the pandemic made splitting the season into two, fairly even, schedules possible. But with the trade deadline looming after the All-Star break, you’ve got to think the players’ minds were on anything but a break.

Heck, every Raptor outside of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby were hearing nothing but trade rumours for weeks!

We constantly reference the mental toll this season has played on the Raptors. Being displaced from Toronto and essentially playing road games for over a year, in addition to multiple COVID-19 scares, has made the Raptors’ season much more difficult than any other NBA team.

With All-Star weekend and the trade deadline now in the rear-view mirror, the team can now focus on the task at hand: getting back to full-strength and ready to make a playoff push! Now let’s get to some picks.

March 29 @ Detroit Pistons

First up on Toronto’s revenge tour this week is Dwane Casey and his Detroit Pistons.

Despite some serious competition from the Timberwolves and Rockets, the Pistons continue holding the worst record in the NBA. Suffice to say, the Raptors do not want to suffer another season sweep to Detroit.

The Pistons have only won three of their last 15 games. One was against the Rockets (Houston’s 19th straight loss) and the other two were the Raptors. The first loss can essentially be thrown out the window. It was the first game after Toronto had learned that Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn, and Patrick McCaw would join Pascal Siakam on the sidelines due to health and safety protocols. The starting lineup also consisted of two players no longer on the team (Norm Powell and Terrence Davis), one player no longer getting playing time (Yuta Watanabe), and someone masquerading as an NBA player (Aron Baynes).

The second loss, I’d chalk up to missing Anunoby. Toronto’s latest swoon further validates how important it is for the Raptors to have all of the starters available. Having the league’s most versatile defender available is kind of a big deal.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Cory Joseph has played 82 career playoff games across 3 teams: Spurs, Raptors, and Pacers. He’s scored 20+ points only twice in his playoff career. Both instances occurred in his final games with the Dwane Casey-coached Raptors: Game 2 (22 points) and Game 4 (20 points) in the 2017 East Semis sweep at the hands of Cleveland.

Prediction

Toronto will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. The Raptors are now 1-8 in those games, with the only win being the forgettable comeback against the Timberwolves. OG’s first crack at the Pistons should provide the defensive effort that was sorely missed in the first two matchups (Detroit scored 129 and 116, despite averaging a 25th-ranked 106.9 points per game). Toronto’s 10th-ranked 3-point offense (37.7%) should see some regression to the mean after shooting 30 and 33 percent in the first two matchups. The Raptors beat the Pistons, 117-108.

March 31 @ Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have officially entered the Fade for Cade sweepstakes.

With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander out indefinitely and Al Horford benched for the season, Oklahoma City, despite having a comparable record as the Raptors and similar deficit in the playoff standings, have seemingly thrown in the towel on this forgettable season.

OKC will also likely be without their other star Canadian, Lu Dort, as he’s currently out indefinitely due to concussion protocols. With Darius Bazley also out with a shoulder injury, that’s 80% of the Thunder’s starting lineup missing.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Someone by the name of Moses Brown played nine games last season for the Portland Trailblazers. He totaled 11 points and 14 rebounds over those nine games.

In the Thunder’s game against Boston on Saturday, Brown surpassed those numbers in the first half!

Prediction

The Thunder are not a good offensive rebounding team (#29). They do not get to the free throw line at a high rate (#26). Oklahoma City may be able to surprise the Raptors from three (#7 in 3-point frequency), but the four players who average the most 3-point attempts per game are all out. All the areas that have harmed Toronto in their losses are spots where the Thunder are simply not good. The Raptors defeat the Thunder, 122-110.

April 2 vs Golden State Warriors

This Finals reunion kicks off a stretch where the Raptors play 12 of their next 15 games at Amalie Arena.

The Warriors have been reeling since Steph Curry went down with a tailbone injury, losing their last 4 heading into Monday’s home date against the Chicago Bulls. Toronto will have the benefit of an extra day rest, as Golden State will be in Miami the night before.

Andrew Wiggins, who is somehow already in his seventh season, has turned out to be quite a solid player for Golden State. He’s one of only 19 players in the NBA who average at least 47 percent from the field, 39 percent from three, and 18 points per game. Those are solid offensive numbers, even if they’re cherry-picked. Before you brush them to the side, it’s worth noting that after Norm Powell’s trade, none of the other 18 players are Raptors.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an evenly matched pair of teams on Cleaning The Glass. Check out how both of these teams match up in transition when Golden State is on the break.

Now look at how they match up in transition when Toronto has the ball.

Prediction

Siakam, who has been his aggressive self again lately, will be in tough against the greatest defender in NBA history. On the other side, Siakam should be able to return the favour to Wiggins. When these teams played earlier this season, Pascal had the most success guarding Wiggins (1-for-6 shooting). Golden State turns the ball over at a high rate (#22), which plays into Toronto’s hands (#1 in turnover %) and leads to the Raptors’ high-powered transition attack (outscored the Warriors 25-6 in fastbreak points in the earlier matchup). Toronto wraps up a successful week with a 111-107 victory over Golden State.

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Last Week: 2-2

Season Record for Predictions: 21-25