Where do the Toronto Raptors of Tampa currently stand?
Before the season even started, they were displaced from Canada and forced to make a new, temporary home in Tampa. Once the season started, the basketball gods picked on Pascal Siakam in hair-pulling fashion against Golden State, Portland, and Minnesota. With the team finally hitting its stride, COVID-19 struck the team harder than any other in the league, with up to 5 (possibly) positive cases simultaneously. Is this year’s team just destined to lose?
Or maybe, just maybe... there’s a lot to look forward to in the second half? A lot will obviously rely on the recovery of the players affected by the coronavirus, especially for Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Siakam. But the schedule appears to be offering the Raptors a lifeline.
According to fivethirtyeight.com, the Raptors are favoured to win 29 of their remaining 36 games (the postponed Bulls game hasn’t been rescheduled yet, but safe to assume Toronto will be favoured). I’m not predicting the team to win 80% of their 2nd half games (my season record located at the bottom would suggest that’s a bad idea anyway), but it does paint a different picture than the “NBA screwed us with the Nuggets-Jazz-Lakers-Clippers road trip” folks would suggest.
Dig a little deeper and some of the harder matchups aren’t as daunting. Utah and Denver roll into Tampa each on the back-end of a back-to-back (while the Raptors have an extra day of rest). Phoenix and Portland both visit Amalie Arena on the third game of 4-game road trips.
The aforementioned dreaded road trip through Denver, Utah, and Los Angeles even has its glimmer of hope. Each of those teams is justifiably favoured to defeat the Raptors, but the trip takes place within the final 6-10 games of the season. That is well within the load management range for the West’s elite teams, each with grander plans for long playoff runs.
In the East, the Raptors have already wrapped up their season series with Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, and Miami. The only games remaining with East teams above .500 are a pair each against Brooklyn (both in Tampa) and New York (who the Raptors have shellacked once already).
The Raptors’ second-half slate ranks 8th in Strength of Schedule and 4th among East teams. They are tied with three other teams for the least number of away games remaining. If you’re concerned about the eight back-to-back games, there are 13 other teams with the same number (and only three teams with less). Finally, and most importantly, the Raptors have a rest advantage — at least one extra day of rest than their opponent — in 10 games, which is tied for the most in the NBA.
The Raptors currently stand as an unhinged team — physically and mentally. Our prayers are definitely up for the players and coaches affected by COVID-19 and hope they all fully recover. The slow start to the season has given the team quite the uphill battle post-All-Star break. But the schedule looks favourable and the 7-day layoff will only help everyone get prepared for the stretch run! Are you just as optimistic as I am for the second half? Let me know in the comments. For now, let’s get to this week’s picks.
March 11 vs Atlanta Hawks
The Raptors kick off their second half very likely still short-handed but facing a Hawks team in flux.
Just days before the break, and sporting an unflattering 14-20 record, Atlanta parted ways with Lloyd Pierce. He lost the locker room, occasionally bumping heads with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, and John Collins, which manifested itself on the court. Players questioned his poor in-game decision making, off-court tough love approach, and eventually turned to Assistant Coach, Chris Jent, instead of Pierce to help solve problems.
With Nate McMillan in as interim coach, the Hawks have won their first two games, in Miami and Orlando. McMillan was last seen coaching the Indiana Pacers. After being promoted from his position as Assistant Coach, he led the team to playoff appearances in each of his four seasons. Unfortunately, lost in the first round in each playoffs and swept in three of those series. The Hawks are hoping that a new voice can guide the team back to the playoffs.
Atlanta signed Gallinari, Bogdanovic, Dunn, and Rondo in the offseason for about $50m in total salary owed this season, and they've combined for -0.1 EPM estimated wins.— AKelly (@andlankell) March 1, 2021
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
In the second half of the season, the Hawks only have to travel 12,808 miles — the fewest mileage of any team by a significant amount. The next closest team is the Detroit Pistons with 15,891 miles or 21 percent less travel!
The Raptors hover around the league average, needing to travel 21,021 miles, while the Sacramento Kings have a league-high 27,012 miles left to cover in the next two months.
When these teams last played, the Hawks abandoned a clear advantage in offensive rebounding (#3 in the NBA, while Toronto ranked 29th in defensive rebounding percentage) to neutralize Toronto’s advantage, transition offense, limiting the Raptors to nine fast-break points. With the Raptors short-handed, I’ll bet McMillan returns to what’s worked well in Atlanta and crash the offensive glass with reckless abandon. The Hawks also rank #2 in free throw rate, while the aggressive Raptors defense has Toronto ranked dead last in opponent’s free throw rate. Matchups matter and Atlanta appear to have the recipe to defeat the Raptors this season. The Hawks topple the Raptors, 120-112.
March 13 @ Charlotte Hornets
When these teams last saw each other, the Raptors swept the mini-series in Tampa and kick-started the turnaround from the horrible 2-8 start. Both teams will look quite different for the season finale.
Toronto will look different for obvious reasons, but that may not be as big of a hindrance as you’d suspect. The stars of the first game (Chris Boucher scored a then-career-high, 25 points) and second game (Norm Powell scored a then-season-high, 24 points) are both active for this one. Also, the Hornets zone defense that flummoxed the Raptors in the first game mainly shut out Siakam, who won’t be playing in this one.
For Charlotte, Malik Monk was the last player off their bench, while LaMelo Ball was still getting his feet wet. Now, Monk and Ball appear to be the keys to Charlotte’s surprising run for a playoff spot.
On January 27, James Borrego removed Monk from the dreaded “DNP-CD” list in an effort to find a bench spark — and hasn’t looked back. In the 18 games since, the Hornets have posted a modest 10-8 record. Examine the box scores and Monk’s impact becomes clearer. In the eight losses, Monk only posted a positive plus/minus in two games. In the 10 wins, he posted a positive plus/minus in nine games. Charlotte relies on Monk propping up the bench just as much as Toronto used to rely on Norm Powell to do the same.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Ball has averaged 20.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. Over a full season, only seven players are currently averaging at least 20/6/6. Ball is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner who constantly ends up on highlight reels and offers a ray of sunshine to this moribund franchise.
Michael Jordan is liking what he sees from LaMelo Ball. pic.twitter.com/bE6hSv3LQN— theScore (@theScore) March 4, 2021
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
Toronto Raptors (since 2019)
- Championships: 1
- Playoff series wins: 5
- Playoff games won: 23
Charlotte Hornets (since 1988, their inaugural season)
- Championships: 0
- Playoff series wins: 4
- Playoff games won: 23
Part of the reason why both earlier games between these two were close, was because the Hornets also run a small-ball lineup. Their defense is just as “handsy” as Toronto’s, ranking 7th in the league with 8.3 steals per game (Raptors rank 5th with 8.5). Their offense relies on ball movement (#3 in assists) and hitting from outside (#4 in 3-point shooting). For a defense that switches and scrambles as much as Toronto’s, that could be troublesome. The Raptors feasted on Charlotte’s poor 3-point defense, draining 20 and 21 threes, respectively, in their narrow 3-point victories. Asking Toronto to replicate that kind of shooting with three of their best shooters missing is too tall of a task. Charlotte salvages a victory over Toronto, winning 123-116.
March 14 @ Chicago Bulls
The Raptors have made a habit of locking in to an opponent’s star player and essentially eliminating him from their offensive game plan. Zach LaVine would qualify for such a treatment. He’s having a career year (28/5/5 on 52/43/86 shooting) that has led to his first All-Star selection. His average point total is an interesting number because, in 10 career games against Toronto, he’s only eclipsed 28 once (29, when he was with Minnesota).
Coby White is doing his best to avoid the sophomore slump. He’s averaging 16/5/5 on the season and places Chicago in some elite company. White and Lavine are one of only three duos in the league to each average at least 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, joining Bam Adebayo / Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo / Khris Middleton. (FYI, VanVleet, Siakam, and Lowry aren’t that far off from creating the only 20/5/5/ trio in the league)
A couple of Bulls will be, if not already, very familiar to Raptors fans. Thad Young, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. are names you’ll continue hearing as the trade deadline approaches. The likelihood of any of them coming to Toronto is probably more of a wish than a plausible outcome. We’ve also just hit the one-year pandemic anniversary, so these wishes may be more likely to come true than others.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
The second half of this game should be a roller-coaster.
Chicago is one of the best 3rd quarter teams in the league. They rank 6th in net rating, 3rd in assist ratio, and 5th in true shooting percentage. Meanwhile, the Raptors rank 25th in net rating, 27th in assists allowed, and 23rd in opponents’ FG%.
In the 4th quarter, however, Toronto owns the league’s best net rating (9.5 to Indiana’s #2 net rating of 7.2), best defense (103.0 defensive rating to the Lakers’ #2 net rating of 104.3), rank #4 in threes made, and #2 in steals. Chicago has the 24th ranked net rating, 28th in points allowed, and 29th in turnovers.
If my predictions are correct (stop laughing), then the Raptors will be four games under .500 and presumably at or below Chicago in the standings. Desperate times call for desperate measures. With the Raptors clinging to playoff hopes (and possibly the final days with Lowry), Toronto should come out like men on fire. Chicago is 22nd in transition points allowed per possession and 28th in turnover percentage — two areas where Toronto should thrive. Before the first game was postponed, I preached about Toronto’s winning streak against the Bulls. The Raptors make it lucky number 13, defeating Chicago 113-110.