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The Rap-Up: Entering the fourth quarter of the season

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As the Raptors enter the last quarter of the season, the question remains: Are they good enough to make a playoff push?

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Imagine if the NBA season was just one long regular season game.

With the shortened season reduced to 72 games, the NBA conveniently (at least for me) divided the regular season into four 18-game quarters. Toronto just wrapped up the third quarter, so let’s take a look at how the team has performed heading into the hypothetical fourth quarter.

In the first 18 games, the Raptors started slowly (2-8) but ended the quarter on a high, winning five of their final eight games, including wins over Dallas, Miami, and Indiana. At 7-11, Toronto was sitting at 11th in the East, but playing like a team that was much better than their record indicated. Their net rating ranked 7th among East teams and had an expected win percentage of .500 (also good for 7th in the East).

In the second 18 games, the Raptors continued their return to respectability, winning 10 games and, at one point, climbing into a tie for 4th in the East. This stretch was easily the Raptors’ best of the season, as it included victories over Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and both games of a mini-series in Milwaukee. Toronto’s net rating was 9th in the NBA (5th among East teams) and an expected win percentage of the 4th-best team in the East (they ended the quarter in 8th). Just as things were looking up, the quarter ended with COVID-19 hitting the team like a ton of bricks.

The third quarter of the season was the domino effect of losing players and coaches to COVID. The team’s weaknesses — rebounding and a propensity to foul — were amplified as players worked their way back into game shape. Toronto came crashing down the standings after only winning four games. The expected win percentage of .500 is shocking because it brings Toronto’s expected win total to 28, meaning the Raptors have won 7 less games than expected. For context, the Pistons are the only other that’s under-performed by five. It’s gotten so bad, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Raptors in The Quadrant of Woe.

As Toronto gets ready to dive into the final quarter of the season, they sit two games behind Chicago for the final play-in spot (actually, three games since the Bulls already clinched the season series). Of the remaining 18 games, only four are against teams with worse records than Toronto. Next week, they’ll kick off a stretch of nine games against the NBA’s best: Nets (twice), Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets, and Clippers (twice).

Suffice to say, things aren’t looking too bright. With that in mind, I’m going to keep the Vulture Index Rating around for at least another week. Let’s get to this week’s picks!

April 13 vs Atlanta Hawks

Over the last three regular seasons, the story’s been the same: the lottery-bound Hawks would face a playoff-bound Raptors team, only to lose, partially due to late-game execution.

Oh how the tables have turned!

After winning all 10 matchups with the Hawks since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, the Raptors have fallen in both games this season, including a gut-punching, game-winning buzzer-beater by noted Raptor Killer, Tony Snell.

It just had to be him. I bet you didn’t remember that Snell missed a 20-footer at the buzzer to end the first half. His next field goal attempt would also be an end-of-half buzzer-beater, except it was five feet further and 100% more accurate. Ugh.

I’ll spare you the video of that shot (you’ll surely see plenty of it on the broadcast) and instead share a much more pleasant Hawks highlight.

Vulture Index Rating: 6

The Hawks have been the better team than the Raptors this season. That’s a hard pill to swallow but facts are facts. Trae Young, Snell, and Danilo Gallinari all sat out Sunday’s game and are all listed as day-to-day. Throw in the injury absences of John Collins, Kris Dunn, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish, it’s a minor miracle they were able to defeat the Hornets. If Young, Snell, and Gallo all play, this rating drops to a 4. Even without Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic has provided solid minutes for the Hawks.

Prediction

Atlanta is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league. They’ll provide an early litmus test for the newly acquired Freddie Gillespie and Khem Birch. Chris Boucher torched Atlanta with 29 points off the bench — in each matchup. With Gillespie and Birch in at center, Boucher can move over to his more natural position at the four and continue making the Hawks pay. Toronto almost won the last matchup, despite the absences of VanVleet and Siakam. But Atlanta’s been solid since Nate McMillan took over. In 20 games under McMillan, they’ve already surpassed (15) the number of wins they had this season under Lloyd Pierce (14 in 34 games), and have yet to lose to an East team (6-0). The Hawks complete the season sweep and upend the Raptors, 121-118.

April 14 vs San Antonio Spurs

The Raptors wrap up an exhausting eight-games-in-13-days stretch with a visit from some friendly faces.

Jakob Poeltl is starting (finally) and is among the league leaders in blocks per game (9th), FG% (5th), and offensive rebound percentage (6th). Enjoy the pre-game daps because once the game starts, Poeltl will not be so friendly in the paint.

Rudy Gay, along with Patty Mills, are the old veterans leading one of the best benches in the NBA. The Spurs’ bench ranks 7th in scoring and 3rd in threes made (a shocking stat considering San Antonio ranks 29th in threes made & attempted).

DeMar DeRozan is still one of the best in the game at getting to the line — 8th in free throw makes, 12th in free throw attempts — but it’s his evolution as a passer that continues to amaze. He’s averaging a career-best 7.1 assists per game, which ranks 14th in the NBA, right between his best buddy, Kyle Lowry (7.3, 11th), and VanVleet (6.1, 19th). Oh, and he’s still a cold-blooded, mid-range killer!

Vulture Index Rating: 5

Honestly, I don’t like hovering in this in-between stage. Are they vulturing or not? On one hand, the Spurs had lost 10 of their previous 12 before Sunday’s nail-biting win over Dallas. On the other hand, VanVleet will still be out (either by injury or suspension) and, if Nick Nurse’s recent propensity to rest players in back-to-backs is a trend, Toronto may be without another starter. This dips to 4 if another starter sits.

Prediction

These teams match up so well. In 7 of the last 8 matchups, the game wasn’t decided until the final minute (or final possession). Toronto’s #1 transition offense needs to figure out San Antonio’s #1 transition defense. The Spurs’ love for the mid-range game and disdain for the three-ball will have to deal with the Raptors’ love for defending the mid-range while giving up a lot of threes. They’ve split the last six matchups with no one winning two in a row. Toronto split the season series and beat the Spurs, 115-112.

April 16 vs Orlando Magic

The Raptors traded one of their longest tenured players and received a similar player with better defense. The Raptors acquired a big from Orlando. Are the Raptors one Memphis trade away from another championship?

Orlando has only won four of their last 21 games. Yet, those wins were against the Pelicans, Clippers, Nets, and Suns. I’m not sure what to make of that, except that Toronto probably doesn’t belong in the tier of three of those teams (maybe all four, but I’m still skeptical of New Orleans), so they’re probably still good to extend their seven-game win streak vs. the Magic.

In their most recent game, a 37-point loss to a Bucks team without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Magic’s starting lineup was Gary Harris, James Ennis, Wendell Carter Jr., Dwayne Bacon, and Michael Carter-Williams. A far cry from the lineup that stole Game 1 against the Raptors just two years ago.

Vulture Index Rating: 10

Toronto will have to go full Vulture if they want to lose this one. Multiple starters would have to sit. Malachi Flynn would need to revert back to the hesitant play he displayed to start the season. Gary Trent Jr. would have to go ice cold. Khem Birch would get bottled up by his former teammates who know all his moves.

Prediction

You can already guess where I’m headed with this one. Toronto extends their winning streak over the Magic to eight, defeating Orlando 120-105.

April 18 vs Oklahoma City Thunder

With Lu Dort back in the lineup, can we also get a return from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Imagine Nurse’s delight to see SGA, Dort, Boucher, and Birch sharing the floor!

Another matchup I’d love to see is Moses Brown and Freddie Gillespie. They were two of the best big men inside the Gubble. When the Oklahoma City Blue and Memphis Hustle faced each other, Brown had the upper hand. His 18 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 blocks were better than Gillespie’s line of 8 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 block. (Picking up the win was just the cherry on top) They also serve as the latest success stories to come from the G-League.

When these teams faced each other two weeks ago, the Raptors gave up a season-tying-high 19(!!) offensive rebounds. Hopefully, the new additions can do their part in crashing the boards.

Vulture Index Rating: 10

If I could give a VI Rating of 11, I would.

Prediction

The Thunder have lost 9 of their last 10 games. Their only win, of course, was against the Raptors (which doubled as the only game in that stretch where they topped 110 points). Oklahoma City has the worst offense in the NBA and, over the last 15 games, the worst defense too. While they may have a similar record as the Raptors, they’ve clearly gone into full tank mode. Am I naive to believe that Nurse wants his team to make the playoffs? Well, they’re too talented to lay down and lose. This has shades of the Cleveland beatdown from last week where the Raptors don’t want to be humiliated again by a lottery team. Toronto beats the Thunder, 125-107.

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Last Week: 3-2

Season Record for Predictions: 25-29