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The Rap-Up: Toronto gears up for the most important week of the season

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Until next week, that is. And the week after that. Let’s just say these final three weeks are really pivotal for the Raptors.

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

It’s late April and the Raptors are playing regular season basketball for the first time in their history.

Yes, the 2020-21 season was always going to be an odd one. Before we know whether or not the Raptors will be playing post-season basketball, we’ll already be reminded of the ghosts of playoffs past.

To get you prepared for the upcoming “on this day in history” reminders, here’s what you can look forward (or backward?) to this week.

Monday: In 2015, the Washington Wizards wrap up a 4-game sweep of the Raptors. This was especially demoralizing because Toronto had swept Washington during the regular season.

Tuesday: An awesome day in franchise history as Toronto wins their first-round series in consecutive seasons (2017 and 2018) over the Bucks and Wizards, respectively.

Wednesday: In 2008, the Orlando Magic completed a fairly straightforward series with Toronto, winning Game 5, 102-92. If you don’t remember this, neither did I. This was the worst Raptors team (by win-loss record they were 41-41) to ever make the playoffs. Similar to his place in everyone’s hypothetical Mount Rushmore of Raptors, Chris Bosh-led playoff appearances were not as memorable as any involving Vince Carter or Kyle Lowry.

Thursday: During their championship run, the Raptors hit a speed bump as the visiting Sixers take Game 2 of their East Semis series.

Friday: In 2000, the Knicks completed a 3-game sweep of the Raptors. Game 3 was also the first playoff game played outside the U.S.

Saturday: In 2016, Toronto won a Game 7 for the first time in franchise history, eliminating Indiana in the process. Norm Powell’s steal and breakaway dunk were so memorable, you’d think it happened in Game 7 (it actually occurred in Game 5).

Sunday: In 2002, the Pistons defeated the Raptors in a series-deciding Game 5. After losing VC to a season-ending injury, Toronto won 12 of their final 14 games and snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. They fought back valiantly from an 0-2 deficit but ultimately fell short.

It’s a mixed bag of uplifting and gut-punching outcomes from the Raptors history book. They act as a fairly good indicator of what’s to come this week for Toronto. After a pair of home games against East foes on opposite ends of the conference standings, the Raptors embark on a season-defining road trip. Any and every victory would be uplifting to their play-in chances, while each loss adds further sting to a lost season. Let’s see how they’ll fare!

April 26 vs Cleveland Cavaliers

As things currently stand, this is the final game of the season where Toronto faces a team with a worse record. That isn’t exactly inspiring news considering there are 11 more games to play. But the games must be played and the Raptors need to take advantage where they can.

Cleveland will be playing the second game of a back-to-back while Toronto will have the luxury of getting an extra day of rest. The Cavaliers are a respectable 5-8 in SEGABABA (respectable in comparison to Toronto’s 2-11 record). Although, they have lost their last four straight in such scenarios, as they slip further into lottery position.

Collin Sexton sat out Sunday’s game with a concussion. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll suit up against Toronto. Considering they’re only 1 game ahead (behind?) Oklahoma City for the #5 spot in the draft lottery, it may be in Cleveland’s best interest to sit their best player for another game (or 12).

Fun fact that may only interest me

Sexton was one of the many picks that Brooklyn traded in July 2013 that helped them get Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry.

In that deal, the Nets acquired the aging veterans in exchange for a slew of players and picks, including a 2016 first (Jaylen Brown), 2017 first (Markelle Fultz), and a 2018 first (Sexton).

Four years later (2017, so the pick hadn’t been made yet), Cleveland would trade the pick that would become Sexton, along with Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, for Kyrie Irving.

Before his name was called on draft night, Collin Sexton was part of the most memorable trades of the past decade.

Prediction

Stating Cleveland’s offense as bad is an understatement. They rank 28th in points per possession, 29th in eFG%, and dead last in turnover percentage. Whether or not Sexton can play, the Cavs enter this matchup with Toronto at the worst time, as the Raptors’ defense has picked up throughout the month. While Cleveland ranks 3rd in percentage of shots at the rim, Toronto ranked 1st in April in opponent's points in the paint. If the Raptors continue that trend inside the paint, don’t expect anything better outside the paint. Cleveland ranks 29th in 3-point shooting. Yes, two of their best six 3-point shooting games (17 and 15 made threes) occurred against the Raptors. But with Toronto’s defense playing as well as it has all season, I wouldn’t bet on Cleveland getting struck by lightning a third time! Toronto takes the season series and defeats the Cavs, 119-106.

April 27 vs Brooklyn Nets

Both teams enter this matchup in a positive and, dare I say, relaxed mood. For Toronto, they’ve clinched the season series after producing one of their most complete performances in a 114-103 victory last week. For Brooklyn, they’ve navigated the minefield that is the regular season, suffered their fair share of injuries, yet find themselves sitting atop the East.

Kevin Durant’s return on Sunday was triumphant for Brooklyn (and good news for my fantasy playoff opponent). In their victory over the Phoenix Suns, KD filled the boxscore with 33 points, 6 boards, 4 dimes, 2 steals, 1 block, 2 triples, and only 1 turnover... in 28 minutes!

On the flip side, James Harden’s hamstring injury suffered a setback that could keep him out until the playoffs (again, good news for my fantasy playoff opponent).

Fun fact that may only interest me

KD’s return, while great news for Brooklyn, is the latest obstacle in Bruce Brown’s revenge tour.

Prediction

With Harden’s injury, Brooklyn has dipped to “only” 8th in offensive rating over the last two weeks. That should change with the return of KD. Steve Nash has already indicated Durant will have a 30-minute limit restriction. With Toronto mostly healthy again, it’ll be interesting to see how Nick Nurse matches KD’s minutes defensively. As great as OG Anunoby was guarding Kyrie Irving last week, he’s better suited to guard Durant. Fred VanVleet can take up the Irving challenge. That leaves Kyle Lowry on Joe Harris while Pascal Siakam plays free safety on any dives to the rim.

Wait, why am I analyzing this like it’s a playoff series? Am I trying to project something into the universe? Brooklyn produces similar numbers on offense (that’s good) and defense (that’s bad) when they face a top-10 defense (as mentioned earlier, Toronto ranks #1 in April). On the other hand, Toronto picks up their defense (from #14 to #5) and offense (from #13 to #10) when facing a top-10 offense. With Toronto’s poor record in back-to-backs and Brooklyn getting one of their stars back, this should be a loss. But I like what I’ve seen from Toronto lately and fatigue may not be a factor, considering most of the starters have been out for the past few weeks anyway. Toronto completes the season sweep, beating Brooklyn, 118-116.

April 29 @ Denver Nuggets

The last time Toronto embarked on a road trip that started in Denver, they never returned to Scotiabank Arena. Wow, that got dark fast!

Nikola Jokic continues building his MVP case, currently holding an insurmountable 57.4% probability on Basketball Reference’s MVP Tracker. He’s #1 in win shares, box plus/minus, and VORP. He’s 10th in points (26.2), 9th in rebounds (10.9), and 5th in assists (8.7). Before you dismiss those stats with your Russell Westbrook and James Harden comparisons, the Joker’s also putting these numbers together on 56.8% shooting (12th in the NBA).

Since Jamal Murray went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Nuggets have won five of six. But if you look a little closer, that’s not much of a feat. Two of the victories were over the tanking Rockets. Denver needed two overtimes to get past a Memphis team without Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks. Their one-point victory over Portland was just another Wednesday for the Blazers — before Sunday, five of their previous six games were decided by one or two points. Finally, their win over Miami was a scheduled victory. The Heat were on the back-end of a back-to-back. They were also playing their third game in four nights (in Colorado altitude too!).

Fun fact that may only interest me

Jokic currently leads the Nuggets in points, rebounds, and assists (duh!). If he ends the season leading those categories, he’ll be the first in NBA history to do so for his team in four consecutive seasons.

With Murray out for the season, Jokic nearly doubles the next closest Nugget in each of those three categories.

Prediction

Can we get the all-female broadcast crew again for this game? Maybe the Raptors won’t duplicate the 24-point thrashing but maybe they can. Anunoby showed again why he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA, helping limit Jokic below his season averages across the board. Another area Toronto will look to exploit is Denver’s weak transition defense. Last time out, Toronto out-scored Denver 16-2 on fastbreak points. The Raptors have the #2 transition offense, while Denver ranked 27th in opponent's fastbreak points in April. On the other end, Toronto ranking #1 in opponent’s fastbreak points should help mitigate Denver’s #5 transition offense. Toronto kicks off this important road trip with an impressive 120-112 victory over the Nuggets.

May 1 @ Utah Jazz

When these teams faced in March, the Raptors came this close to upsetting the NBA’s best team. Toronto’s small-ball lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, and [single tear] Norm Powell, each scored in double-figures (along with Chris Boucher), each hit at least two triples, and all starters ended with a positive plus/minus.

The Raptors were undone by three factors. Utah’s bench outscored Toronto’s 36-22 (Boucher had 16). The Jazz capitalized on the size advantage by grabbing 9 offensive rebounds, leading to 19 second-chance points (Toronto had 7). Utah had an enormous advantage at the strip (41-14), led by Donovan Mitchell, who made and attempted more free throws than the entire Raptors roster (15-of-16).

The Jazz are currently averaging 16.9 made threes per game. The only team in league history to average more than 16 threes were the Houston Rockets (16.13) in 2018-19. But that hasn’t stopped Quin Snyder from continuing to build his Coach of the Year case. Over the last 15 games, Utah’s defense has been the best in the league.

Fun fact that may only interest me

For the second time this week, the Raptors will be facing an Oscar winner!

Prediction

Toronto catches Utah at the right time. The Jazz will be on the second night of a back-to-back, having wrapped up a 3-game road trip the night before in Phoenix. Utah will also be without the aforementioned Mitchell, who is still recovering from a sprained right ankle. While Mitchell’s absence likely helps the disparage in free-throw attempts, the addition of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie should help the rebounding issues. Another domino effect is that Joe Ingles is now a starter, thus, weakening Utah’s bench. On Saturday, Utah’s reserves were outscored 38-28 in a five-point loss to the lottery-bound Timberwolves. If you’ve been drinking the kool-aid as I have, then you know where this is headed. Toronto upends the league-leading Jazz, 115-114.

May 2 @ Los Angeles Lakers

If you’re still reading, you’re either a family member or a friend of mine because I’ve probably lost all credibility by predicting nothing but victories to this point.

The fact of the matter is that Toronto appears to be clicking at the most important juncture of the season. The reason it took this long is irrelevant. Outside of Boucher, most of the core players are healthy, and with serviceable Centers (plural), the chemistry is starting to fall into place.

For the Lakers, they are still reeling from injuries to Anthony Davis and Lebron James. Since James went down with an ankle injury, Los Angeles has gone 7-11 and have dropped to 5th in the West standings. In fact, they’re closer to a play-in spot (3 games ahead of 7th) than they are to hosting a first-round series (4 games behind 4th).

Fun fact that may only interest me

The Lakers’ third-leading scorer is Dennis Schroder who, unsurprisingly, earns the third-highest salary on the team, $15.5 million.

According to Sportrac.com, the amount of money earned by Davis during the 35 games he missed due to calf/Achilles/quad/thigh injuries this season, was $16.370,980.

Prediction

Up until their previous meeting earlier this month, Toronto had won an impressive 11 straight games against the Lakers. But with no Lowry or VanVleet (and only 9 minutes of Anunoby before his inner wrestler came out), the streak came to an end. While I’d like to predict another victory, I’d imagine someone will get rested for this second game of a back-to-back. When facing a defense like this — top-5 defense in opponent’s 3-point shooting, 2nd in defensive efficiency — you need all the firepower you can. Toronto’s brilliant week ends on a whimper as they go ice cold from outside. Lakers beat the Raptors, 113-105.

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Last Week: 1-1

Season Record for Predictions: 30-30