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The Rap-Up: The Raptors test their win streak against the NBA’s best

The 2021 NBA Finalists are on the docket this week. How will the streaking Raptors do against Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

All that glitters is not gold.

Well, at least that’s what William Shakespeare wants you to believe!

As I was doing what many families did this past weekend, taking down Christmas decorations, I was removing ribbons with gold glitter. After sarcastically pointing out to my wife how much I loved all the glitter-inspired decorations we had, my mind went to where it always seems to go — the Toronto Raptors.

From Fred VanVleet’s All-Star-caliber play to Pascal Siakam’s return to All-NBA form to Scottie Barnes’ surprising start to his NBA career, the glitter has come in many forms this season. However, those that are still scorned by last season’s stay in Tampa or the team’s fall from grace once the pandemic hit, are quick to point out that Toronto’s recent success has been built on victories over teams with G-League-like rosters.

Do you remember what it was like watching opponents trample on the Raptors while the team was decimated with COVID? Do you remember Toronto relying on 35+ minutes a night from DeAndre’ Bembry and Stanley Johnson? There was no sympathy for the Raptors last season or any team that experienced bouts of COVID, yet the Milwaukee Bucks navigated the pandemic minefield and are NBA champions, asterisk-free.

So, vote VanVleet and Siakam into the All-Star game and tout their stats with pride! Scream at the top of your lungs that Barnes is the Rookie of the Year! Slander the Celtics, the Knicks, and the Wizards because their records are worse than the Raptors! Toronto is 3 games above .500 for the first time since the Bubble with a solid core that can hang with any team. The Raptors are shining like glitter with the value of gold!

January 11 vs Phoenix Suns

The Suns kick off a season-high 5-game road trip at Scotiabank Arena.

I don’t know what will be harder to watch: Cameron Payne single-handedly outscoring Toronto’s bench less than 15 months after they waived him; Ish Wainwright celebrating on the sidelines while the Suns run up the score; Bismack Biyombo doing... anything.

Phoenix has carried over the success from their Finals run from last season. While they were one of four teams ranked in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating last year, they’re one of five teams to qualify this year.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker seem headed for a second straight trip to the All-Star game, even though both of their numbers are generally down across the board. Mikal Bridges is once again threatening to join the 50/40/90 club. Deandre Ayton is an automatic double-double, averaging 16.8 points and 11 rebounds. Phoenix’s unsung hero is Cameron Johnson who averages 2.5 made threes per game, just shy of Booker’s team-leading 2.6 threes, but at a much better percentage (43.8% vs 41.0%). He’s a Sixth Man of the Year candidate that no one’s talking about.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Javale McGee is trying to become the 5th player in NBA history to win 3 championships with 3 different teams. He’d join John Salley, LeBron James, Danny Green, and Robert Horry (who’s the only player to win more than one with three different teams).

If the Suns win the title this season and McGee joins this illustrious club, he would’ve accomplished the feat in the span of 6 seasons, one fewer than the Green, who achieved it the quickest — 7 seasons (2014, Spurs; 2019, Raptors; 2020, Lakers).

Prediction

If you’re not going to say it, then I will. Which star player will opt out of crossing the border? Dejounte Murray, Julius Randle, the entire starting lineups for Golden State and Utah have all recently not made the trip to Toronto. I’m not suggesting this will happen, but with this being the start of their road trip, some players can opt to stay in Phoenix (not bothering to cross the border), then meet the team for their next game in Indiana.

However, I work with the information I’ve got and, as of Monday morning, the Suns and all of their starters are lined up to play at Scotiabank Arena.

The areas that normally bog down Toronto — sending opponents to the line, giving up offensive rebounds, and/or anything from the 3-point line — are not areas where Phoenix thrives. The Suns follow CP3’s lead and destroy opponents in the mid-range and with deft ball movement. Thankfully, the Raptors are a top-10 defense (#7 actually) in the mid-range. The league average for assists is around 24 per game and Toronto has kept their opponents below that number in 5 of their last 7 games. Is it a coincidence that’s happened with the team finally getting to full strength? The Raptors keep their season-best win streak going and pull off a shocking win over the Suns, 110-107.

January 14 @ Detroit Pistons

From one of the best teams in the NBA to one of the worst. Yes, even though one of their few victories happened in Toronto, that doesn’t hide the fact that Detroit is still a very bad team.

Shortly after the NBA schedule was released in the summer, I highlighted some under-the-radar games to target purchasing. At the bottom of the post, I (half-)jokingly pointed out this game because, unlike Toronto where tickets sell out fast, Detroit fans are, ahem, less enthused about their team. Anyway, the post was published in late September, yet there are still plenty of tickets available!

With recent victories over San Antonio, Milwaukee, and Orlando, the Pistons have vacated the Eastern Conference cellar with help from their young stars.

Cade Cunningham is one of 15 players who average at least 15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 steal (Fred VanVleet is one too). However, he’s the only one on that list with negative win shares.

Saddiq Bey is one of 6 players who average at least 7 three-point attempts per game but average less than 33% shooting from beyond the arc.

With Kelly Olynyk and Jerami Grant still out, the Pistons have brought in reinforcements in the form of... Bol Bol?!?

Fun fact that may only interest me

One of the many things Nick Nurse is good at is adjusting game plans to his opponents. You’ll see those changes between quarters, after halftime, heck, even between possessions. It’s quite rare to see an opponent rack up a string of wins against the Raptors because Nurse and his staff are always experimenting with different ways to exploit weaknesses while highlighting their own strengths.

But you can’t win ‘em all and a couple of teams have strung together modest win streaks against Toronto. In fact, three teams are tied for the longest current win streaks — 4 victories each — against the Raptors: Chicago, Portland....and Detroit!

Prediction

Let’s see what we have here.

  • Toronto visits Detroit with a 7-game win streak (possibly) after defeating the team with the NBA’s best record
  • The Pistons’ season is already over and they’re lottery-bound
  • With no fans allowed at Scotiabank Arena, Little Caesars Arena may have even more Raptors fans than usual
  • Another marquee matchup with the rival Bucks awaits the Raptors less than 24 hours later

Check. Check. Check. Check. Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a trap game! Just about everything went right when these teams faced each other on November 13. The Pistons’ season-high in points, fg%, and assists (along with their 2nd-highest amount of free throws made) all occurred against Toronto. I realize I’m contradicting what I just wrote about Nurse and his adjustments, but the Pistons have had the 8th-best defense over the last 2 weeks and Dwane Casey is always extra motivated when playing his former team. Hopefully, this is my worst prediction of the year: Detroit gets to the charity stripe at least 10 more times than Toronto and notches another victory over the Raps, winning 108-105.

January 15 @ Milwaukee Bucks

Is Giannis Antetokounmpo ducking the Raptors?

Since eliminating the heavily favoured Bucks in the 2018-19 playoffs, en route to their first championship, the Raptors may have solidified some realty in Antetokounmpo’s head.

Over the last 3 seasons, Giannis has missed 30 games — with the Pacers and Raptors being the most frequent absences (3 games each).

  • 19 games were due to injury
  • 5 games were due to health & safety protocols
  • 2 games were due to the birth of his child
  • 1 game was due to serving a suspension
  • 1 game was for rest, as it was the final game of the season

That leaves 2 games — both against Toronto — with, um, odd reasons. On August 10, 2020, Giannis sat out one game in the Bubble due to oral surgery. Last week, he, again, only missed one game. This time the reasoning was “non-Covid-related illness.” You can’t see it right now, but I’m giving my screen The Rock’s eyebrow.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Remember that stat I threw into the Suns preview about Phoenix being one of a handful of teams that are top-10 in offensive and defensive rating? The Bucks are the only other team that can make the same claim as Phoenix over each of the last two seasons.

In fact, Milwaukee is the only team that’s ranked in the top-10 in offensive and defensive rating over the last three seasons.

One more fact. Milwaukee is the only team that’s ranked in the top-10 in offensive and defensive rating over the last four seasons.

Prediction

What is it with facing the Bucks on the back-end of a back-to-back? This time around should be different with Grayson Allen, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton all presumably back from health & safety protocols. Oh, and Antetokounmpo should also be back, right? Right?!?!?

I honestly cannot wait to see how the Anunoby-Siakam-Barnes core handles Giannis. He’ll probably have fits trying to get to his usual spots but his game has evolved. Whether it’s finding open shooters (Bucks are 4th in 3-point frequency) or crashing the glass (his offensive rebounding percentage has improved since last season), Giannis is the MVP frontrunner for a reason. The Bucks please the Fiserv Forum crowd and defeat the Raptors, 120-113.

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Last Week: 3-1

Season Record for Predictions: 21-16