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The Rap-Up: Worlds collide as Raptors prepare to see some old faces

Toronto visits Kyle Lowry’s Heat in Miami and Norm Powell makes his first visit to Scotiabank Arena as a visitor. Those games highlight another interesting week of Raptors basketball.

Miami Heat v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Ever since the pandemic shut down the NBA in 2020, the boxscore I’ve visited most on Basketball Reference was the Toronto Raptors’ final pre-shutdown home game against Charlotte. It’s a reminder of happier times.

Toronto had an aura of invincibility. They were defending champs but without the usual pressure of repeating. The departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green instantly knocked the Raptors off the pedestal of favourites and into the more familiar role of underrated contender. The season went along as well as anyone could’ve hoped. Every victory was a slap in the face to any doubters. Losses were justified with a simple shrug, “they’re not supposed to be this good anyway.” The Raptors were not as stacked as their championship roster but there wasn’t a single team that looked forward to playing Toronto.

For me, the Hornets game encapsulated the grittiness of a Raptors squad that had become their trademark. Toronto was without Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. The pesky Hornets built an 11-point halftime lead and had a +10 rebounding advantage. But the Raptors fought back, as they were accustomed to doing, with several chances to win the game. Lowry tied the game at 96 with a free throw and 52 seconds remaining. After a defensive stop, Toronto had possession with 29 seconds left and a Scotiabank Arena crowd ready to erupt. Norm Powell missed a three-pointer on an excellent drive and kick-out by Kyle Lowry. The rebound bounced right into Lowry’s hands as he was backpedaling for a three-point attempt of his own. Another miss. One untimely foul by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and three free throws later, the Raptors were left with a fadeaway three-point attempt from Powell that barely grazed the iron.

Lowry and Powell both had chances to add another highlight to an unforgettable season. Instead, the Raptors lost and, not to be overly dramatic, things have never really been the same since. So, as Toronto prepares to face Kyle for the first time in a Heat uniform (ahem, in two weeks) and gets ready to welcome Norm back for the first time as a visitor, I find myself revisiting that fateful game on February 28, 2020. Scotiabank Arena hasn’t reached the same level of energy and general excitement for the team since that day.

Who knows. Maybe some victories over their old teammates can kick-start another positive stretch for a Toronto squad that has worked their way back into the East playoff picture.

January 17 @ Miami Heat

In an odd flip of injury luck, the Raptors face an opponent with their best players RETURNING from injury. Jimmy Butler returned (ankle sprain) on Friday with 23 points, 10 assists, and the game-sealing layup in the final minute of a narrow victory over the Hawks. Bam Adebayo may(!) return for the first time since December 7 after undergoing thumb surgery.

But you don’t care about anything you just read in that last paragraph. You’re here for words on Kyle Lowry.

Well, that previous sentence (and the entire introduction to this week’s post) was typed before news broke that Lowry would sit out this game for personal reasons. Bummer!

With Butler, Adebayo, and Tyler Herro each commanding the ball — each has a usage percentage higher than every single Raptor(!) — Lowry’s become more of a facilitator. His 8.3 assists rank 5th in the league, while his 35.3 assist percentage is the highest of his career (and 10th in the NBA). Old habits die hard though as Lowry, once again, leads the league in charges drawn. The stats page on NBA.com only started displaying hustle stats like charges drawn in 2016. Lowry and Ersan Ilyasova took turns leading the league over the first 4 seasons of tracking. Last year, Lowry finished two charges shy of finishing first again. This season, he’s ascended to his rightful spot atop the list.

Lowry also still occupies the #1 spot in all of our hearts.

Fun fact that may only interest me

There are 41 players in the NBA that average at least 2.5 three-point field goals made per game. Of those players, only 9 are non-starters (someone who has started 10 games or less). Miami is the only team with more than one player on that list of 9.

Herro is an obvious name. He’s a Sixth Man of the Year favourite who’s also 2nd on the team in scoring (20.8 points).

You can trim the list even further to anyone that’s averaging less than 25 minutes per game. Only two players meet that criteria: Kevin Love and Max Strus.

Does anyone else feel like either Herro or Strus will single-handedly outscore Toronto’s bench on Monday?

Prediction

This game will ultimately be decided by two factors: Toronto’s transition offense and Miami’s ability to knock down corner threes. The Raptors are #1 in the NBA in generating transition plays off live rebounds, while the Heat rank 28th in allowing such plays. Miami has a top-10 defense, but that’s built mostly off their half-court defensive sets. Toronto will need to take advantage and get running on every shot that Miami misses.

For the Heat, they rank #1 in corner three frequency and #2 in corner three accuracy. That’s a death sentence for a Raptors squad that ranks 29th in frequency of corner threes allowed.

Scottie Barnes will be back in the lineup to help fortify a frontcourt that will miss Khem Birch’s rebounding presence. With Adebayo listed as questionable, that seems to indicate that, if he does play, it would likely be on a minutes restriction. Markieff Morris and KZ Okpala are also out, which is important because they’re two of the three Heat players (along with PJ Tucker) who take at least half of their threes from the corner.

Things appear to be lining up for Toronto to repeat its Saturday performance into another impressive game against one of the East’s best. The Raptors upset the Heat, 100-98.

January 19 @ Dallas Mavericks

Do you know how long it’s been since Dallas and Toronto played each other? In that game, the Raptors played Goran Dragic for 14 minutes. Yes, it’s true. He was wearing a Raptors jersey and everything!

The game ended with Dallas’ first victory of the season. The Mavericks would jump out to a great start, winning 9 of their first 13 games. However, games against the Suns and Cavaliers quickly brought the Mavericks back to the .500 level, where they’ve generally been all season.

Remember before the season how everyone collectively sighed at the hiring of Jason Kidd? The man who stunted the growth of Giannis Antetokounmpo appears to be doing the same to another European superstar. Luka Doncic has taken a step back this season (no, not his jumper, his statistics). Don’t get me wrong: Doncic is still only one of four players averaging 8 rebounds and 8 assists. His scoring, though, has dropped from 27.7 to 24.7, buoyed by declines in FG% and 3-point FG%. Dig a little deeper and it’s apparent his shot selection could be better. Two seasons ago, when he finished 4th in MVP voting, Doncic took 26.0% of his shots at the rim and had a 44.8% free throw rate. Attacking the rim with that much frequency offered Luka the perfect pick-your-poison offensive arsenal that was impossible for defenses to guard. This season, he’s dropped to 11.8% shots at the rim and, subsequently, a 26.9% free throw rate. Doncic has become over-reliant on his outside shot and the percentages show it’s to his detriment. All of this is probably more of the fault of the player, but as Raptors fans, it’s always much easier to blame it on Kidd!

Fun fact that may only interest me

For all the jokes and memes that came from a Toronto franchise that named their team after a movie, it’s slightly reassuring to know that the Raptors weren’t the first to do it.

After poring through 4,600 postcards (lol), Dallas ownership chose the team name from the 50’s TV western, Maverick (Wranglers and Express were also in consideration). Totally unrelated: the title character from that show, James Garner, was part of the ownership group.

The Canadian basketball ties don’t end there. In their inaugural draft, the Mavs selected Kiki VanDeWeghe with the 11th pick. He refused to play for Dallas, held out for the first month of his rookie season, then was traded to Denver. Insert your Steve Francis slander in the comments.

Prediction

Over the last seven seasons, the Raptors have either split or swept the season series with the Mavericks. One glaring absence from the earlier meeting between these teams, in which Dallas won 103-95 at Scotiabank Arena, was Pascal Siakam. Spicy P has been on a tear of late and could break an unusual career blip: in seven career games against Dallas, Siakam’s never scored at least 20 points or corralled at least eight rebounds.

The early season loss in Toronto was also odd because the Mavericks won the offensive rebounding battle. Dallas ranks 25th in offensive rebounding. With Siakam’s presence, Gary Trent Jr.’s return (hopefully), and the offensive rebounding story correcting itself, the Raptors continue making strides on their road trip. Despite losing three of their last four visits to Dallas, each game was competitive and Toronto now owns the #4 clutch offense (Mavs rank #29 in clutch defense). The Raptors squeak by the Mavs 103-102.

January 21 @ Washington Wizards

Similar to the Mavericks, the Wizards got their first victory over the Raptors and got off to a hot start to the season before plummeting back to Earth. On November 15, Washington was 10-3. By December 16, Washington was 15-15.

Ssshhh, I don’t want to jinx it, but we may finally see Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe playing each other in the same game! They’ve actually played each other twice while Yuta was with Memphis — Watanabe’s Grizzlies won both. Washington and Toronto have played each other six times since Watanabe joined the Raptors, but at least one has been absent from each game.

Bradley Beal entered health & safety protocols on January 11, so he should be back in the lineup for this game. However, the same can’t be said of Washington’s coaching staff. Head Coach, Wes Unseld Jr., went into protocols on January 15, while his Assistant Coach who took over his duties, Pat Delany, joined him in protocols on January 17. Joseph Blair will handle head coaching duties for the time being.

Fun fact that may only interest me

I feel it is my civil duty to throw some Toronto-weather-like cold water on Kuzma’s hot take. Let’s take a quick look at his opponents over the aforementioned 8 games:

Cleveland — Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland inactive

Chicago — 16 players inactive between both teams

Charlotte — #27 defensive rating

Houston — #28 defensive rating

Chicago — 17 players inactive between both teams

Orlando (x2): #24 defensive rating

Oklahoma City: Fine, I’ll give him this one (even though Bradley Beal was out)

Prediction

The Wizards are the worst team in the league in allowing mid-range shots and short-mid-range shots, areas where the Raptors rank 7th and 6th on offense, respectively. Washington’s defense is predicated on preventing the long bomb (#1 in corner threes allowed; #2 in threes allowed), but that’s not a problem with a Toronto squad that does not rely on the three-ball (#19 on three-point frequency). Once the Wizards run the Raptors off the line, it should kick-start Toronto’s ever-improving ball movement with Siakam getting the ball on the roll, Scottie Barnes waiting at the free-throw line, or OG Anunoby setting up shop in the post. In the two meetings since the opening day loss, Toronto has refocused and revealed the Wizards as sheep hiding in wolf’s clothing. Raptors make it three in a row against Washington, winning 108-98.

January 23 vs Portland Trail Blazers

Norm Powell becomes the latest former Raptor to make his return to an empty Scotiabank Arena. Outside of Lowry, Norm’s visit would have been the 2nd-most emotional return if fans were allowed. As it stands, with zero fans in attendance for both Lowry and Powell’s returns, the loudest standing ovation may come in mid-April when Jodie Meeks is called up from the 905.

As pointed out in last week’s Rap-Up, the Blazers are were one of three teams with the longest active win streak against Toronto. Detroit now holds that record alone at 5 wins. That doesn’t hide the fact that the Raptors had typically played well against Portland, having won 8 of the previous 9 meetings. The recent four losses have each been perplexing:

  • January 7, 2020 (101-99): Mind-boggling Blazers comeback capped by a Carmelo Anthony game-winner
  • January 11, 2021 (112-111): Another 4th-quarter Blazers comeback, this time capped by Pascal Siakam’s second consecutive missed buzzer-beater
  • March 28, 2021 (122-117): Raptors, in full-tank mode, “complete” a very Tampa-season-like fake comeback in the 4th
  • November 15, 2021 (118-113): This one’s the most confusing because Toronto finally had their 6 best players (starters + Birch) and was coming off a loss to Detroit

This game should be different because Damian Lillard won’t be in the lineup. Last Thursday, he underwent successful abdominal surgery that will keep him sidelined for the next 5-6 weeks.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Only 13 players have had a game where they’ve hit at least seven three-pointers and handed out least seven assists (yes, Fred VanVleet is one of those players).

Only four of those players have done so more than once. LaMelo Ball and Steph Curry have each had three such games. Trae Young and Anfernee Simons have each done it twice.

Simons has taken advantage of the Lillard’s (and until recently CJ McCollum’s) absence by taking over the scoring load. Over his last six games, Simons is averaging a VanVleet-like 28.3 points and 8.2 assists on 51.3% shooting and 45.7% from three. Lillard may be out, but Toronto still has to defend against Portland’s three-headed backcourt (McCollum, Simons, and Powell).

Prediction

The Blazers are wrapping up a grueling six-game road trip that started in Denver, moved up to Washington, then down to Florida, then back up to Boston and Toronto. They’re currently 8 games under .500 without their best player and, even when he returns, fielding a below-average roster. It’s not too early for them to start tanking (if they haven’t already) but it’s obvious that this is a broken team that’s headed for changes — either at the trade deadline or in the off-season. Combine all of this with Portland owning the league’s worst defense and let’s chalk up a perfect week for the Raptors as they beat the Blazers, 123-109.

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Last Week: 1-2

Season Record for Predictions: 22-18