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The Rap-Up: 14 Raptors, 1 Resolution

Toronto kicks off their first full week of 2022 by visiting the ghosts of championship year’s past with dates against Jakob Poeltl’s Spurs, Jonas Valanciunas’ Pelicans, and the Bucks.

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It’s that time of year where everyone’s making New Year’s Resolutions. So, why don’t we make some for the Raptors?

Fred VanVleet: Watch Forrest Gump. Actually, it would appear Fred’s been watching because “run Forrest run” has been replaced by “run Fred run.” He may run all the way to an All-Star spot in Cleveland.

Pascal Siakam: Listen to this entire playlist consisting of songs about December. Spicy P was one of five players to average at least 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists during the month of December, joined by LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

OG Anunoby & Gary Trent Jr.: Watch the NFL playoffs. Micah Hyde (Buffalo Bills), J.C. Jackson (New England Patriots), and Trevon Diggs (Dallas Cowboys) are the league’s leaders in interceptions. OG’s already one of the best at turning lazy passes into pick-6’s and GTJ is among the league leaders in deflections. They can polish off their larceny skills by watching some of the best thieves in football.

Scottie Barnes: Stay true to yourself. Barnes already plays with the exuberance that you and I would if we were paid millions of dollars to play basketball. His recent comments about what he did in isolation further prove that he’s just like us. Never lose that innocence, Scottie!

Dalano Banton, Yuta Watanabe, Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, Svi Myhailiuk, Malachi Flynn, Justin Champagnie, David Johnson, and Isaac Bonga: Play like it’s the final minute of your NBA career. The Raptors rank dead last in points per game from reserves (24.5) but a big reason why is they also rank dead last in minutes per game (14.3). With the team finally at full strength (you’ll read that a lot in this post), minutes distribution changes for the reserves. For the 4-6 players that see playing time, it’s not so much about increasing the number of points they score, but really just holding down the fort while the starters get rest.

Goran Dragic: Keep shooting. Most fans weren’t pleased to see Dragic using his “personal reasons” time to get some shots up in the Miami Heat practice facility. I get the frustration but the glass is always half full. With teams signing G-League/CEBL/international players left, right, and center, Dragic can maintain any sort of trade value by simply staying in shape.

Most of these resolutions are tongue-in-cheek but to be completely honest, the entire team can have a successful 2022 by collectively following one resolution: stay healthy! Recent wins over the Warriors, Clippers, and Knicks — heck, even the losses to the Cavaliers and Sixers — show that this is a season about survival. The team with the healthier roster, specifically those that can steer clear of health & safety protocols, will come out on top!

For what it’s worth, I have already broken my resolution of keeping these intros shorter! On to this week’s games!

January 4 vs San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio comes to Toronto with an extra day of rest and a slightly lighter roster. Doug McDermott and Lonnie Walker entered health & safety protocols on Saturday, so they should be out for this one. The Spurs are in the middle of a brutal 7-game road trip (and 11 road games out of 13) that isn’t even their longest of the season — that would be their annual rodeo road trip, which lasts 8 games and covers most of February.

The Spurs lost their first two games of the trip in Memphis and Detroit. The Pistons game must have been especially frustrating as they were without Cade Cunningham and Jerami Grant. This trip only gets harder as this game is the first of a back-to-back, the second in Boston, followed by trips to Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and New York, with the last games on a back-to-back too.

Only 4 players average at least 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists — Luka Doncic, Russell Westbrook, James Harden... and Dejounte Murray. On the defensive end, Murray is tied with VanVleet for the league lead in deflections per game (3.8, just ahead of Trent Jr. who averages 3.6). He also ranks just behind Alex Caruso, Paul George (both at 2.04), and Trent Jr. (2.03) in steals per game with 2.00.

The only other notable Spur on NBA leaderboards is some fellow named Jakob Poeltl, who ranks 3rd in offensive rebound %, 8th in FG%, and 15th in blocks per game.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Spurs Assistant Coach, Becky Hammon, made headlines last week by becoming the next head coach of the Las Vegas Aces.

The supposed heir apparent to Gregg Popovich — she still can be — was also known for her outstanding WNBA career (2x All-WNBA First Team; 6x All-Star; member of 15th, 20th, and 25th Anniversary teams).

What some may not know or remember is that her professional career started eerily similar to a current Raptor. Hammon was a prolific scorer in high school but was not highly recruited because she was considered too small. She would lead her mid-major school to NCAA tournament success and raise some scouts’ eyebrows. However, Hammon would go undrafted, signing with the New York Liberty and backing up their hall-of-fame-worthy point guard (Teresa Weatherspoon). She became a fan favourite in New York, eventually supplanting Weatherspoon as the starter and becoming a co-captain.

The rest is history but not without first betting on herself!

Prediction

The Spurs are one of the few teams that are worse at getting to the line than the Raptors. They don’t turn the ball over (3rd in turnover %) while the Raps force plenty (1st in defensive turnover %). San Antonio doesn’t shoot a lot of corner threes (30th), an area that normally hurts Toronto (28th in corner threes allowed). Rock meet hard place.

San Antonio leads the NBA in assists, averaging a healthy 28.5 per game. When Toronto allows 28 or more assists, they’re 1-8 on the season. Gulp.

On the flip side, the Raptors are still one of the best offensive rebounding teams (12.9 per game, 2nd in the NBA), an area where the Spurs struggle (23rd). Whenever Spurs opponents get 13 or more offensive rebounds, they’re 4-6. Bump that number up to 15, San Antonio is 0-6. Toronto is 3rd in the NBA with 9 games of 15 offensive rebounds or more. With the team finally healthy and a difficult schedule ahead, Toronto rides the wave of momentum they’re on and get past San Antonio, 110-108.

January 5 @ Milwaukee Bucks

After starting the season slowly — winning only 6 of their first 14 games — Milwaukee’s gone 19-6, reeling off an 8-game win streak and a 6-game win streak. One of those five losses was at Scotiabank Arena.

When these teams met last month, the Bucks were without (Giannis) Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Donte DiVincenzo, and the Raptors came away with a 97-93 victory at home. To be fair, Toronto was without OG Anunoby and Khem Birch.

This time around, Milwaukee will be the home team and are missing (Thanasis) Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and DiVincenzo. With the Raptors finally healthy, this figures to be a good test of how they stack up against one of the best in the East.

Fun fact that may only interest me

In 1984, the Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington R*dskins to win the Super Bowl. In the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers were in the middle of a 4-year title run. That was the only year the Vince Lombardi and Larry O’Brien trophies were held by the same city in the same season.

With the Green Bay Packers entering the playoffs with the best record in the NFL, they have a chance to replicate Los Angeles’ feat and bring another championship to Wisconsin, alongside the Bucks’ 2021 trophy.

Prediction

After dialing back their three-point frequency last season in favour of more mid-range shots, the Bucks have reverted back to the 2018-19/2019-20 Bucks version and are currently firing away from beyond the arc at a top-4 clip. Toronto did a good job of keeping the Bucks at a respectable 11-for-31 in the last meeting, well below their average of 14.3-for-39.4. If the Raptors can mimic that defensive intensity, they may surprise a Milwaukee team that’s built their recent 6-game win streak on victories over teams that are all under .500. In fact, over the last month, Milwaukee’s only had 2 games where they’ve faced a team above .500. Both of those games — home to Cleveland and in Miami — resulted in losses.

Milwaukee may have an extra day of rest, but after feasting on the likes of Orlando (twice), New Orleans, and Detroit (which the Bucks actually lost), they’re about to face a hungry Raptors team that’s finally at full strength. Toronto is a surprising 3-2 in the second games of back-to-backs, allowing the fewest points, compared to other days of rest. It also helps that Toronto’s won the last 3 meetings, and 4 of the last 5 in Milwaukee. The Raptors pull off the road upset and defeat the Bucks 115-107.

January 7 vs Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert has been pulling his weight and so much more for the Jazz this season. He leads the NBA in defensive AND offensive win shares (and obviously total win shares). Gobert’s also followed suit from last season by leading the league in FG%, 2-point FG%, and effective FG%... again... with significant increases in each category. To top it off, he also leads the league in rebounding — a feat he’s never completed before over a full season.

But Gobert can’t do everything.

After finishing 4th last year in offensive rating, the Jazz have leaped to 1st this season. So, there are no issues on that end of the floor. On the defensive side, though, Utah’s relying way too heavily on the excellence of the Stifle Tower. Gobert’s defensive rating (99.4, ranks 2nd in the NBA) is almost single-handedly carrying Utah’s 6th-ranked 107.3 defensive rating. How do I know this? Of the seven other players who average at least 16 minutes per game, only Royce O’Neale has a defensive rating that meets the team’s average (107). The other six players all have worse defensive ratings.

Fun fact that may only interest me

If there’s a theme at the top of the Western Conference, it’s continuity.

As seen above, Utah’s starting five has been lucky with health this season. In fact, the entire team has been quite lucky. The Jazz are the only team in the NBA to not have any of its players enter health and safety protocols! ** insert eyes emoji **

Prediction

The magic number is 15. The Jazz are the best 3-point shooting team in the league averaging 15 three-pointers made per game. When they hit that many threes in a game, they’re an astonishing 17-3. When the Raptors allow their opponents to score 15 threes or more in a game, as they did in the earlier meeting this season (19 threes from Utah), Toronto is 3-7 (and 0-5 when the opponent hits at least 17). Toronto’s three-point defense has picked it up lately, only allowing 15 or more threes in 3 of their last 15 games.

Unfortunately, the Jazz aren’t the #1 offense because they only rely on triples. They’re the best team at getting to the charity stripe — an area that Nurse’s aggressive defensive style will always be a weakness. This may not be the blowout we saw in the first meeting, but Utah finds a way to prevail over Toronto, 117-114.

January 9 vs New Orleans Pelicans

How much longer can Zion Williamson remain a Pelican? He’s played the equivalent of one full season (84 games over two+ seasons), may not return this season and is left with one more season on his rookie scale before hitting unrestricted free agency. New Orleans has no space next off-season, so they’re locked into a core of Zion, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, Josh Hart, Devonte Graham, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. That lineup screams “first-round sweep”, if they even get that far.

With this season almost half complete, but essentially over in New Orleans, what does Zion do about his future? His family is already concerned about his future and unhappy with the organization. Zion’s talent, injury history, and his team’s annual trip to the lottery make Williamson someone to keep an eye on. It would not be surprising at all if he followed in former Pelican, Anthony Davis’ footsteps — after years of ineptitude, push your way to a better situation.

This year’s rookie class is so deep that a stat line like this one by Herb Jones can easily go unnoticed amidst all the other great games being played by the league’s freshmen.

Jones, though, has played his way into the All-Rookie conversation. As things currently stand, he’s in line for a surprise spot on the Second Team.

Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner, Cade Cunningham, and Josh Giddey appear to lead the way for First Team. Alperen Sengun, Chris Duarte, and Jalen Green would be on this hypothetical All-Rookie Second Team. If (ahem, when) the Pelicans turn to full lottery mode, Jones will likely get more time to shine and boost his own profile.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Alright, this is admittedly not a fun fact. It’s actually even sadder than the Danny Green championship ring jokes.

This game marks the first time Jonas Valanciunas plays in Toronto as a visitor!

After he was traded in 2019 to Memphis, the Grizzlies did not have any games remaining in Toronto. In 2020, the scheduled game in Toronto was canceled because of the pandemic and made up in the Bubble. Last season, all “home” games were in Tampa.

Valanciunas finally returns......and there won’t be a single fan in attendance. Screw you, COVID!

Prediction

The Pelicans will be coming to town after enduring a brutal 5-game stretch against the “who’s who” in today’s NBA: Cleveland, Milwaukee, Utah, Phoenix, and Golden State. They certainly deserve the extra day of rest they’ll have over Toronto. While JV will certainly have his way against Toronto’s undersized frontcourt, the Raptors’ aggressive defense will surely cause fits for a Pelicans squad that’s a bottom-5 team in turnover rate.

The Raptors are 11-5 against New Orleans since they changed their name from the Hornets (11-3 if we, rightly, don’t count the Tampa season).

There are some numbers that make this a somewhat appealing upset pick, but the Raptors should (and will) treat this like they should (and will) against the Spurs — beat up on the lottery-bound team. Toronto wraps up a successful week with a 116-108 victory over New Orleans.

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Last Week: 3-0

Season Record for Predictions: 18-15