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Toronto Raptors v New Orleans Pelicans

The Rap-Up: Wrapping up the first quarter of the season

We’re already a quarter of the way through the season. As the Raptors slowly get more bodies back, this week presents an interesting mix of opponents and challenges.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It feels like yesterday when we were all excited to get this NBA season started.

Scottie Barnes was going to continue his meteoric rise up the Toronto Raptors’ franchise scoring chart (trademark Chris Walder). Precious Achiuwa was a trendy pick for Sixth Man of the Year. Toronto would struggle offensively but that would be negated by a top-5 defense.

As we hit the quarter-season mark (yes, already), it’s safe to say that none of those have happened for the Raptors.

Pascal Siakam has missed more than half the team’s games. Fred VanVleet has missed games on three separate occasions. Achiuwa has not been able to regain the form that had everyone excited over the off-season... and he’s also missed seven games (and counting). Gary Trent Jr. has seen a dip in his shooting percentages. Barnes hasn’t looked right all season, despite some flashes of brilliance. With all of these injuries, it’s no surprise the Raptors are currently outside of the top-10 in offense and defense.

And yet, at 10-9, these Raptors are still a game ahead of last year’s pace!

Maybe you’ll remember that last season’s team turned on the after-burners following the All-Star break, jumping from lottery-bound to playoff contender (bypassing the play-in tournament altogether).

VanVleet’s triumphant return on Saturday may have been an omen of what lies ahead. Siakam will likely make his return this week. Once he’s back to full speed, look out! Spicy P was proving he’s the top-5 talent he said he wanted to be in the pre-season. O.G. Anunoby has shown the rest of the league what Raptors fans already know — he’s not only worth of All-Defense, but Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Chris Boucher has (re-)inserted himself into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

There’s plenty to like about the first quarter of the season for Toronto. As healthy bodies return, it’ll be fascinating to see if the Raptors can break through the clutter and rise up the East standings.

November 28 vs Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers return to Scotiabank Arena, where they lost the season opener. Cleveland would then reel off 8 straight wins and look like the cream of the crop. A subsequent 5 game losing streak would bring them back to Earth. Now, the Cavaliers are looking like the Raptors as they try to endure a litany of injuries (more on that further down).

Darius Garland is shooting 55% on catch-and-shoot threes, which only trails Yuta Watanabe and Christian Wood. Donovan Mitchell is everything Cleveland was hoping for when they swung the big trade before the season. His name is littered all over the NBA leaderboards: Minutes, Points, Steals, Win Shares, BPM, VORP, PER.

While the Cavaliers are well on their way to having both guards represented at the All-Star game, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley may be more important to Cleveland as they anchor the 4th-best defense in the league.

The same question that plagued Cleveland before the season — who’s their 5th starter? — has morphed into, what colour is Cedi Osman’s blood???

Fun fact that may only interest me

Caris LeVert is the only Cavalier who went to Michigan. If I see him in the hallway, I’m definitely congratulating him on Michigan’s thrashing of Ohio State in The Game. (I grew up idolizing the Fab Five. Let me have this one, folks!)

Prediction

Cleveland will be playing their second game of a back-to-back. Their list of injured players rivals that of the Raptors (from the last few weeks). Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Lamar Stevens, and Dylan Windler are all OUT. Meanwhile, the Raptors will have an extra day of rest and may “only” be without Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. Availability has been upgraded to QUESTIONABLE for Dalano Banton, Scottie Barnes, Justin Champagnie, and, most importantly, Pascal Siakam.

Even if the Raptors get all of those players back, expectations should be lowered that they’ll be anywhere near 100%. Granted, Cleveland’s front court will be thin, but Garland’s out for revenge after being poked in the eye and missing most of the previous matchup. The Cavaliers sneak out of Toronto with a 103-102 victory.

November 30 @ New Orleans Pelicans

Don’t be fooled by their record — the Pelicans are legit! They’re one of only three teams that rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense, along with Phoenix and Toronto’s previous opponent, Cleveland.

In his first full season with the Pelicans, CJ McCollum is having a career resurgence. His shooting numbers are down across the board but he plays a different role than what was asked of him in Portland. McCollum is averaging career-highs in rebounds and assists while providing a steady veteran presence.

Brandon Ingram has also adjusted his role a bit. He’s shooting much less and his usage has also dipped, but his percentages have seen a significant boost. He’s averaging career highs in true shooting percentage and three-point percentage.

Zion Williamson is rounding into form after missing all of last season with a foot injury. He hasn’t approached the scoring levels he hit in his All-Star season but still leads the team in scoring.

Jonas Valanciunas is still a rebounding machine. Herb Jones is a future mainstay on All-Defense ballots. Jose Alvarado is easily one of the most fun players to watch (literally, as he sneaks up behind someone and steals the ball). Trey Murphy has been a revelation this season. Suffice it to say, this Pelicans team is DEEP.

This will also be the 9th meeting between the Hernangomez brothers. Juancho leads the head-to-head matchups 5-3 over his older brother, Willy. Juancho won the first 4 matchups, all while he was with Denver. Willy has won the last 2, and 3 of the last 4.

Fun fact that may only interest me

The Pelicans have a player who ranks 2nd in FG%, 2-pt FG%, eFG%, and TS%. This player also ranks 1st in Offensive Rating, He’s the only Pelican to rank in the top 20 in Win Shares per 48 minutes, as well as Defensive Box Plus/Minus.

That player is Larry Nance Jr.

Like I said, DEEP!

Prediction

The Raptors have lost 3 of the last 4 against the Pelicans, including the last two in New Orleans. The Pelicans are top-10 in collecting defensive rebounds and protecting the basketball. Those are bad signs for a Toronto team that thrives on both. The Pelicans beat the visiting Raptors, 113-102.

December 2 @ Brooklyn Nets

Before Saturday’s game against the Mavericks, Nick Nurse mentioned the Raptors having a “menu” of defensive tactics they could use on Luka Doncic. If such a menu did exist — we’re 4+ seasons into the Nurse era to know it absolutely does — it would likely be the Pickle Barrel of menus (or Cheesecake Factory if you’re in the U.S.), whereby it’s more like a novel. In any case, I expect the oddest menu items will be served up to the Nets.

Box-and-one with O.G. Anunoby face-guarding Kevin Durant? Sure why not.

Random full-court pressure whenever Kyrie Irving sits? By all means.

Hack-A-Ben-Simmons? Go for it.

This will already be the 3rd meeting between the teams, with the 4th and final matchup in exactly two weeks. Brooklyn’s already won the first two matchups. Toronto has, for the most part, “survived” Siakam’s absence and is still in the thick of the East standings. So, why not experiment with your minimally used tactics to see what works? If these teams meet up again in the playoffs, it’s very likely the rosters will look different and the tactics used won’t be re-used when the games matter. Have fun with this one, Nick. Maybe you’ll discover something worth using more!

Fun fact that may only interest me

The pre-season was filled with questions about which stars would return to Brooklyn. Would Kevin Durant’s trade request be fulfilled? Does anybody want Kyrie Irving? Does Ben Simmons remember how to play basketball?

In the shadows, another star has been quietly biding his time, planning his return. If you’ll remember, there was a brief moment in NBA history when all of the 30 teams descended on Orlando, Florida, and played the remainder of their season & playoffs. During that time, the only set of “All-Seeding Games” Teams were announced. One of the five First-Teamers, who hasn’t played since shortly after the Bubble, makes his triumphant return against Toronto: TJ Warren.

Prediction

When Nurse starts getting kooky, good things typically happen. With the roster inching closer to full strength again, I’ll say the season series does the same and inches closer to being even. The Raptors steal one in Brooklyn, winning 115-113.

December 3 vs Orlando Magic

Only seven other players average as many points (23.2) and rebounds (7.9) as Paolo Banchero. He averages more free throw attempts per game than DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Jimmy Butler. Banchero has drawn more shooting fouls than Trae Young, Steph Curry, and De’Aaron Fox.

The five Magic players who average the most minutes per game (six if you include Cole Anthony, who’s only played 4 games so far) are all younger than Gary Trent Jr.

Banchero is a superstar in the making. Franz Wagner has thumbed his nose at the sophomore slump and has improved his numbers across the board. Jalen Suggs is shooting 42% on pull-up threes, which is good enough for 8th in the league. Wendell Carter Jr. is one of 6 players to average as many points (16.6) and rebounds (9.1) as he does (Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokic, and Bam Adebayo). There’s one more rising star but let’s move him to the next section.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Bol Bol currently ranks 2nd in Block Rate (duh), is shooting 83% at the rim (whoa), and nailing 50% of non-corner threes (WHAT?).

Prediction

Both teams enter this matchup on the back end of a back-to-back.

Orlando is 0-2 when playing on zero days of rest, 0-3 when playing on Saturday, and 0-3 against the Atlantic division. Meanwhile, Toronto has won 10 of the last 11 matchups.

Let’s not get cute with this. Toronto thrashes Orlando, 118-105.

********

Last Week: 0-2

Season Record for Predictions: 13-6

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