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Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks

The Rap-Up: Enjoying our presents

The Raptors return home before wrapping up a roller coaster 2022!

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The holiday presents have been opened. Some households are already removing decorations. Mariah Carey is heading into hibernation.

Christmas has passed but it doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the presents!

Pascal Siakam’s legendary 52-point performance at The Garden is the gift that keeps giving. Most people scoffed when Spicy P proclaimed his goal of being a top-5 player and he’s done nothing but walk the walk!

O.G. Anunoby has given this team the gift of realized potential. The moment he was drafted, O.G. was expected to be a defensive dynamo who would instill fear in all Raptors opponents. The hype around him died little by little with each passing freak injury, but he’s finally healthy (knocks on wood) and wreaking havoc all over the court!

Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have given the gift of patience. Both went through early-season shooting slumps and both have since emerged. Let’s add Malachi Flynn to that list. He’s had his fair share of DNP-CDs in his three-year career. To see him thriving in Nick Nurse’s two-point-guard lineups has been refreshing.

Scottie Barnes has given the gift of hope. He may have lapses in focus and intensity, but he’s still 5-6 years away from his prime, yet doing this to Kevin Durant.

Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. are, thankfully, gifts we’ve stored away to be opened and enjoyed later!

Now let’s get to this week’s games — the last Raptors games of 2022!

December 27 vs Los Angeles Clippers

It’s one of my favourite nights of the year as everyone relives the magic of the championship season! Some familiar faces return to Scotiabank Arena: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, and Lawrence Frank. This also marks the first nationally televised game for the Raptors. Wait, what?

Kawhi is a shell of the man that once led this franchise to the ultimate prize. He’s averaging career-lows in FG% (44.2%), 3PT FG% (23.4%), FT% (74.5%), and steals (0.9). Kawhi has only played in 13 games and averaging 16.3 points, which would be his lowest total in 10 seasons.

On the flip side, Paul George is showing no signs of aging. His 23.4 points lead the team in scoring. More impressively, this would be his third season since turning 30 when he’s averaged at least 23 points — equaling the number of seasons he averaged 23 in his 20s.

Another bright spot has been Ivica Zubac. He, along with Anthony Davis, are the only two players ranked in the top 10 in both rebounds and blocks.

I should probably do a Powell-GTJ comparison. Norm’s numbers have taken a dip this season, back to pre-championship levels.

14.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists on 46.1/37.1/78.7 shooting

Meanwhile, Trent Jr. is starting to find his shot after an early season slump.

16.9 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists on 43.0/33.5/77.8 shooting

Similar to when they were traded for each other, the numbers are fairly even, except for the fact that GTJ is almost six years younger (and gobbles up twice as many steals).

Fun fact that may only interest me

Over the last five years, the season series has ended in a sweep. The Clippers swept in ‘17-’18, ‘19-’20, and ‘20-’21. The Raptors swept in the championship season and last season.

Nothing like a little extra pressure for a December game!

Prediction

The Clippers are in the middle of a five-game road trip through the East. This is L.A.’s second game of a back-to-back after visiting the Pistons, while the Raptors will be returning to action after three days of rest (the joys of not having a Christmas Day game).

The matchup everyone will want to see is Kawhi vs O.G., but it’s safe to assume that Leonard will sit this game out. He’s still recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss last season and has yet to play the second game of any back-to-back for L.A. this season.

Toronto’s aggressive defense will come in handy as the Clippers are 26th in turnover percentage, 28th in opponents' transition frequency, and 28th in opponents' transition points per possession off steals. Anunoby puts the clamps on George as the Raptors squeak out a 109-108 victory.

December 29 vs Memphis Grizzlies

Believe it or not, this will be Ja Morant’s first game in Toronto! In a league filled with incredibly talented players, Morant continues to drop the most jaws. He was an MVP candidate before the season began and has lived up to the hype in leading the Grizzlies to the upper tier of the West standings. His numbers on the season:

27.0 points, 7.8 assists, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.1 steals on 45.4/34.6/73.7 shooting

Hold on. That stat line looks familiar. Here’s another player’s line:

26.2 points, 6.8 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.0 steals on 48.8/34.8/78.4 shooting

Those are Siakam’s numbers on the season. He also has a higher VORP, PER, and WS/48. Pascal may not have the eye-popping highlights like Morant (let’s be real, no one does), but he’s just as deserving to be in the MVP conversation as Ja is.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Jaren Jackson Jr. missed the first 14 games of the season. During that time, opponents shot 62.3% within 5 feet of the basket. Since December 1st — a few games after JJJ returned — Memphis opponents are now only shooting 51.9%. The gap between the Grizzlies and the 2nd-ranked 76ers (59.8%) is larger than the gap between the Sixers and the 24th-ranked Suns (66.1%).

If there’s one player I’ll admit deserves more DPOY consideration than O.G. Anunoby, it’s Jaren Jackson Jr.

JJJ is one of four players with a defensive field goal percentage under 50%. He leads the league at 42.9%, ahead of Bismack Biyombo (45.7%), fellow Grizzly, Brandon Clarke (46.5%), and Draymond Green (49.2%).

Prediction

With Jackson Jr., Clarke, and Steven Adams manning the middle, the Raptors will have difficulty getting many points in the paint. That’s fine because Toronto can rely on their stellar outside shooting. Insert crying emoji.

Can Danny Green switch jerseys for the day and suit up for the Raps?

With Desmond Bane returning sooner than expected, the Grizzlies come to town as a relatively healthy bunch. Morant’s first visit north of the border is a positive one as the Grizzlies defeat the Raptors, 112-99.

December 30 vs Phoenix Suns

After an off-season where it looked like DeAndre Ayton had one foot out the door, he’s still on the team and the Suns are near the top of the West. Let’s see how things are going in Phoenix.

Cam Johnson is still out and Jae Crowder is still... umm... negotiating a contract extension. Cam Payne and Devin Booker have been battling ailments recently, so keep an eye on the injury report on game day.

Booker hasn’t played since dropping 58 points on the Pelicans on December 17th. He’s missed time due to groin soreness, but I’d expect him to be back in the lineup to renew pleasantries with The Raptor.

Fun fact that may only interest me

If there’s one player that’ll annoy the Raptors, it isn’t Booker or Chris Paul or Mikal Bridges or Ayton. It will be Damion Lee.

Lee takes 64% of his shots from beyond the arc, and 28% from the corner. That puts him in the 91st percentile among wings. What will be especially annoying is that he hits 55% of his corner three attempts — that’s in the 97th percentile.

I don’t need to remind you that Toronto gives up more corner threes than any other team in the league. Nurse will focus his defensive strategy on shutting down Phoenix’s stars. But that will leave guys like Lee, Torrey Craig (43% from corner three), and Cam Payne (40% from three) to punish the Raptors’ scramble and recover defense.

Prediction

This will be Toronto’s third game in four nights. Thankfully, all of these games are in the (stares at the snow accumulating outside my window) comfort of home. Phoenix has rebounded from a season-worst five-game losing streak with victories over the Clippers and Pelicans. The Suns boast a top-10 transition defense and are 2nd only to the Raptors in protecting the ball.

Whether it’s O.G. or The Raptor that gets under Booker’s skin, the Suns will still have enough to pull out a 109-102 victory.

Happy New Year everyone! Here’s hoping 2023 is much better than 2022!

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Last Week: 1-2

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