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The Rap-Up: The real season begins now

After a much-needed break, the Raptors embark on the second half of their schedule with visits to potential play-in foes in Charlotte and Atlanta.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

I really hope the Toronto Raptors enjoyed their break — because the schedule is about to get nutty!

Do you remember the good old days when you’d take a week-long vacation? (Or am I the only one still hesitant to jump on a plane again?) When you’d return, your job would welcome you back with hundreds of emails and endless meetings!

Things aren’t so different for Nick Nurse and his crew. After a much-needed 9-day All-Star break, the Raptors start the second half of the season with six games in eight nights! You read that right — Toronto plays three consecutive back-to-backs with one rest day between each set.

Toronto has more games remaining (25) than any other team in the NBA, thanks to two additional make-up/re-scheduled games still to be played. On the bright side, the Raptors also have the 7th-easiest schedule, based on opponents’ records. There are five teams below Toronto in the current standings with at least a puncher’s chance of passing them for 7th. The Raptors have already won the season series against three of them (Hornets, Wizards, Knicks), with a fourth team possibly joining the list this week (Hawks).

Meanwhile, many of Toronto’s Eastern Conference foes are battling their own issues. Milwaukee (already without George Hill, Pat Connaughton, and Brook Lopez for the foreseeable future) and Chicago (still missing Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball for a couple of weeks) have the two worst remaining schedules. The Celtics have the 10th-toughest. Philadelphia has a James Harden beard/ego-sized chemistry issue to work out alongside Joel Embiid. Brooklyn will miss Kyrie Irving (vaccine mandate) for some (not all, apparently) of their 10 remaining home games, Kevin Durant (MCL sprain) does not have a return timetable, and Ben Simmons is a few weeks away from playing.

My exclusion of Miami and Cleveland from the previous paragraph speaks to my appreciation for what both of those teams have done this season and what they still can do moving forward.

I’ve made this mistake before but Leo signs are stubborn, so live with it! Looking at FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Toronto’s predicted to win 15 to 17 of their remaining 25 games. The Raptors are unsurprisingly favoured in each of their 12 home games, with Boston (-0.5) and Philadelphia (-1.0) figuring to be the toughest visitors. Toronto’s also favoured in road games against the Lakers (-3.0), Clippers (-0.5), and Magic (-5.0), with a pair of pick ‘em road games in New York and San Antonio.

Of the remaining eight games, two are this week against teams below .500 (Hornets and Hawks this week), while another three are against teams missing key pieces in Denver (Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray), Phoenix (Chris Paul), and Brooklyn (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons). That only leaves road games in Philadelphia (where Toronto has already won this season), Chicago (who may or may not have Ball or Caruso back), and Cleveland (who I still don’t have a bad thing to say about).

I’m not saying the Raptors are going to run the table (I have limits to my homerism), but the fact that 50 wins is a conceivable target when preseason predictions barely approaching, let alone surpassing, 40 wins is an enormous success!

Now let’s dive into the first games of the post-All-Star break.

February 25 @ Charlotte Hornets

Since rising to a season-best six games over .500 (28-22 overall) after a January 28 victory over the Lakers, Charlotte’s record has taken a nosedive in February with losses in seven of their last eight games.

A big reason for the dip has been the team’s offense which ranks as the 4th-worst offense during this 8-game stretch. Over the last month, Charlotte has put up their lowest scoring totals of the season:

January 23: 91 points in a 22-point loss to Atlanta

February 5: 86 points in an 18-point loss to Miami

February 17: 87 points in regulation; eventually, an overtime loss to Miami

In each of these instances, the next opponent was Toronto. We already know the Raptors won the first two games. Can they come out of the break and continue the trend? Also, is it too late to call up David Johnson? He seems to like playing against Charlotte(‘s G-League team).

Fun fact that may only interest me

From Gerald Henderson to Kemba Walker to Jeremy Lamb, the Hornets have a deep history of torturing the Raptors. Charlotte started the rivalry by winning 10 of the first 13 meetings. Thanks to winning six of the last eight meetings, including two during the forgotten season, Toronto is inching closer to evening the all-time series (42-46).

If the Raptors win this game — and complete a season sweep — they’ll be within three games of the Hornets’ series win total for the first time since November 26, 2008.

The last time the series was within two games was April 18, 1997, when the Raptors needed over 44 regulation minutes each from Damon Stoudamire and Doug Christie (pfft, and you thought the minutes loads were bad now) to overcome Glen Rice’s 38 points to defeat the Hornets.

See? I told you it would only interest me.

Prediction

The Raptors have had nine games where they’ve had a 57% eFG% or better this season. Two of those games occurred against Charlotte. In the first game, Toronto was without Fred VanVleet, but it also marked the beginning of Gary Trent Jr.’s 5-game 30-point streak. The second game was the last time OG Anunoby scored 20 points or more. (He also scored 24 in the first matchup. Maybe the Hornets defense is the boost his scoring needs!)

The real star in both games, however, was Pascal Siakam. He almost had a triple-double in both games (Jan. 25: 24-9-12; Feb. 7: 24-11-8) and was simply unguardable. While LaMelo Ball took advantage of his first All-Star selection (well-deserved and performed well too), Siakam took advantage of much-needed rest while he prepared to continue proving the doubters wrong. Toronto wraps up the season series sweep, winning 109-104.

February 26 @ Atlanta Hawks

The Raptors and Hawks have already faced each other twice in the last month — both Toronto victories. In the first game, the aforementioned GTJ 30-point streak was prolonged to a fourth consecutive game. Toronto used a strong third quarter (32-15) to overcome a slow first half against a Hawks team missing their All-Star point guard, Trae Young. In the second game, Young returned and the Raptors responded with their best offensive showing of the season. Toronto shot season-highs of 56.8% from the field and 63% from three. Broken record time: Siakam was unstoppable. It was the third time in Siakam’s career — all occurring this season — where he was perfect from beyond the arc while making at least three attempts.

This time around, Atlanta may be without their second star, John Collins, who missed the last three games before the break with a foot injury. Considering Toronto played Clint Capela off the floor with their length and versatility, Collins’ absence could be very detrimental to a Hawks team that’s been fighting all season long to prove last year’s Conference Finals trip was no fluke. Atlanta’s in the middle of a 10-game stretch against East rivals, with seven against teams they’re trying to catch in the standings.

Fun fact that may only interest me

That somewhat boring series stat about the Raptors-Hornets above? Toronto’s all-time series with Atlanta is slightly more interesting.

The Hawks absolutely owned the Raptors from the jump. Atlanta won the first 12(!) meetings, and 16 of the first 17 overall.

Thanks to Toronto’s two victories over the last month — and also a 10-game win streak between 2017 and 2020 — the Raptors have pulled AHEAD of the Hawks 49-48 in the all-time series.

He.. Hello? Is this thing still on???

Prediction

In a season full of instances where the Raptors defy logic, Toronto has an excellent record when playing on zero rest. Only the Phoenix Suns (7-2) have a better record than the Raptors (8-3) on the back-end of back-to-backs this season. Atlanta’s 29th-ranked transition defense (in terms of transition points given up per play) will not bode well against Toronto’s lethal transition attack. If Collins does miss the game, or is not 100% if he does play, Nick Nurse will turn his defensive attention to De’Andre Hunter, who’s been Atlanta’s best player against Toronto this season.

The Raptors have done a great job of keeping the Hawks under their average free throw attempts in both earlier games. Considering this is the third time they’ll meet in a month, Toronto will be more accustomed to how Atlanta draws fouls and should be able to limit them again. The Raptors chalk up another zero-rest victory, beating the Hawks 110-108.

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Last Week: 2-0

Season Record for Predictions: 33-24