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The Rap-Up: We the Third

The Raptors have a week of winnable games ahead. Can they continue their hot streak with All-Star weekend fast approaching?

Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

Toronto Raptors bench boss Nick Nurse is one of the best coaches in the NBA.

That statement isn’t really eye-popping, but sometimes it needs to be repeated. There are several ways to win a basketball game. You could have a killer offense like the Utah Jazz, predicated on a league-high 3-point attempt rate and seven rotation players that average at least 1.4 threes made per game. Or you could have a suffocating defense like the Golden State Warriors, who lead the NBA in defensive FG and defensive 3-point FG %.

While some teams enter a game with a great game plan (i.e. Cleveland is #1 in the NBA in first quarter net rating) or are hysterically (and historically) great in the clutch, the Raptors choose the third quarter as the point of attack.

Like Muhammad Ali, Toronto takes the opponents’ best punches in the first half but then comes out with a flurry of haymakers after the break. In the 21 games A.C. (After Cavs), the Raptors have outscored their opponents in the third quarter EIGHTEEN times!

Toronto’s 3rd quarter stats are outstanding: #3 net rating, #1 offensive rebounding percentage, #1 opponents’ turnover percentage, #2 in point differential.

It’s as if the Raptors don’t bother with video sessions pre-game and rely on the first half to assess the opponent’s game plan, then, during halftime, make all the necessary adjustments and come out with renewed focus and energy. Meanwhile, the opponent would have already thrown their best punches in the first two quarters and are now scrambling to find a counter.

None of Toronto’s four opponents this week are in the top-10 in third quarter net rating. The Raptors’ streak of nine straight games outscoring their opponent in the third quarter may extend into next week!

One quick programming note for this week: Let’s see if we can get more of this week’s opponents into All-Star weekend.

February 7 @ Charlotte Hornets

The Raptors wrap up their 8-game stretch of facing four Eastern Conference foes twice with their second date with Charlotte. When these teams met on January 25, it was the only one out of Toronto’s last 11 games that was decided before the final minute of the game. Gary Trent Jr. had his first of a franchise-record-tying five consecutive games with at least 30 points. Charlotte was without Gordon Hayward, but Toronto was without Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, and Khem Birch. Also, the Hornets didn’t seem to miss Hayward the following night when they dropped a franchise-record 158 points on Indiana (yes, it’s the Pacers, but 158 points in regulation is pretty damn impressive!).

After notching their 28th win in their 50th game last week, the Hornets have lost 4 straight, dropping out of the top-8 in the jumbled East. On Saturday, they were outscored 35-8 in the third quarter against Miami. Bam Adebayo (10 points) and Jimmy Butler (9 points) each scored more than the entire Charlotte team in the third. Do you think Toronto’s looking forward to the third quarter in this matchup?

In the two games since being snubbed from the All-Star game, both LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges have done close to nothing to prove the voters wrong. Ball had six turnovers and only three assists in a one-point loss to the Cavs. Bridges scored below his season average in both games.

Fun fact that may only interest me and maybe get someone an invite to All-Star Weekend

Miles Bridges is on the short-list of All-Star snubs (although probably still behind Jarrett Allen, Pascal Siakam, and his own teammate, LaMelo Ball). However, that shouldn’t stop him from getting an invite to Cleveland. He’s already participated once in the dunk contest but the extra nerves attached to playing on your home court may have added to the failed dunks on his first attempt. He deserves a second crack at it, especially after giving us the dunk of the year last season.

Prediction

The Raptors kick off this three-game road trip with a rest advantage (2 days of rest vs. 1) over the Hornets. The January 25 matchup actually turned out as expected for Charlotte. Their #1 transition offense outscored Toronto 18-14 in fastbreak points. The Hornets also stayed true to their identity of getting in the paint (#3 in shot frequency at the rim) by outscoring the Raptors 56-40 in the paint. Toronto, on the other hand, did NOT win the offensive rebounding battle (Charlotte had 9; Toronto had 7) or have the turnover advantage (14 turnovers for Toronto; 12 for Charlotte). So, how did Toronto win so easily despite missing three of the team’s top six rotation players? The threes were falling! Toronto was a very sharp 16-for-34 from beyond the arc. Every starter, plus three from the bench, each hit at least one three-pointer. The going should get tougher for the Hornets with VanVleet, Barnes, and Birch all back for the rematch. Having all three of them back in the lineup should make up for the disparity in offensive rebounding and turnover rate. Toronto prevails over Charlotte, 120-118.

February 9 @ Oklahoma City Thunder

Do we have to see replays of Justin Champagnie’s just-after-the-horn buzzer-beater that wasn’t?

OKC recently won three straight games (two against a depleted Blazers squad). I speculate Sam Presti wasn’t too happy about diminishing his own lottery luck because — surprise — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be sidelined until after the All-Star break. (Just kidding. The Thunder’s streak surprisingly started after SGA was sidelined with an ankle injury)

Speaking of Presti, it’s probably worth noting that, while OKC “trails” the Rockets for the 3rd-worst record in the NBA, Houston does not own any picks in this year’s draft. The incentive to tank is much greater for the Thunder, who currently own their own pick, as well as the Clippers’ and Suns’. Wait, Oklahoma City does NOT own half the picks in the first round? Oh, you’d better believe Presti will rectify that before Thursday’s deadline!

Fun fact that may only interest me and maybe get someone an invite to All-Star Weekend

With rumours flying around about 3-player teams in a revamped Skills Challenge, why not include a young trio from OKC? Would you rather see the Antetokounmpo brothers or some combination of Josh Giddey, Theo Maledon, and Aleksej Pokusevski zooming up and down the court?

(Yes, I realize how sad that actually reads. But I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave in what I previously wrote about Mike Muscala and the 3-point contest.)

Prediction

We’re not even at the All-Star break, yet the Thunder’s injury report is already a guessing game. SGA and JRE (Jeremiah Robinson-Earl) are both out. Derrick Favors, Lu Dort, and Muscala are hokey-pokeying in and out of the lineup with injuries. Cleaning The Glass has OKC with the 2nd-best defensive rating over the last two weeks, but that was propped up by two easy games against a depleted Portland squad. I know we all made the mistake in December, assuming this would be a guaranteed victory over OKC, only to be shockingly disappointed. However, SGA’s absence further hampers the NBA’s worst offense. Toronto blows out Oklahoma City and save their legs on the back-to-back, winning 115-103.

February 10 @ Houston Rockets

Happy Trade Deadline Day!

Trade season is my favourite part of the year. Big names are floated around like large appliances on Boxing Day (Oh look, Houston sucks. Christian Wood must be available). Every team’s fanbases dream of acquiring a star player without sacrificing anyone of significance (Goran Dragic for Christian Wood is perfect for both teams). The race between Shams and Woj to be the first to tweet a trade — and subsequent race by myself to be the first to report to my friends — is exhilarating on its own (I may or may not have already told friends to watch out for Christian Wood in a Raptors uniform).

One underrated gem is the possibility of trades occurring between teams that also face each other right after. Look no further than Sunday’s trade between the Pacers and Cavaliers. Caris LeVert found out he was traded as he walked into the Pacers locker room. He then had to stroll over to the visitor's locker room because his new teammates were the opponents!

Am I trying to speak a similar occurrence with Christian Wood to manifest itself? Probably. But that’s part of the fun of Trade Deadline Day!

Fun fact that may only interest me and maybe get someone an invite to All-Star Weekend

Only three players in the NBA average at least five three-point attempts per game, 40% 3-point FG%, and 49% FG%: Karl-Anthony Towns, Seth Curry, and Eric Gordon.

Am I suggesting that 33-year-old, 2-time participant, 1-time champion, Eric Gordon, be included in the 3-point contest? Yes! He’s never shot better from the field (62.6% TS%) and only had one season with a better 3-point FG% over his entire 14-year career.

Before you complain that he’s already had his time to shine in the 3-point contest, remember that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have collectively been invited 11 times. Steph won in his 4th and 7th appearances, while Klay won in his 2nd (of 4) appearances.

It would also be awkward and cool if he’s traded and doesn’t make his first appearance before representing them during All-Star weekend!

Prediction

Both teams are heavily involved in trade rumours lately. In Toronto’s case, the names being mentioned do not include any of the starters (although the Lakers will keep trying). For Houston, however, there’s a real possibility that a starter or two could be moved. That would leave a Rockets team with the league’s worst defense to play short-handed against one of the hottest teams. Houston may have an extra day of rest but that won’t make a difference. The Raptors soars past the Rockets, 120-106.

February 12 vs Denver Nuggets

I always look forward to the Raptors-Nuggets matchup, if only to see OG Anunoby battle Nikola Jokic. I’ll never forget OG’s performance in Denver before the blip pandemic when he almost single-handedly led the Raptors to an upset victory. Toronto was without their 2 Centers — Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — as well as Fred VanVleet. It’s tough enough for any team to play in the mile-high altitude of Denver, but to do it without key players while facing Jokic, Jamal Murray, Jerami Grant, and Michael Porter Jr. is basically a scheduled loss.

Anunoby had other ideas. He put together a memorable 32-point performance (on 16 field goal attempts!) with seven steals! OG was everywhere during that game. Masai may never admit it, but even though Jokic still got his triple-double, Anunoby’s defensive performance may have provided Ujiri a preview of how a Center-less Raptors team could thrive.

This season, the reigning MVP, Jokic, is being asked to do much more than what he did last year. Murray has yet to suit up and does not have a timetable for his return. MPJ is out for the season, but wouldn’t have been allowed to play anyway due to his vaccination status. They’re giving starter minutes to 35-year-old Jeff Green. Denver should be a lottery team but have battled their way to the middle of the West playoff standings. Jokic is the reason why. There are so many numbers and stats I could pore over to prove his value. But sometimes, a picture really does say a thousand words.

Fun fact that may only interest me and maybe get someone an invite to All-Star Weekend

The field for this year’s dunk contest is already known, but can you honestly sit there and tell me who the participants are without googling? The contest needs some name recognition. It needs a familiar face. The jewel of All-Star Saturday needs someone who is guaranteed to spark intrigue before he steps on the court. The Slam Dunk Contest needs... Aaron Gordon... to get two perfect scores in the finals, another perfect score in the first tiebreaker, then a losing score of 47 in the second tiebreaker! (If you think I’m still salty about his run-ins with Kyle Lowry, then you just don’t know me.)

Prediction

This is an interesting matchup because each team defends well against the others’ strengths. Toronto’s #2 offensive rebounding rate is negated by Denver’s #2 opponents’ offensive rebounding rate. The Nuggets’ solid transition offense — #2 in transition points per play off live rebounds, #7 in transition points per play — is negated by the Raptors’ excellent transition defense (#1 in opponents’ transition frequency). I’ll give the edge to the healthier Raptors squad. The Nuggets will also be playing the back-end of a back-to-back after battling the Celtics in Boston. Toronto wins a hard-fought battle with Denver, 118-117.

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Last Week: 3-1

Season Record for Predictions: 28-23