Writing this weekly column for four years — and posting a correct-incorrect record slightly better than Toronto’s win-loss record — doesn’t get accomplished without a few guidelines.
- Records don’t matter: For every upset victory over the Suns, there are disheartening losses to the Pistons. The Raptors seldom find themselves in a blowout game, either way, because
- Numbers do matter: The Hawks have been a thorn in Toronto’s side the last couple of seasons because they’re one of the best at getting to the free-throw line (#4 FT rate) and do an excellent job of protecting the ball (#1 turnover rate).
- Avoid recency bias: From week to week and game to game — heck, from quarter to quarter — things change quickly in the NBA.
I struggle with this one so much that I disregard the first two points when making predictions. Last week, for example, I originally had the Raptors upsetting the Nuggets but switched to a loss because I was writing on Sunday night and just watched the team drop its third straight game. Coming out of the All-Star break, I disregarded the Hawks example in point #2 because Toronto was coming off winning 9 of 11 before the break and seemingly rested. Atlanta won the free-throw battle and Toronto only generated five steals. Surprise, the Hawks won.
So, what the heck do I do this week? The Raptors are looking like world-beaters again after sweeping the incredibly difficult Phoenix-Denver road back-to-back. On deck this week are a pair of underachieving teams from Los Angeles and a Philadelphia team that got blitzed by Brooklyn and needed overtime to get by Orlando.
Let’s see if the numbers can help us avoid any recency bias.
March 14 @ Los Angeles Lakers; March 18 vs Los Angeles Lakers
Have the Lakers fallen so far off that the Raptors can be caught sleeping on them and lose one or both of these games?
That was supposed to be a joke but let’s go through some numbers before jumping to conclusions.
The Raptors have OWNED this rivalry since 2015. Toronto carried an 11-game win streak in this series to Tampa. Of course, the streak ended as the team barrelled down the standings (and towards Scottie Barnes). The Raptors, though, made sure to get the last word — actually, Kyle Lowry did — as they collected their final victory of the Tampa season.
+☝ for Lowry as he's absolutely COOKING the Lakerspic.twitter.com/JmvA121Tfn— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 3, 2021
The Lakers will be on the second night of a road-home back-to-back after playing in Phoenix. They’re 2-6 this season when playing on zero days rest. Anthony Davis will be out for both games as he continues recovery from a mid-foot sprain. The Lakers have only won two of their last nine games. In both of those victories, Los Angeles needed LeBron James to score at least 50 points!
LeBron’s legacy is cemented but he continues re-writing the record books. He currently sits atop the scoring race and can win the scoring title 14 years after the last time he won it. On Sunday, he recorded his 10,000th assist and became the first player in NBA history to record the career triple-quintuple (at least 10,000 points, rebounds, and assists). Despite LeBron’s continued heroics, the Lakers have had a disastrous season by all accounts.
Russell Westbrook has predictably looked lost as he adjusts to a life of not being the focal point on offense. He’s produced his lowest PER and, for the first time in his career, has a negative VORP.
After Westbrook and AD, the only Lakers averaging double-digits in scoring are Malik Monk (13.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists) and Carmelo Anthony (13.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.0 assists). Those figures pale in comparison to Toronto’s fifth(!)-leading scorer, Scottie Barnes (15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists).
The Lakers have had a bottom-5 offense AND defense over the last two weeks, despite games against Spurs, Rockets, and Wizards.
Every time you watch this, focus on a different Laker. https://t.co/Fwb9X6zKSQ— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) February 28, 2022
Fun fact that may only interest me
LeBron James has had Toronto’s number throughout his career but not so much recently. Here are his records against the Raptors (in games where he’s played) with each of his teams:
- Cleveland: 28-10
- Miami: 13-0
- Los Angeles: 0-5
Since joining the Lakers, LeBron has had more turnovers than stocks (steals + blocks) in each of the five matchups with Toronto. He’s only scored more than 20 once. The Lakers have held a lead for a total of 1 minute and 39 seconds of the 60 fourth-quarter minutes!
The Lakers are a bottom-10 team in turnover rate and opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage. There have been calls to have the struggling Westbrook come off the bench, but with starting minutes already being given to Stanley Johnson and Austin Reaves, there isn’t much to choose from with Anthony (who was past his prime before any of the Raptors core was relevant) and Talen Horton-Tucker (who’s just as valuable as Svi Mykhailiuk... seriously, their advance stats are almost identical). Nick Nurse will gladly send double-teams to LeBron all night and watch the Lakers offense crumble (19th in halfcourt points per play; 25th in mid-range accuracy; 19th in 3-point accuracy). Raptors win handily in Los Angeles, 125-107, then squeeze by in front of a rabid Scotiabank Arena crowd, 110-109.
March 16 @ Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers wrap up playing three games in four nights by flying from a road date in Cleveland to a home date with Toronto.
This team has been decimated by injuries (more on this in the next section), but give credit to Tyronn Lue for keeping this team afloat and essentially locked into the 8th-seed. There’s no reason to tank since OKC owns all their first-round picks for the foreseeable future. The Clippers don’t lead any head-to-head series against any of the top six Western Conference teams but did win the season series (3-1) against their potential play-in opponent, Minnesota.
The top 5 Clippers in total minutes played are Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac, and Eric Bledsoe. Yes, that’s the same Eric Bledsoe that was traded on February 4th. Jackson is the leading scorer — of those that are healthy — averaging 17.1 points per game. His scoring wouldn’t even crack the top 4 on the Raptors.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Norm Powell, and Robert Covington make up a very solid core that no team should want to face in the playoffs. Unfortunately, none of them are currently playing for the Clippers. In fact, that quartet has combined to play as many games (41) as Khem Birch has for Toronto this season!
They’ve all been traded over the years and have brought back some big names in return for their former teams. Those names include Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, George Hill, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Gary Trent Jr., Eric Bledsoe, Jimmy Butler, and, of course, Greivis Vasquez.
When these teams matched up on New Year’s Eve, the Clippers had a very similar lineup to what Toronto will see in this one (swap out the since-traded Serge Ibaka for the bruising Ivica Zubac), but the Raptors will definitely look different. Anunoby may still be out but Scottie Barnes, who missed the first matchup, should be ready to resume his march towards more Rookie of the Year votes. The Clippers are also going to see a resurgent Precious Achiuwa (only 8 minutes played previously) and Thad Young (still with the Spurs). While L.A. has three big bodies they can throw at Toronto (Zubac, Marcus Morris, and Isaiah Hartenstein), their 28th-ranked efficiency at the rim won’t scare the Raptors’ bigs. The Raptors will need to use their length and versatility to slow down the Clippers’ outside shooting. In the previous meeting, the Clippers hit 15 threes and shot 44% from beyond the arc. It was the only game where they shot better than 41% from three but lost (15-0 in all other instances). The good news is that Toronto has held opponents under 41% shooting from three in 9 of 10 games since the All-Star break. Toronto wraps up a wildly successful road trip by beating the Clippers, 110-105.
March 20 @ Philadelphia 76ers
As a team, the Raptors average 21.3 free throws per game.
Joel Embiid and James Harden average 20.1 free throws per game.
James Harden and Joel Embiid are a combined 9 of 36 from the field but have 47 points because they're 27 of 28 at the line.— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) March 14, 2022
How are the Raptors going to keep these two from getting to the line? A Harden-Embiid parade to the charity stripe may be in the cards, despite Toronto’s recent improvement in that area and getting to the line more than their opponents in 6 of their last 7 games. But maybe that’s not as bad an outcome as one would assume.
In their 129-100 blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Embiid got to the line 19 times but shot 5-for-17 from the field. Meanwhile, Harden succumbed to the playoff atmosphere and re-birthed “playoff Harden”, shooting 3-for-17 from the field and accumulating twice as many turnovers (4) as free throw attempts (2).
“Tonight was good for us, man. We got our ass kicked,” James Harden said. “And since I’ve been here, everything has been sweet and we’ve been winning games. And so tonight was good for us and we get an opportunity to come down to reality, watch film and just continue to get better and make sure we hit the right strides.”
With a visit to Orlando for their next game, the Sixers would surely respond, right? Umm, no. Embiid got to the line 17 times (great) but shot 9-for-28 from the field (not so great). Harden “improved” to 5-for-19 from the field and got to the free-throw line 15 times. Philadelphia needed overtime and a missed buzzer-beater by Cole Anthony to escape with a victory.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Sunday is fun day for one of these teams (and a day of rest for the other).
The Raptors are at least .500 or better when playing on six of the seven days of the week. Sunday is the only day where they’ve lost (6) more than they’ve won (3).
On the flip side, the Sixers are a perfect 6-0 when playing on Sunday.
The aforementioned struggles by Embiid and Harden were partially masked by Tobias Harris’ positive play. Similar to his role with the 2019 Sixers, Harris should be the beneficiary of the increased attention towards his All-Star teammates. What’s different this time around is a weaker defense. Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Danny Green are all excellent defenders, but the latter two are negatives on offense and begging to be left open while Toronto doubles on Philly’s stars. There’s a recipe for success for the Raptors.
Philadelphia’s opponents have an above-average offensive rebounding rate and their defense is bottom-10 in opponents’ efficiency at the rim. Toronto’s barrage of arms against Philly’s smaller defenders should lead to many second-chance points. The Raptors have the right personnel to give the Sixers fits, especially if OG Anunoby is back in the lineup. With this game sandwiched between the surging Mavericks and the first-place Heat, it’s entirely possible the Sixers can be caught in the lack-of-focus department. The Raptors surprise the Sixers and hand them their first Sunday loss, 118-107.
Crap, I did the recency bias thing again!