Am I missing something or do the Toronto Raptors have nothing but health to worry about between now and the end of the regular season?
Yes, the Raptors still have an uphill battle to get out of the play-in. Yes, I saw Kyrie Irving look like the most unstoppable player on the planet when he dropped 60 points last week. But last I checked, Irving wouldn’t be allowed to play in a Nets-Raptors play-in game — regardless of the location. Also, I realize that still means facing Kevin Durant, but since when was that matchup a do-or-die? If the Raptors lose that game, they’d still get to host either the Hawks (Raps lead season series 2-1 with one matchup remaining) or Hornets (Raps won season series 2-1).
Still worried about finishing 6th, 7th, or 8th? Did you know the Raptors are 7-2 against the top 3 teams in the East?
It’s worth reminding that this season was supposed to be a development year. This was a year to see what the Raptors have with Scottie Barnes, and an opportunity to see how good Toronto’s post-Kyle-Lowry core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby could be, back in the confines of Scotiabank Arena. By all accounts, the 2021-22 campaign has already been a rousing success that has exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic Raptors fan.
The team is playing with house money AND retaken the mantle of “lower seed that no one wants to face in the first round.”
With two of the most important games of the season on deck this week, let’s quickly revisit the tiebreaker situation:
- Chicago leads Toronto 2-1 in the season series heading into their final matchup on Monday
- Cleveland leads Toronto 3-0 in the season series heading into their final matchup on Thursday
- Chicago leads Cleveland 2-1 in the season series heading into their final matchup on Saturday
As far as three-team tiebreaker rules go, even if Toronto wins their final games against Chicago and Cleveland, they’d finish third (or 7th in the standings) due to a season series loss (Cleveland) or because they have the lowest winning percentage in games among the three teams.
In other words, forget about the tiebreakers and just win every remaining game!
March 21 @ Chicago Bulls
This is Toronto’s second-to-last back-to-back on the schedule. Chicago will be returning home after a brutal west coast road trip where the Bulls lost all three games in Sacramento, Utah, and Phoenix. At least the Bulls will have two days of rest.
Another positive for the struggling Bulls is the return of Patrick Williams. The second-year forward will rejoin the lineup after missing all but the first five games of the season due to a wrist injury. Williams’ return will be a welcome addition to a Bulls team that’s fallen off the rails defensively.
Small sample size aside, Chicago was 9th offensively and 4th defensively when Williams went down with his injury. Fast forward five months and the Bulls are still 9th on offense but have plummeted to 19th on defense. Long-term injuries to Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, who is still out and may not return before the end of the regular season, were also contributing factors to Chicago’s defensive decline.
Nick Nurse mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Fred VanVleet would likely rest his knee in one of the two games in each of Toronto’s remaining back-to-backs. By sitting out Sunday’s game in Philadelphia, it’s not a stretch to assume Fred will be in the lineup for this pivotal tilt.
Fun fact that may only interest me
The Bulls are who we think they are.
Chicago is 14-3 against the bottom five teams in the East (10-2 against the bottom three). However, they’re also 1-10 against the top five teams in the East (0-9 against the top three).
If you add in the best from the West, Chicago is 3-18 against the top five in both conferences and 0-15 against the top three from each conference!
“It’s probably the most (double-teams) I’ve seen in my career, to be honest with you,” DeMar DeRozan said this after Friday’s loss to the Suns. You’d expect the same from Nick Nurse this time around. Since his extraordinary February stretch where he had eight straight games scoring at least 35 points on 50% or better, DeRozan has scored more than 35 once in the 10 games since and shot better than 50% the same number of times as me, zero! The Bulls’ offense ranks 27th over the last two weeks and this uber-important matchup occurs the day before they kick off a 5-game road trip in Milwaukee. The Raptors improve the league’s 2nd-best record with zero days rest by defeating the Bulls, 109-105.
March 24 vs Cleveland Cavaliers
The Raptors finish 8 of their final 10 games at Scotiabank Arena, while their two road games are against lottery-bound teams with an incentive to tank! First up, though, is probably the most important game remaining on the schedule.
Cleveland won the first three meetings and has already clinched the tiebreaker. With a home date with the Bulls two nights later, it’s safe to say this week will go a long way in determining the 5th-7th seeds.
Jarrett Allen is still out from fracturing his finger in the last matchup with the Raptors. Before his injury, the Cavaliers ranked 4th defensively with a 107.5 defensive rating. However, without their anchor, Cleveland’s defense has ranked 17th with a 116.6 rating. Wait, I thought Evan Mobley is supposed to be All-Defense?
Fun fact that may only interest me
I was obviously kidding about Mobley and know he’s going to be a truly special player for Cleveland. Since we’re here, we might as well do some Rookie of the Year analysis.
15.2 PTS, 8.3 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.7 BLK, 54.5 TS%, 16.1 PER, 5.1 WS, 0.7 BPM, 1.5 VORP
15.5 PTS, 7.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 55.4 TS%, 16.6 PER, 5.5 WS, 0.9 BPM, 1.6 VORP
Thanks to his second-half tear, Barnes has now passed Mobley in both traditional AND advanced stats (except for rebounds and blocks). Broken down further, Barnes has more favourable offensive numbers (Offensive Rating, Offensive BPM, Offensive Win Shares), while Mobley still leads defensively (Defensive Rating, Defensive BPM, Defensive Win Shares).
Barring any dramatic winning (or losing) streaks, Cleveland and Toronto will finish with roughly similar records. The Rookie of the Year selection may come down to which nit to pick.
Mobley has two All-Star teammates, while Barnes has one. Mobley has the benefit of Allen behind him as a defensive cushion, while Barnes is often the tallest Raptor on the court. Just as Mobley’s amazing pre-All-Star numbers boosted his ROTY credentials, Barnes’ post-All-Star stats have done the same. Recency bias may be the final piece that solves the Rookie of the Year puzzle.
Before losing 102-101 early in November to the Cavaliers, the Raptors had won the previous 6 straight home games against Cleveland. In that game, Pascal Siakam was still out recovering from shoulder surgery. The tables have turned as it’s Cleveland, this time, missing their All-Star big. The Cavaliers haven’t swept the season series since 2008-09, which was so long ago, LeBron James hadn’t even won a ring yet. Toronto wins the turnover battle, outscores Cleveland in transition, and owns the offensive glass in a 108-99 victory over the Cavaliers.
March 26 vs Indiana Pacers
Ricky Rubio and TJ Warren (remember him?) are not playing again this season. TJ McConnell was supposed to be re-evaluated in February. Isaiah Jackson entered health & safety protocols (remember those?) on Thursday. Chris Duarte missed Friday’s game with a toe injury. Myles Turner has been out for the last four weeks with a foot injury. Indiana has the 5th-best odds in the draft lottery but the four teams “ahead” of them have created enough distance that their current position is likely the “highest” they’ll get. With Sacramento
mercifully essentially out of the playoff race, it would be in the Pacers’ best interest to engage full-tank mode.
At least they’re having fun!
Fun fact that may only interest me
Since defeating the Raptors on November 26, the Pacers have only won 16 games. That’s less than 1 win per week.
Of those 16 games, only four have come against teams over .500. That’s an average of 1 win per month. (Yes, that means they’ve reached their “quota” for March)
The good news for Indiana is that they’ve had a better record than Sacramento since the trade that sent Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb, and Justin Holiday to the Kings for Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Tristan Thompson (Yes, Thompson has played for all three of Toronto’s opponents this week). The bad news is that the Pacers have only gone 6-11 (Kings 5-13).
Coming off some playoff atmosphere-like games against Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland — and with Boston and Minnesota next on the schedule — there is some serious letdown game potential.
However, after removing the Tampa season (seriously, what a wasted year), the Raptors had won 14 straight against the Pacers at Scotiabank Arena. In fact, the last time Indiana won in Toronto, it was in the Air Canada Centre! Toronto gets past the Pacers, 118-114.