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Eastern Conference Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors

The Rap-Up: Battling Boston and preparing for Kyle Lowry’s return

With only two weeks remaining, every game is important. With the East-leading Celtics coming to town, followed shortly after with the return of Kyle Lowry, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more pivotal week in Toronto’s regular season calendar.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

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We’ve reached the point of the season where every game has added weight.

A Lakers loss to the Pelicans doesn’t seem so bad if it’s the end of February. But at the end of March? Now the Lakers only sit one game from not even making the play-in tournament!

Three losses to the Cavaliers look bad on the Raptors’ record. But a Toronto victory in late March suddenly carries more weight — especially now that the Raptors have leapfrogged Cleveland in the standings.

While three of Toronto’s four games this week are at home, look at how each of the three opponents have performed over the last 15 games.

So, the Raptors start the week with the two teams with the best net ratings (and main challengers to Monty Williams for Coach of the Year), then end the week against the league’s #1 defense.

Can Toronto carry the momentum and continue rising in the standings heading into next week — the final week of the regular season?

March 28 vs Boston Celtics

Is it me or does the 115-83 victory over Boston at the start of the season feel like it happened 3 years ago?

The Celtics we saw on October 22, 2021, are much different than the Celtics we’re seeing on March 28, 2022. As noted above, they have the #1 Net Rating over the last 15 games. The Celtics own the #1 defense in the league, also ranking 1st in the league in opponents’ points per possession and opponents’ effective FG%. Break that down further and Ime Udoka’s got an impenetrable defense. Boston is #1 in opponents’ 3-point FG% AND opponents’ mid-range FG%. That only leaves one area — the rim — where they rank 2nd in opponents’ frequency.

In that same light, the Raptors are much different than the team that lost twice to the Celtics in November. Pascal Siakam had yet to find the All-NBA form that has defined his season thus far. Chris Boucher had yet to realize his potential as the bench sparkplug. Precious Achiuwa had yet to discover his 3-point marksmanship.

This matchup figures to be a good indication of where both teams stand in the East pecking order, especially considering both are close or at full health and playing their best basketball of the season. (That sentence made more sense before Robert Williams suffered a knee sprain on Sunday)

Fun fact that may only interest me

After defeating the Timberwolves on Sunday, Boston’s meteoric rise up the standings reached its climax as the Celtics visit Toronto atop the East. Here’s how the Raptors have fared in their last 3 games where their opponent was 1st in the East:

  • January 29: Win in Miami, 124-120 in triple overtime
  • February 1: Win vs Miami, 110-106
  • February 3: Win vs Chicago, 127-120 in overtime

Prediction

How do you defeat a team that can’t be defeated? This is a Boston team that’s won 26 of their last 29 games — only losing twice since the All-Star break.

First, you catch them at the right time on the schedule. This is the back-end of a back-to-back for Boston after hosting Minnesota. It’s also the middle of an uber-difficult 3-games-in-4-nights stretch that ends with a home date with the Miami Heat. (That sentence made a lot more sense before the Celtics owned the Wolves on Sunday and the Heat suffered their 4th straight loss on Saturday) Boston has one of the best records (8-5) with zero days rest, but two of their three post-All-Star break losses were on the second game of a b2b (SEGABABA). The only win they’ve had against a team over. 500 since early November was against a Bulls squad that didn’t have Zach Lavine, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Derrick Jones Jr.

Second, you catch a break with the teams’ roster.

Third, exploit the heck out of any weaknesses. Since the All-Star break, Boston’s given up 118.6 points per 100 possessions during third quarters — that would rank last in the NBA over the entire season. Toronto has outscored Boston 80-61 in the third quarter over their three matchups this season.

Finally... it’s a trap game! After spending all of 2022 coming back from being three games under .500, the Celtics have finally reached the top of the East standings. With the team they’ve been chasing, Miami, on deck next — plus the seemingly insurmountable psychological edge on the Raptors — it would surprise very few if the Celtics overlook Toronto. Call me a homer, but the Raptors beat the Celtics 99-94.

March 30 vs Minnesota Timberwolves

Toronto catches the Timberwolves in the midst of a season-defining road trip. After visiting Boston on Sunday (update: Minnesota lost handily), this reunion between Chris Finch and Nick Nurse is followed by a visit to the Mile High city (and Jokic-KAT clash).

As I alluded to earlier, Finch will be in the Coach of the Year discussion, along with Udoka, Taylor Jenkins, and Monty Williams. Nurse’s old British Basketball League rival, Finch has led a remarkable turnaround season that even the most positive Timberwolves fan couldn’t have imagined. Their biggest off-season move was trading Jarrett Culver and Juan Hernangomez to Memphis for Pat Beverley. (Imagine PatBev on the Grizz now?!?) Yet, only one season after finishing with a 23-49 record, the Timberwolves have 43 wins (and counting) for the second time since 2005.

Anthony Edwards has generally sidestepped the sophomore slump. D’Angelo Russell has settled into his role as floor general (career-high 7.1 assists per game) and tertiary scorer (18.3 points is third behind Edwards and KAT). Beverley has fit in seamlessly with Minnesota, despite being the only player in his 30s. His defensive BPM leads the team, as does his ability to annoy opposing players.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Kevin Love. Derrick Rose. Andrew Wiggins. Kevin Garnett. Wally Szczerbiak. Michael Beasley. Isaiah Rider. Kevin Martin. Stephon Marbury. Zach Lavine. Jimmy Butler.

So many talented scorers have donned a Timberwolves jersey. But only one man in franchise history has ever scored 60 in a game: Karl-Anthony Towns.

Prediction

Removing the Tampa season (a phrase that I promise you will be repeated next season and every season after that), the Raptors have won the last 16 meetings when the Timberwolves come to town. Minnesota is one of only three teams that rank in the top-10 in both offense and defense. Toronto should be able to generate transition opportunities as Minnesota ranks 28th in opponents’ transition opportunities stemming from live rebounds.

However, the Timberwolves have won 11 of their last 15 games, including victories over Miami, Milwaukee, Golden State, Cleveland, and Dallas. If they can shoot anything near 38% from three, Minnesota can really catch the Raptors off-guard and un-focused (especially if they beat the Celtics on Monday).

Take things one game at a time....or something like that, but I can’t shake the feeling that Toronto will lose one of their next two games. Since I (stupidly?) have the Raptors beating the Celtics, Minnesota can return the favour and steal a trap game win over Toronto. The Timberwolves come away with a shocking 100-97 victory over the Raptors.

April 1 @ Orlando Magic

The youth movement has arrived in Orlando.

Wendell Carter Jr. is a walking double-double (15.0 points, 10.4 rebounds per game). Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs are already a backcourt duo worthy of attention, each with triple-double potential, quickness to create open looks, and athleticism to make difficult shots. Franz Wagner would be in the Rookie of the Year discussion if not for a stacked class. Mo Bamba is the ideal big for today’s NBA with the ability to switch onto smaller players yet still defend the rim. Markelle Fultz is slowly working his way back into form and should be ready to surprise folks next season. Finally, with vaccination mandates lifting, I’d be shocked if Jonathan Isaac (a Pascal Siakam stopper not too long ago) wasn’t on the opening day roster in October.

All of the players I just listed are younger than OG Anunoby.

Fun fact that may only interest me

This past year, The Raptor was nominated for the Mascot Hall of Fame. He ultimately fell short and was not inducted. A handful of NBA mascots, though, have been inducted including Benny the Bull, Boomer (Pacers), Clutch the Bear (Rockets), The Coyote (Spurs), The Gorilla (Suns), Jazz Bear, and Rocky (Nuggets). I should probably note that Youppi is the only Canadian-based mascot inducted. Orlando’s mascot, Stuff, was nominated in 2016 but also fell short of induction.

This was just an excuse to re-post this video.

Prediction

This has a similar feel as Saturday’s date with the Pacers. With the number of games dwindling and lottery positions still in flux, it would shock no one if Orlando’s regulars are benched with phantom injuries. Suggs has missed seven straight, including Monday’s game in Cleveland, with an ankle injury.

But the Magic have played Toronto fairly well this season. They almost pulled out a comeback victory in October, ultimately falling short on a missed buzzer-beater. The Magic already defeated the Raptors earlier this month. If I’m going to say Boston could overlook Toronto while looking forward to Miami, I could say the same about a Raptors team about to welcome back Kyle Lowry and his Heat to Scotiabank Arena. Orlando defeats Toronto, 100-92.

April Fools! The Raptors overcome a pesky, yet probably short-handed Magic squad and win, 113-104.

April 3 vs Miami Heat

Happy Birthday Pascal Siakam! It’s actually the day before. Also, it probably won’t get much attention because, just like most of his career, Siakam will be overshadowed by someone with KL as their initials!

Get your tissues out because Kyle Lowry is returning to Scotiabank Arena as a visitor! The memories will overtake your Twitter timeline. Video montages of his Raptors career will run rampant on every TSN and Sportsnet channel. The highlights read like a “Greatest Hits” album.

Game 6 of the Finals. The half-court buzzer-beater against Miami. Eastern Conference Championship Game 6 against Milwaukee. The All-Star Game charges (plural). Game 6 against Boston. His final game as a Raptor, torching Lebron’s Lakers one more time. The inbounds pass to OG.

Give Lowry his flowers today and every day until he retires as a Raptor and his statue is erected outside of Scotiabank Arena.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Let’s take a break from the G.R.O.A.T. and see how his Heat are doing down the stretch.

Since this tweet, Miami lost at home to Brooklyn. No squandered fourth-quarter lead though because it was a blowout. The Nets had a lead as high as 37 before garbage time (i.e. the final 12 minutes).

Prediction

Miami visits Toronto on the second game of a road back-to-back after playing in Chicago. The Heat’s game against the Bulls starts at 8pm while this game starts at 7pm. Not only is the earlier time in the second game, but the Heat also lose an hour traveling from the Central Time Zone to Eastern Time Zone. This is game #79....you think they’ll be a little fatigued?

Oh and there’s also the matter of the Jimmy Butler-Erik Spoelstra/Udonis Haslem fight. I still can’t figure out if Lowry was calling timeout to the officials or to Jimmy/Erik.

Miami is the 5th-oldest team in the league (average age 28.2) and it shows when they lack rest. The Heat are 4-9 when playing on zero days rest. Miami’s averaged 19.5 turnovers over their last 2 losses in SEGABABAs. In fact, it’s still 19.5 if you stretch that out to their last 4 because the additional 2 instances were losses to the Raptors!

Toronto feasts on a tired Heat squad that’s falling apart at the seams at the worst time, winning 100-89.

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Last Week: 2-1

Season Record for Predictions: 43-31

WNBA Season Preview: Canadians to watch, expansion on the horizon, and more

That’s A Rap #180: Raptors season comes to a bittersweet end

Toronto’s season comes to an end as Philadelphia wins Game Six, 132-97