No matter the expectations many of us had set for the Toronto Raptors coming out of All-Star break, this recent stretch has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. After losing to the Orlando Magic 103-97 on Friday night, the Raptors have fallen to 2-4 since their return from the break. All four of those losses came against teams that are under .500. The playoff race in the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be a tight one, so dropping games against teams that should be penciled in as wins could come easily back to haunt this team.
The loss of OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. struggling to regain his form post-ASB (averaging 12.5 ppg on a putrid 27.4 FG% and 21.7% from three) have not done the Raptors any favours on offense. Piling on top of the problems for the Raptors, they have had no chance to get any real rest, playing six games in eight nights, four games in five nights, and three back-to-backs packed into this rough stretch.
This next game against the Cleveland Cavaliers should be seen as a must-win for many reasons. Not only do the Cavaliers hold a two-game lead in the standings for the 6th seed, but this will also be the start of a grueling six-game road trip featuring games against Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angles Lakers. When the Raptors last faced the Cavaliers, the circumstances were much different. The team had ten players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols; the result was one of the largest losses in franchise history. The Cavaliers won the game 144-99.
This time around, the Raptors once again may be missing key personnel as O.G Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet are both listed as questionable for the game. However, they should be up for the challenge and motivated to impress in what will be the team’s only nationally televised game on ESPN this season.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 7:30 PM EST
Toronto – Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Cleveland – Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobely, Jarret Allen
Toronto – Malachi Flynn (hamstring – questionable), Fred VanVleet (knee – questionable), OG Anunoby (finger – out), D.J. Wilson (knee–out)
Cleveland – Rajon Rondo (toe - out), Caris LeVert (foot – out), Colin Sexton (knee – out)
The return of Garland
Darius Garland has been a vital piece in bringing the Cleveland Cavaliers back to relevancy since the departure of LeBron James. In his third year, Garland has improved in every facet of his game, averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds, and effective FG%. He is entrenched in the race for the most improved player award and earned his first All-Star nod this season. The young All-Star PG had missed the Cavaliers’ first three games post ASB due to a nagging back injury, but he has wasted no time getting back to form since returning.
Garland has looked better than ever in the Cavalier’s past two games, first scoring a season-high 33 points against the Charlotte Hornets and then following up with a career-high 19 assists against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors now have the pleasure of facing Garland and the Cavaliers while missing two of their best defenders in OG and Fred. The team will have their hands full, attempting to slow Garland down and prevent him from taking over the game.
Siakam heating up
Siakam has gotten off to a rocky start since the team has returned to play for the second half of the season. He attempted to play through flu-like symptoms in the Raptors’ first few games back from break, and the results were not pretty. For Siakam’s first four games back, he was unable to shoot higher than 37% from the field and did not crack 20 points in any of the contests. When Siakam is off, the Raptors clearly have trouble putting points on the board, as shown by the two lopsided losses against the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks, where Siakam shot 3-13 and 6-16 from the field, respectively.
However, in the last two games, it appears that Siakam is starting to heat up and return to the same level of play that had all Raptors fans puzzled on his All-Star snub. Against the Pistons, Siakam dominated the inside, scoring 28 points on 10-15 shooting, driving through and around defenders earning 10 free throws. Following up with that impressive performance, Siakam scored 34 points (13-20 from the field 2-3 from three), almost matching his season-high of 35, while hauling in 14 rebounds.
It definitely appears that Siakam has made a full recovery and is ready to put his short slump behind him. Siakam will need to bring the same intensity he has shown in the last two games as he prepares to bang down low with the Cavalier’s super-sized frontcourt of Markannen, Mobley, and Allen.
Are the Raptors destined for the play-in tournament?
When the Raptors went on their eight-game win streak in early February, they reached as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference standings ahead of the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, and only three games behind the Philadelphia 76ers. While a top-five finish in the conference looked increasingly more in the realm of possibilities, those dreams were short-lived. The team has since returned to earth and now finds themselves in the mix of 7th-10th seed. While being two games behind the Cavaliers for the 6th seed.
The #1 priority for the Raptors should now be focused on getting healthy while remaining in the 7th or 8th seed. Losing Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby has proven to significantly impact team success so far in this small sample size. There is no timetable for Fred’s return to the court and OG will be re-evaluated in two weeks. Without them, the upcoming road trip will be one of the most challenging tests the Raptors have faced all season. However, if the team can tread water and get healthy by the end of April while maintaining hold of the 7th or 8th seed, they will have two chances at advancing in the Play-in Tournament for a playoff berth. Not the ideal scenario — but a very realistic one.