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San Antonio Spurs v Toronto Raptors

The Rap-Up: One final trip out west

There are only 18 games remaining. Will Toronto’s yearly success over the final stretch continue this season?

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

As the Toronto Raptors enter the home stretch of the regular season, there is reason for optimism, despite the last bout of injuries.

In every season of Masai Ujiri’s tenure, the Raptors have “won” 11 to 13 of their final 18 games (Winning, of course, meant losing during the Tampa season that turned into a mini-tank that landed the next Giannis perfect rookie to fit the team’s core). Here’s how the team has performed during the final stretch of each season under Ujiri:

2020-21: 6-12

2019-20: 13-5

2018-19: 12-6

2017-18: 12-6

2016-17: 13-5

2015-16: 12-6

2014-15: 11-7

2013-14: 11-7

Toronto should get (somewhat) healthy fairly soon (fingers crossed), as Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have joined the team during this Westcoast road trip. I highlighted the prospects of Toronto winning a large portion of their remaining games and stand behind that glass-half-full approach, assuming no more major injuries befall the team (a tall task, I know).

If the Raptors continue the trend and win at least 11 games to end the season, that puts Toronto in the driver’s seat to host the play-in, or possibly into the 6-seed, depending on how other teams perform. That would also give Toronto at least 45 wins — an incredible number considering pre-season predictions didn’t have the Raptors even approaching 40 wins (more on this below).

March 9 @ San Antonio Spurs

After spending most of the season away from the U.S. national television audience, the Raptors may show up two games in a row! Of course, the first was on Sunday, with Rookie of the Year favourites, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes battling on ABC. In this matchup, all eyes will be on coaching legend, Gregg Popovich, as he looks to surpass Don Nelson’s all-time coaching wins mark of 1,335 after the Spurs defeated the Lakers on Monday.

This hasn’t exactly been the perfect (rumoured) send-off season for Coach Pop, but San Antonio fans can find comfort in knowing their franchise is in good hands with Dejounte Murray. The first-time All-Star is in his fifth season (sixth if you count the 2018-19 season he missed entirely due to a torn ACL) and also having his fifth consecutive year where his points, rebounds, and assists have all increased! His averages of 20.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 9.4 assists put Murray alongside Oscar Robertson (5 times), Russell Westbrook (4 times), James Harden, and LeBron James as the only members of the 20/8/9 club. Dejounte, however, is the ONLY player from that list to also average at least 2 steals per game. How does San Antonio keep landing generational stars?

Fun fact that may only interest me

This season marks the first time in his illustrious 25+ seasons as Spurs head coach where his team has lost at least 40 games. Once. Out of 25 seasons.

In that same span, the Raptors have lost at least 40 games 13 times!

The Sacramento Kings have lost at least 40 games in 16 straight seasons!!

The most astonishing stat comes from the Trust The Process Sixers — specifically, a ridiculous stretch within the calendar year of 2015. If you took their final 10 games from the 2014-15 season and added the first 31 games of the 2015-16 season (that’s 41 games total for those keeping track), Philadelphia lost 40 games!!!

Prediction

Despite the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs continue firing away from the mid-range. For the 4th consecutive season, San Antonio ranks in the top three in percentage of shots in the mid-range — also the 4th consecutive season where they rank in the bottom three in 3-point frequency, uncoincidentally. This works slightly in Toronto’s favour as the mid-range is where the Raptors perform best defensively (13th), compared to the other two areas on the floor, beyond the arc (18th) and at the rim (26th). San Antonio’s defense has been very “un-Popovich-like” lately, surrendering an average of 128.4 points over their last five (and losing their last four, heading into Monday). With VanVleet likely (maybe, hopefully, pretty please) back in the lineup, the Raptors halt their losing skid and come away victorious, 123-119 over the Spurs.

March 11 @ Phoenix Suns

The Suns will be without Chris Paul for most (if not all) of the remaining regular-season games. They also lost Devin Booker last week after he tested positive for COVID. Phoenix’s leading scorer in the first two games of Booker’s absence, Cam Johnson, was ruled out of Sunday’s NBA Finals rematch with the Bucks with a quad injury. Is there cause for concern in the desert?

No! Booker will likely be back for this game with Toronto. Phoenix is still eight games ahead of everyone in the standings. CP3 will be back for the playoffs. The same way Raptors fans boast about extra reps for Scottie Barnes and Malachi Flynn (darn) while OG Anunoby and VanVleet are injured, Suns supporters will relish in the bonus usage coming for DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

Should Booker and/or Johnson miss this meeting, we could see a pair of former Raptors hit the floor (in addition to Cam Payne, who’s already starting in place of Paul) — Bismack Biyombo and Ish Wainwright! Where can I place a bet on Wainwright surpassing his career-high of 10 points in this game?

Fun fact that may only interest me

With over a month remaining in the season, three teams have already surpassed their pre-season win total projections:

  • Minnesota — 36 wins; pre-season over/under = 35.5
  • Memphis — 44 wins; pre-season over/under = 41.5
  • Cleveland — 37 wins; pre-season over/under = 26.5 (This total was surpassed on January 17!!)

If they haven’t already by the time this game comes up, the Raptors and Suns will look to join the list

  • Toronto — 34 wins; pre-season over/under = 35.5
  • Phoenix — 51 wins; pre-season over/under = 51.5

Prediction

Despite missing their two All-Stars, the Suns have still posted a top-10 offense since the All-Star break and extended their lead in the Western Conference standings. If you’re going to beat the Suns, you’ll have to blow them out because Phoenix OWNS the clutch! Their record in the clutch (26-5; .839%) is by far the best in the league (Memphis is the closest at 18-10; .643%). Monty Williams deserves the Coach of the Year award for turning last year’s runner-up finish into a team-to-beat juggernaut this year. With games against the Magic, Rockets, Thunder, Kings (x2), and Lakers (x2) still on the schedule, Phoenix can sleep-walk their way to the #1 overall record. The Raptors would need a fully healthy squad (and an injury-depleted Suns team) to take out the NBA’s best on their home court. Phoenix beats Toronto, 118-112.

March 12 @ Denver Nuggets

This is a Nikola Jokic appreciation post.

In a season full of absurd stat lines, Jokic may have put up the most absurd on Sunday.

The reigning MVP has been an unstoppable force all season long. In addition to the stat above, here’s what else he accomplished on Sunday:

  • He’s the first player in NBA history to post a stat line with those thresholds since blocks and steals began being tracked in 1972
  • Jokic is the first player since LeBron James in 2010, and 3rd player ever, to record a 40-point triple-double with 4 blocks in the same game. Alvan Adams was the other. LeBron also completed the feat in 2006
  • He joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only center in NBA history with multiple 40-point triple-doubles in the same season
  • His two 40-point triple-doubles are twice as many of its kind in Denver Nuggets franchise history — Michael Adams had the franchise’s only other 40-point triple-double in 1991.

Oh, and he also notched another triple-double last night.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Alright, enough about Sunday. Let’s talk about the season.

Ummmm, Nikola Jokic is the MVP!?!?!

I posted this picture previously and the numbers look even crazier now that we’re in the final five weeks of the season! Here are some of the NBA records he’s on track to break:

  • BPM = 13.9 (NBA record: 13.2, set by LeBron James in 2008-09)
  • PER = 32.3 (NBA record: 31.9, set by Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20. Coincidentally, Giannis is also on track to break his record, as he’s currently at 32.0)

It cannot be understated how incredible Jokic’s season has been.

Prediction

Don’t look now, but the Nuggets are making their post-season charge! Denver has won five of their last six since the All-Star break and boasts the 2nd-best efficiency differential and 3rd-best defense. Toronto’s elite ability to crash the offensive glass will be put to the test against the NBA’s #1 team in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage. The Nuggets also rank #1 in opponents’ 3-point percentage and #2 in opponents’ points per putback miss (an area that Toronto ranks 2nd offensively).

On the flip side, Denver ranks 29th in opponents’ field goal % at the rim. Since VanVleet has missed time to recover from knee soreness, the Raptors have ranked 4th in percentage of points in the paint. Even if FVV is back in the lineup, the team is still waiting on Gary Trent Jr.’s shooting to return (in addition to Anunoby), so attacking the paint should continue being a top priority.

Back-to-backs with visits to Denver as the second game should be banned from NBA schedules. There I said it! The altitude is enough of an obstacle to deal with for visiting teams — is it too much to ask for one day to acclimatize? The Knicks and Mavericks are the only other teams that have been scheduled into this scenario and — surprise — they lost (The Suns are scheduled for a visit to Denver in the second game of a back-to-back, but that’s later on in March). Toronto’s elite record on zero days rest (9-5 is only bested by Phoenix) will be put to the test. Unfortunately, a scheduled loss is simply a scheduled loss sometimes. Denver outlasts Toronto, winning 115-113.

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Last Week: 4-1

Season Record for Predictions: 37-27

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