We’ve made it!
The Toronto Raptors overcame another season filled with injuries, another team-wide bout of COVID, another stretch of games in front of half-empty or empty home crowds... heck, they even overcame a fire inside Scotiabank Arena! Yet, here they stand, in a top-6 position with four games remaining and an outside chance of hosting a first-round series.
How did the Raptors get here? Let’s revisit some of the pre-season wish list items for a successful season.
The Kyle Lowry void — both as floor general and locker room leader — needed to be filled by Fred VanVleet.
Pascal Siakam needed to have a bounceback year and return to the All-NBA version of himself from two seasons ago... all while recovering from shoulder surgery that stripped him from another offseason of proper training.
Scottie Barnes had to prove that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster made the right call in drafting him over Jalen Suggs.
Check. Check. Check.
To boot, Gary Trent Jr. made a monumental leap on the defensive end, hovering around a top-3 position in the steals per game category all season long. Chris Boucher, after several inconsistent seasons, became the most reliable player off the bench, cutting down on reckless fouls, turning into a dynamic roll man, and being more selective with his shots. Precious Achiuwa has evolved from “energy guy off the bench who can crash the boards” to an offensive swiss army knife that can lead a fastbreak, post up smaller defenders, and knock down threes. For context, his 36% shooting from three is ahead of Tobias Harris (35.6%) and Joe Ingles (34.7%), and just behind Klay Thompson (36.5%). OG Anunoby missed a lot of time again due to injury, but still managed to average 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals for a third consecutive season, while also raising his scoring to a career-high 17.3 points. If you add in the two triples he averages per game, only Lamelo Ball has hit each of those thresholds this season.
As a team, the Raptors have been trending in the right direction. The offense ranks a moderate 14th in offensive rating and 12th in net rating. But those rankings jump to 9th and 7th respectively in the clutch, and 8th and 4th respectively in the fourth quarter. When the pressure ratchets up, Nick Nurse’s squad has consistently met (and often exceeded) challenges.
This team, however, was never going to be an offensive juggernaut. This team was going to make its mark on the defensive end. THAT is where Vision 6’9 is shining.
If defense wins championships, then having the #2 defense against the best 8 teams in the NBA is probably a good sign.
It's been a while since I've posted this...— Eustacchio Raulli (@EVR1022) March 29, 2022
Team splits vs competition level: pic.twitter.com/Yr493AV1PZ
As Toronto continues distancing itself from the play-in tournament, the upper echelon in the East is not looking forward to a seven-game series with the Raptors.
Regardless of how the playoffs turn out, this season has been a rousing success. This year was about making up for lost time in Tampa. We finally got to see what this core looks like under somewhat normal conditions. This core has an All-Star point guard, an All-NBA forward, a microwave shooter with elite on-ball defense, the ideal 3-and-D wing for today’s NBA... and a rookie who might end up being better than all of them!
For the first time since the championship season, there will be playoff games played at Scotiabank Arena, but without the pressure of winning the championship, let alone a playoff series. In fact, all the pressure will be on their first-round opponent, who surely entered the season with sights on hoisting the Larry OB.
So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the final regular season games this week. The Toronto Raptors will enter the playoffs next week having blown away all pre-season predictions with a chance to make some serious noise. I can already see it. Barnes is sprinting down the floor after stealing the ball. He ices the game with a breakaway jam while the Scotiabank Arena screams at deafening levels. Above all that noise, Barnes hollers, “WE MADE IT!”
April 5 vs Atlanta Hawks
Toronto continues a stretch where their bottom-10 ranking for opponents’ free throw rate will be put to the test. After facing the Heat on Sunday (#5 free throw rate), the Raptors essentially end the season against all of the leaders in that category.
Free throw rate ranking for Toronto's final 5 opponents:— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) April 3, 2022
New York #2
Buuuut, I'm sure we won't complain about the refs, right?!?!?
The Hawks, like the Raptors, have found their mojo at the right time. Atlanta’s won their last five games and 10 of their last 13. Seemingly out of nowhere, they’ve leaped Brooklyn for the 8th spot and licking their chops for a chance to face the faltering Cavaliers in the play-in — a team they’ve defeated 3 of 4 times this season.
Atlanta has been without John Collins since mid-March. He’s still out indefinitely, which is a tough blow considering the Hawks’ season may not extend long enough to see his return.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Trae Young has accumulated 30 or more points and 10 or more assists in the same game 19 times this season. That leads the NBA by a wide margin. How wide?
That’s more than James Harden, Lebron James, Nikola Jokic, and Steph Curry... combined!
Since the All-Star break, Atlanta is 9-1 at home, but only 4-6 on the road. They enter this game with 2 days of rest (Raptors with 1 day of rest), which would typically be positive. However, Atlanta’s worst rest-related record (4-7) is when they’re on 2 days of rest.
I made a big deal about Atlanta’s free throw rate at the top but Toronto’s done a good job of neutralizing that threat. In each of the three previous matchups, the Raptors have held the Hawks under their average free throw total (22.5 free throw attempts per game).
Atlanta’s been so good lately, and Toronto’s next opponent has been falling apart, that this no longer qualifies as a trap game. The Raptors have won the last 5 home games (excluding the Tampa season, as usual) in this rivalry — which currently sits at a very tidy 49 wins apiece! Toronto withstands Young’s best punch and prevails over the Hawks, 112-110.
April 7 vs Philadelphia 76ers
As if this matchup wasn’t interesting enough.
New ESPN story: Asked in the past 24 hours if their teams are fully vaccinated, the Heat and Bucks said they were. The Celtics and 76ers declined to do so – meaning they could be missing players for road games in a possible first round series with Toronto. https://t.co/TQD07Qo7rI— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) March 30, 2022
Danny Green is vaccinated, right? (Yes, he is. That would be the cruelest of cruel ironies.) It’s crazy to think that since winning the championship in Toronto:
- Green has won another championship with the Lakers (and already received his ring)
- Kawhi Leonard joined the Clippers and has played as many games the last two seasons as Marc Gasol, who has spent the last year in Spain
- Kyle Lowry returned to Toronto as an opponent before Green got his ring
Sunday’s results essentially squashed the idea that this matchup could be the swing game that vaults Toronto towards home-court advantage in the first round (against Philadelphia, no less). Nonetheless, Toronto owns the tie-breaker having won two of the first three meetings, and has a chance to hold all the momentum if they meet again in the playoffs.
Fun fact that may only interest me
James Harden averages 9.4 free throws per game.
Joel Embiid averages 11.7 free throws per game.
They are the first pair of teammates to average at least 9 free throws each per game since Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade in 2004-05. Before them, it hadn’t been accomplished since 1969-70 when Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West each averaged at least 10 free throws per game.
The Sixers may be the only team in the East with a better road record than the Raptors, but make no mistake, they do not like playing at Scotiabank Arena. Pre-pandemic, Toronto had won 15 straight when the Sixers came to town. Yes, they won in Toronto in December, but let’s not forget that was when the Raptors were hit with COVID. Eight players missed that game, including Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes (yet, Toronto still held the lead with under 90 seconds remaining). Over three months later and COVID is still an integral aspect of this matchup.
As of Sunday evening, nobody on the Sixers was injured. It’ll be interesting to see which names pop up on the injury report.
Toronto should have all the confidence to beat Philadelphia, regardless of who’s in or out of the Sixers’ lineup. In the last meeting, the Raptors won, despite missing VanVleet and Anunoby, partially because Barnes had the length to disrupt Harden’s offense and Achiuwa had the strength to body up Embiid. More importantly, Toronto switched at almost every opportunity and dared the Sixers to beat them one-on-one. If you think Philadelphia has learned its lesson, look no further than last Thursday’s loss to Detroit. Dwane Casey had his players switch everything and the strategy propelled the Pistons to victory. Toronto may run out of games to catch the Sixers in the standings, but they’ll still come away with this crucial win, 109-106 over Philadelphia.
April 8 vs Houston Rockets
With Houston essentially locked into a top-3 (bottom-3?) spot for the draft lottery, there is no more incentive for the Rockets to lose games (Reminder: the worst 3 teams all have the same number of lottery balls to nab the #1 spot in the draft). Well, at least no incentive to lose intentionally. Houston seems to be catching Ls from all directions.
Houston’s lost 16 of 21 games since the All-Star break with four of those wins coming against lottery-bound teams. The Rockets have 3 players on the roster that earned more than $9 million in salary this season: John Wall hasn’t played this season, while two of the older Rockets, Christian Wood (26) and Eric Gordon (33), have each missed the last four games as Stephen Silas hands the keys over to his young players to develop.
Kevin Porter Jr. ranks 17th in assists with 6.2 per game. Josh Christopher dropped a career-high 30 points on Sunday. Jae’Sean Tate (11.9 points and 5.4 rebounds on 50% shooting) and Kenyon Martin Jr. (2nd-highest VORP on the team behind Wood) have missed a combined seven games this season, which doesn’t sound amazing but really is when you think about all the Raptors that have missed games this year.
Oh, and there’s that Jalen Green guy too.
Fun fact that may only interest me
While not on the same level that Darko Milicic was with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade, Jalen Green is a forgotten name in the Rookie of the Year discussion that includes the three players drafted around him.
That hasn’t stopped Green from making the most of a lost Rockets season. He recently joined James Harden as the only other player in Rockets history to compile 5 straight games with 20+ points and 5+ threes. (That streak ended on Sunday when Green “only” hit 4 triples.)
The Rockets have two days of rest and catch the Raptors on the back-end of a back-to-back (in Game 81, no less). Will that make a difference? Probably not. Houston may have their off-season plans already crystallizing, but even with only two games remaining, there will still be lots for the Raptors to play for. When in doubt, I turn to math:
Worst record in the NBA + a starting lineup of players who cannot drink legally in the US + the highest turnover rate + a Raptors team that’s #1 at forcing turnovers = a blowout of epic proportions! Okay, maybe not epic proportions. Toronto blows out the Rockets, 130-112.
April 10 @ New York Knicks
Ending the season with two games against lottery teams is so perfect for this Raptors team. With the top 4 teams jumbled tightly and a top-6 seed essentially locked in, Toronto will have no idea (or control over) who they’re facing in the playoffs. That means that they can use this final game of the season as a tuneup for the post-season. Nick Nurse can choose to rest players who aren’t 100% percent. He can try different lineups and groupings, as well as test out some plays/sets.
The goal is to come out of this game healthy and ready for the post-season. Unless they’re fighting for the 4th seed or trying to stay out of the play-in, none of Toronto’s core should be playing more than 30 minutes.
Ah, screw it. Siakam’s getting a 30-point triple-double! I don’t care if the Knicks are out of contention and have shut down Julius Randle for the season. Siakam should treat New York the same way LeBron James used to treat the Raptors (in his Cleveland days) and rip their souls out every single time.
Fun fact that may only interest me
With Randle done for the year, more playing time and touches should be coming for Obi Toppin. When the 2022 Slam Dunk champ plays 30 or more minutes, he’s averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 60% shooting.
Don’t ask me how many games that covers. A small sample size is all I’ll say. Four games. Happy now? Come on, I’ve done 81 of these fun facts, give me a break!
Toronto has won 20 of the last 23 meetings with New York. Two of those losses came in the thick of the tanking portion of the Tampa season. The only loss was in 2017 when New York kept Toronto scoreless for almost eight and a half minutes(!) while going on a 26-0 run (not a typo!).
So, why am I picking the Knicks to win?!?
It’s the last day of the season and weird stuff happens. Could someone dealing with a recent ailment (i.e. VanVleet, Anunoby, Birch) get some rest? Will Nurse give his end-of-bench players some extra run because they won’t play during the playoffs? Yes and yes.
What about New York? They’ve decided now is the time to start winning games with victories over Chicago, Miami, and Charlotte in the last two weeks.
Nurse has preached for months that his goal was for the team to get some playoff reps. Why would he risk injury now, with a top-6 seed (presumably) locked up and the team (presumably, fingers crossed, knocking on wood) healthy? Knicks defeat the Raptors, 103-94.
Thank you everyone for following along on this journey, my 4th season of The Rap-Up. Special thanks go out to our fearless leader, editor-in-chief, Josh Kern. He had huge shoes to fill when Daniel Reynolds retired from the site last season, but we can all agree that he passed with flying colours! I cannot wait for another stressful season of prognostication and analysis, but for now my stress is for waiting for these playoffs to start.
Just because this column is wrapping up for the season doesn’t mean you’re getting rid of me. Make sure to tune into the podcast, That’s A Rap, every week. Jason, Dre, and I will continue recording throughout the playoffs and into the off-season.