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New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors

The Rap-Up: A long week ahead for the underachieving Raptors

Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors follow up a disappointing 3-3 home stand with their busiest week of the season. For the purpose of this weekly post, “week” is always defined as Monday to Sunday. This will be the only “week” of the season where the Raptors play five games!

Toronto starts with a back-to-back that kicks off a three-game road trip, then wrap up with a pair of home games against division rivals. Two of their opponents have legitimate cases to hoist the Larry OB, while another features a former staff member in the thick of the West playoff race. In fact, all five opponents will likely find their way into playoff basketball.

The excitement of playing games after number 82 is seeming less likely for the Raptors with each dispiriting defeat. The aforementioned home stand was seen as the make-or-break point for Toronto. Suffice it to say that the following previews and predictions may seem wildly off-target if the front office makes any moves.

Insert ominous music.

January 16 @ New York Knicks

When these teams last met — a mere 10 days ago — Julius Randle looked at the ‘30’ on the front of his jersey and thought he was Steph Curry. The 2021 Most Improved Player poured in five(!) three-pointers in the first quarter, at least two of the ‘heat check’ variety. The Knicks would hold off a(nother) furious Raptors comeback and end their 11-game losing streak in Toronto (10 if we exclude Tampa).

Randle followed up that performance as you’d expect.

Fun fact that may only interest me

If you want proof that parity reigns supreme this season, look no further than every team’s road records. The Knicks are one of only five teams in the NBA with a winning record on the road. In fact, they are the only team in the league with a better road record (14-8) than home (11-11).

Prediction

The Raptors catch a little break as the Knicks will be playing their third game in four nights, and second of a back-to-back. New York has regained their footing after losing five straight in late December and has now won seven of their last eight. The Knicks are one of four teams that are top 10 in offense AND defense over the last two weeks (hold onto that stat for a minute).

Toronto’s (fake) comeback in the last matchup, plus Randle’s out-of-body experience in the first quarter, may lead you to believe that the Raptors have the goods to pull out another win at Madison Square Garden this season. But the Knicks are streaking and fully healthy (hello RJ Barrett). Knicks beat the visiting Raptors 113-100.

January 17 @ Milwaukee Bucks

Future generations will discuss the Bucks-Raptors meeting on January 4 — the only nationally televised game (on ESPN) of the Raptors this season — and still not be able to truly explain what happened. But let’s save those thoughts for the next section.

Since that game, Milwaukee’s faltered mightily. They lost at home to the Charlotte Hornets (yes, THOSE Hornets) by TWENTY-NINE points! The Bucks managed a pair of victories in New York and Atlanta but followed that up by getting swept in a doubleheader in Miami.

Giannis Antetokounmpo missed both games against the Heat and may not be available against the Raptors. You could point to Milwaukee’s record since their 9-0 start (18-16 since) as the reason for Giannis’ declining odds for another MVP, but his efficiency has been dropping too.

The Raptors have got nothing on the Bucks’ injury woes. Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, and Khris Middleton have all missed at least 25% of the season (and counting for Middleton). With so many missing bodies, Antetokounmpo has been forced to carry more of the offensive load. As amazing as he is, that’s too much to ask of the Greek Freak.

Milwaukee has had the second-worst offense over the last two weeks and currently ranks 25th over the season.

Fun fact that may only interest me

I can’t let go of all the craziness that transpired in the last matchup between these teams. Consider the following:

  • The Raptors missed their first FIFTEEN shot attempts... but only trailed by 1 after the first quarter
  • They’d go on to shoot 2-for-30(!)... but only trailed by 1 at the half
  • Giannis had never turned the ball over more than 9 times in his career... he had 12 turnovers (6 while being guarded by O.G.)
  • Scottie had zero points midway through the fourth quarter... he finished with more field goals than anyone
  • Toronto scored 2 points in the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter... and scored 28 points in the final 3:30 of the fourth quarter

Prediction

Both teams will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. The Bucks will have the luxury of not needing to travel after hosting the Pacers the night before. Milwaukee will be without Middleton and possibly Antetokounmpo. The Bucks may have halted Toronto’s five-game winning streak between the teams, but the Raptors still own a five-game winning streak playing in Milwaukee.

A lot has gone wrong this season with the Raptors, but they still own a ton of realty in the heads of the Bucks (look no further than the final few minutes of that fourth quarter on Jan. 4). Would you expect anything less than a statement win over the Bucks sandwiched between depressing losses to the Knicks and Timberwolves? The Raptors topple the Bucks, 107-102.

January 19 @ Minnesota Timberwolves

This will be an interesting matchup of polar opposites.

Toronto is terrible in the half-court, but incredible in transition. Minnesota is outstanding in the half-court, but one of the worst transition defenses. The Raptors thrive on causing turnovers while the Timberwolves do not take good care of the ball. Minnesota is excellent around the rim on offense (#5 in rim accuracy) and defense (#4 in opponent’s FG% at the rim). Toronto has one 7-footer and almost no rim protection.

Somewhere between travelling from Wisconsin to Minnesota, Gary Trent Jr. will celebrate his 22nd birthday.

Fun fact that may only interest me

This will mark the first matchup between Anthony Edwards and Juancho Hernangomez (a.k.a. Kermit Wilts and Bo Cruz, respectively).

In 2020-21, Edwards’ rookie season, Hernangomez was his teammate in Minnesota.

In 2021-22, Hernangomez played for three teams. With the Celtics, he played against the Timberwolves once, but Edwards missed the game due to COVID-19 protocols. He was traded to the Spurs but didn’t play against the Timberwolves because he was traded again three weeks later to the Jazz. By the time he arrived in Utah, they had already wrapped up its season series with Minnesota.

Prediction

This will mark the fourth consecutive game where the Raptors catch their opponent on the second game of a back-to-back! Even better for Toronto, the Timberwolves will be flying in from the high altitude of Denver.

Remember that stat I mentioned earlier about the Knicks being in the top-10 in offense and defense over the last two weeks? The Timberwolves are one of the other teams (as well as the Nuggets and Thunder). Minnesota has won six of their last seven, including impressive victories over the Nuggets, Blazers, Clippers, Suns, and Cavaliers.

Toronto has won eight of its last nine games against Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns has passed the initial 4-6 week timeline for his right calf strain injury and doesn’t appear to be ready to return. I’d normally pick Toronto to win, based on the info from the previous two sentences, but this season has tamed my expectations of this club. The Timberwolves squeeze past the Raptors 117-113.

January 21 vs Boston Celtics

When the Raptors and Celtics met on December 5th, I mentioned in the Rap-Up that it was “the” game of the season and Toronto could use it to gauge where they stand in the East. Toronto held its own against the East’s best team but a 17-point third-quarter barrage from Jayson Tatum was enough to propel Boston to the victory.

O.G. Anunoby did an excellent job limiting Jaylen Brown. I remember thinking that a healthy Precious Achiuwa could have tag-teamed with O.G. against Boston’s dynamic duo. With Precious back and playing as well as he has all season, this could be another measuring stick moment for Toronto. Alas, Brown may still be out with a left adductor injury, so the Anunoby/Achiuwa - Jayson/Jaylen battle for the alliterative tag-team title may have to wait a little longer.

Fun fact that may only interest me

The Celtics have five rotation players that shoot better from three than each and every Toronto Raptor (Malcolm Brogdon, Al Horford, Luke Kornet, Grant Williams, and Sam Hauser).

Even if Brown doesn’t play and the Raptors give Tatum the James Harden treatment, the Celtics have a plethora of players that can knock down the shot that Toronto gives up at an above-average rate.

Prediction

In the earlier matchup, the Celtics were missing Malcolm Brogdon, Al Horford, and Robert Williams, while the Raptors were without Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. This time around, Brown and Horford may be out, or at least not at 100%, while the Raptors should be fully healthy (Danilo Gallinari and OPJ are both out for the season).

Boston has the NBA’s best record at 32-12 and, despite an odd stretch in mid-December where they lost five of six, has looked like the team to beat. The final two matchups between the teams occur in the final week of the season when the Celtics will likely rest their starters after already clinching the East’s #1 seed. In other words, expect Boston to use this meeting as a final statement of their supremacy over Toronto (inversely, this would be the Raptors’ last chance to see how well they match up with a title favourite).

The fact of the matter is that the Celtics don’t turn the ball over (#4 in turnover percentage), don’t give up offensive rebounds (#1 in opponents offensive rebounding percentage), shoot a ton of corner threes (#2 in frequency) and non-corner threes (#3 in frequency), and sport the #1 transition defense. They are a perfect storm to the Raptors’ rickety sailboat. Boston puts a nail in Toronto’s season with a 118-104 victory.

January 22 vs New York Knicks

The NBA’s just being cruel to me. Scheduling two games with the same opponent in the same week but not having them back-to-back, therefore, forcing me to write two separate previews? Not cool, Adam Silver. You’re lucky I’ve still got another Knicks-related tweet to use.

It’s hard to say if Jalen Brunson will nab his first All-Star selection, but the fact he’s even in the conversation is a win for a Knicks front office. Remember, they were lambasted for the deal (4 years, $104 million for a career backup guard) and for striking the deal during the moratorium period when there wasn’t any competition for his services (and losing a future second-round pick for tampering).

Fun fact that may only interest me

Days between Toronto’s first game against Brooklyn and their fourth game against Brooklyn: 56 days (Oct. 21 - Dec. 16)

Days between Toronto’s first game against New York and their fourth game against New York: 32 days (Dec. 21 - Jan. 22)

The Raptors haven’t played a single game against Denver, Utah, and Washington. Yet, they’ve already wrapped up their eight games against the state of New York.

Prediction

The long week comes to an end with the last meeting of the season with the Knicks. At this point, if the Raptors are able to muster two victories over the preceding four games, that would be considered a success. This prediction is sprinkled with a tiny bit of bias as I will be in the building to cover the game, but this team has underperformed all season, yet, is too proud to go full-on tank. Sure, it’s the second back-to-back of the week, but when have the Raptors ever followed the script this season? The Raptors give the Sunday afternoon crowd something to smile about with a 112-109 win over the visiting Knicks.

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Last Week: 2-1

Season Record for Predictions: 25-18

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