Next week is the five-year anniversary of this weekly column!
Every year at this time, I’ll write some form of New Year’s resolution for the Toronto Raptors. This year, let’s make a resolution that benefits everyone — reader, editor, and my attention-seeking family: shorter intros!
Besides, the Raptors have a full set of games this week and a lot of analysis needs to be made.
January 2 @ Indiana Pacers
As we approach the halfway point of the season (yes, already), it’s safe to validate some small-sample-size assertions. The Indiana Pacers are this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers!
Indiana entered the season as Cleveland did last year with a young, unproven core and lottery-bound expectations... only to surprise the basketball world and find themselves in the thick of a playoff race.
Tyrese Haliburton leads the NBA with 10.2 assists per game and is a lock for his first All-Star selection. He’s 4th in steals, 5th in win shares, and 3rd in VORP. With Domantas Sabonis leading the surprising Kings into the West playoff race, last year’s blockbuster trade has turned into a massive win-win for both teams.
The human trade chip, Myles Turner, is having a tremendous (contract) year with career-high averages in points (16.7), rebounds (7.8), field goal percentage (54.8%), threes made (1.6), and three-point field goal percentage (40.8%). He’s 3rd in blocks, 12th in true shooting percentage, and 1st in Lakers jersey photoshops.
In 2019-20, Brandon Clarke set the record for most points per game (12.1) by a Canadian who was primarily a reserve (more than half their games played as a reserve). Benedict Mathurin is set to blow that number away with his current average of 17.2 points per game.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Buddy Hield has the most 3-point field goals since 2019-20 with 957. He also currently leads the league with 147 threes made (yes, even more than Steph Curry).
I cannot fact-check this, but I’m going to assume this is the fastest 3-pointer in NBA history.
This has to be the quickest 3-pointer in NBA history pic.twitter.com/tmHDjiK6PC— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 30, 2022
The luxury of not having a game on New Year's Eve is that the Raps have an extra day of rest on the Pacers (2-1). Indiana will be wrapping up a 4-game homestand, after collecting wins against the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Clippers.
Toronto will need to show the same aggression they displayed in Friday’s win over Phoenix. The Pacers are dead-last in opponents’ offensive rebound percentage and 29th in defensive free-throw rate. As long as the Raptors crash the glass, they’ll be able to corral extra possessions and/or get to the charity stripe a lot. Indiana is 23rd in turnover percentage, so the Raptors should be able to create a lot of transition opportunities.
All of that sounds promising for Toronto, but that’s the same recipe they used in the teams’ last matchup on November 12. The Raptors won the turnover battle (+9), grabbed more offensive rebounds (+5), and got to the free-throw line more (+6). But Indiana destroyed Toronto from beyond the arc (+12 threes, for 36 points) and scored more in transition (+6 for the NBA’s #2 transition offense).
Having either Precious Achiuwa or Fred VanVleet would help, but with their statuses currently listed as questionable, let’s err on the side of caution. Indiana defeats the visiting Raptors, 118-109.
January 4 vs Milwaukee Bucks
For the first time since the 2015-16 season, the Bucks have a below-average offense. Milwaukee has had a top-7 offense in each of the previous four seasons but currently ranks 21st in offensive rating. Effective FG% (#20) and turnover percentage (#22) are the main culprits.
During last week’s 4-game losing streak, the Bucks lost to each of the other three teams (Cleveland, Boston, Brooklyn) at the top of the East standings (plus a memorable collapse in Chicago).
DeMar DeRozan tonight:— Keerthika Uthayakumar (@keerthikau) December 29, 2022
42 PTS, 10 REB, 5 AST, 2 STL, 2 BLK
DeRozan had 17 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal & 1 block in the 4th quarter & OT. He scored 10 of the Bulls' 13 points in OT, and assisted on the other 3 points. pic.twitter.com/jhLzlIp1YD
Just don’t look at Giannis Antetokounmpo when assigning blame.
The Greek Freak has been on an absolute tear of late, becoming the first player since 1982 (Moses Malone) to have consecutive games with at least 40 points and 20 rebounds. When adding in the 5 assists he also accumulated in both games, Giannis is only the 3rd player in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor) to have consecutive 40-20-5 games.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Antetokounmpo has put together an MVP-calibre season — even by his lofty standards. He’s averaging career-highs in points (32.1), 2-point field goals (10.7), free throw (8.4), and getting fouled on more shooting attempts (25.1%) than ever before.
When his shooting is off, though, so too are the Bucks. Milwaukee is 4-7 when Giannis is held under 50% shooting. The Raptors have held Antetokounmpo under 50% on 10 occasions, winning 8 of those games.
When Giannis turns the ball over at least five times, the Bucks are 3-7. Toronto has forced him to turn the ball over at least four times on 9 occasions, winning 7 of those games.
Overall, Antetokounmpo is 8-19 when facing the Raptors. Easily his worst record against any East opponent. (The only other team he struggles more against is the Jazz, where he’s 5-13)
The Bucks visit Toronto on the second game of a back-to-back after playing a doubleheader against the Wizards. 75% of their losses (9) have come on the road and, despite Giannis’ best efforts, still have a bottom-10 offense.
On the plus side for Milwaukee, Brook Lopez is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (sorry O.G.), Jrue Holiday is probably the best perimeter defender in the league (really sorry, O.G.), and the Bucks own the #1 transition defense.
However, I keep landing on Toronto’s success in guarding Giannis. Precious Achiuwa’s return will help. Milwaukee’s bottom-10 eFG% will help. The Bucks’ 29th-ranked corner-three FG% will help. Khris Middleton being nowhere near 100% (and possibly out) will help.
Toronto beats Milwaukee in their first nationally televised game of the season, 115-106.
January 6 vs New York Knicks
When the Knicks welcomed the Raptors to MSG on December 21st, New York was riding a season-best eight-game win streak and was five games over .500. We already know what Pascal Siakam did in that game (and will continue fawning over that performance for many years), but it also triggered a tailspin for the Knicks.
New York would go on to lose four more games in a row (three of which, similar to the Toronto game, they held late fourth-quarter leads) and drop to .500 on the season.
Want to know how the Knicks blew a 9-point lead with 33 seconds left?— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) December 28, 2022
Fun fact that may only interest me
Seriously, how rare is it to blow that big of a lead with so little time left? As a comparison, Tracy McGrady’s infamous 13-points-in-35-seconds performance, the Rockets were down by 8.
Dallas was down by 9 with 35 seconds remaining.
Over the last 20 seasons, the team leading by 9 or more with 35 seconds or less remaining had won the last 13,884 games! Until this one, of course.
In their previous meeting, the Knicks turned the ball over more times (16) than in any of their previous 11 games. New York is 0-7 when they do not force at least 10 turnovers. The Raps only had 4 turnovers in that last matchup.
New York will be without RJ Barrett (right index finger laceration... ouch).
The Raptors have won 11 straight home games against the Knicks. I could hit you with more stats centered around New York’s poor transition (30th in defensive transition frequency), but Toronto’s 2-game win streak on Fridays is convincing enough for me! The Raptors beat the Knicks 112-102.
January 8 vs Portland Trailblazers
Portland is the only team in the NBA with 3 players averaging at least 22 points per game (though James Harden (21.9) and Kyle Kuzma (21.7) almost helped their respective teams join the club).
Jerami Grant (22.0 points per game) has fit in nicely with the Blazers. He’s percentage points away from matching his career-high (22.3) and is averaging more points per shot attempt than ever before, as per Cleaning The Glass.
Anfernee Simons (22.4 points per game) was one of the pre-season favourites to win the Most Improved Player award. If the Jazz (Lauri Markannen) and Pacers (Haliburton) plummet down the standings and the Thunder eventually shut down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Simons could find himself back in the conversation.
Damian Lillard (27.4 points per game) is quietly having a stellar season. He’s one of four players averaging at least 27 points and 7 assists. If he finishes the season with those benchmarks, he, along with Trae Young, will join five others who’ve averaged 27/7 at least 3 times: Oscar Robertson (8), LeBron James (6), James Harden (6), Luka Doncic (3, going on 4), and Russell Westbrook (3).
Fun fact that may only interest me
The Blazers are a team that’s starving for recognition. They have 1 All-Star, 1 champion, 1 Rookie of the Year, and 3 All-Rookies. Can you name the 6 Blazers?
Lillard is obviously half of those answers. The 6-time All-Star nabbed Rookie of the Year honours (and All-Rookie, of course) in 2012-13. Two seasons later, Justise Winslow would get drafted by the Heat and play his way to the All-Rookie team. The following season, Jusuf Nurkic would earn All-Rookie honours. The only Blazer with a championship ring? None other than Gary Payton II, who will make his Blazer debut on Monday.
The aforementioned Simons may be a darkhorse for the MIP award, but another Blazer may give Portland their 4th All-Rookie on the roster: London, Ontario’s finest, Shaedon Sharpe!
Portland wraps up a grueling travel portion of their schedule where 10 of 12 games were on the road. Two nights earlier, they would have played in Indiana. If you remember, the Pacers own the #2 transition offense. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the Blazers are 24th in turnover rate and 26th in defensive transition points allowed per possession off steals, but I also think Indiana will prepare Portland for what Toronto does best.
The Blazers will make their living at the charity stripe (#5 in free throw rate) and beyond the arc, where they rank 2nd in non-corner three-point accuracy and 3rd in accuracy on all threes.
Portland owns the largest win streak of any Raptors opponent, having won the last 5 meetings. More importantly for Toronto, the leading scorer in four of those games (CJ McCollum x 3; Carmelo Anthony x 1) is no longer a Blazer. McCollum was tied with Nassir Little and Simons in the last matchup.
If this is the season where the Raps can end the losing streak against Detroit, then it will also be the season where they get a win against Portland. Toronto tops the visiting Blazers, 113-109.