The “long road ahead” has multiple meanings for the Toronto Raptors.
It could reference the long road to respectability. A lot of Raptors fans have reached the final step of the grief process and accepted that the team, as currently constructed, is not good enough to make a deep playoff run. Just last week, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Jayson Tatum chose the Raptors as their rest game (injury report be damned). Toronto needs to make a handful of changes in order to regain its opponent’s respect.
The long road ahead could also reference the February 9 trade deadline. Each day brings a plethora of fake rumours, fake trade proposals, and fake Woj accounts. The next 2+ weeks are going to feel like 2 months unless a trade — any trade — is finalized.
Maybe I’m just being literal and the long road ahead references the Raptors’ season-long, seven-game road trip that the team is about to endure. The annual westcoast road trip does not typically go very well for Toronto. Finishing the trip .500 or better is as rare as Khem Birch getting playing time.
The bigger question is whether or not the roster that departed Scotiabank Arena after Sunday’s win over the Knicks is the same roster that returns for their next game on February 8 — one day before the deadline.
January 25 @ Sacramento Kings
As a lifelong Chris Webber fan, I admittedly found joy every year the Kings missed the playoffs. If you know C-Webb’s career, you also know that it was filled with an equal number of peaks and valleys. As such, I always found myself trying to validate his importance to the team/league. For example, Sacramento’s current 17-season streak of missing the playoffs all started shortly after the Kings traded Webber.
Now that Webber’s in the Hall of Fame, I’ve gotten all of the validation I need and can let go of my shameless practice. These Kings are fun!
The Kings tied the NBA record for made threes in a quarter with 12 pic.twitter.com/PbgI5hy2cL— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) January 24, 2023
Sacramento has the league’s #1 offense over the last two weeks (winning 6 of their last 7 games in the process) and #2 offense for the season. Domantas Sabonis should garner more MVP attention if the Kings continue climbing the standings (currently 3rd). He’s averaging 18.8 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. Only 3 players in NBA history have averaged at least 18/12/7: Nikola Jokic (last season), Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain (x 2).
De’Aaron Fox is one of nine players (including Pascal Siakam) averaging at least 24 points and 6 assists. Harrison Barnes, in his 11th season, currently joins Sabonis in the top 20 in offensive rating. Kevin Huerter is one of only three players (Lauri Markkanen and Steph Curry) who rank in the top 20 in effective field goal percentage AND made threes. Keegan Murray leads all rookies in threes made and three-point field goal percentage.
Sacramento’s starting group is STACKED!
Fun fact that may only interest me
Sacramento’s bench is... not as exciting. Coming from a Raptors fan, that is the definition of the pot calling the kettle black!
Only one reserve averages more than seven points per game for the Kings: Malik Monk.
Monk started the year well, averaging 17.2 points per game during the month of November. However, since the calendar flipped to 2023, Sacramento’s sixth man has looked sluggish at best. In January, he’s averaging 8.7 points on 32.2/24.4/88.9 shooting. Since Christmas, Monk has had a positive +/- in only 4 of Sacramento’s 14 games. Ouch.
I hadn’t looked at Malik Monk’s splits since Christmas and wheewwww man pic.twitter.com/4523Q5Qcjk— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) January 22, 2023
Are you ready for a track meet? The Raptors and Kings have the two best offenses over the last two weeks. Toronto arrives in Sacramento with the gift of an extra day of rest (but possibly no O.G. Anunoby), while the Kings should be at full strength.
Sacramento scores efficiently at the rim (5th in percentage) and launches a healthy dose of threes (#7 in frequency). Toronto has won the last five visits to Golden 1 Center.
There’s no denying the vibes in Sacramento haven’t been this good since Webber was slinging behind-the-back passes to a cutting Peja Stojakovic. The teenage version of me would be shocked to learn I now have media credentials for the Raptors, but not shocked in the slightest by the karma that’s coming my way. The Kings destroy the Raptors, 123-110.
January 27 @ Golden State Warriors
“It’s the Raptors. It’s the Warriors. Next on TNT, it’s Rivals Week in the NBA!”
#NBARivalsWeek tips off Tuesday!— NBA (@NBA) January 23, 2023
Classic and budding rivalries will take center stage starting tomorrow night at 7:30pm/et on TNT. pic.twitter.com/qGzFvEVzSp
Wait, what?!? Grizzlies and Raptors each have one playoff series against the Warriors — neither one going the distance, I might add — and that constitutes a rivalry?
Whenever I research a team, I like to start with their Basketball Reference page and scan their “Players on League Leaderboards” section. There are 50 different categories Basketball Reference highlights, covering traditional totals (i.e. games played, total threes attempted), traditional averages (i.e. steals per game, minutes per game), and advanced metrics (i.e. box plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes). A good, well-rounded player, like Pascal Siakam, shows up in the top 20 in more than five categories (actually 8 for Siakam). Unsurprisingly, Steph Curry appears in 17 different categories.
What’s genuinely shocking is the player that appears in the 2nd-most between these two teams: Kevon Looney! The 8-year pro is quietly having a great season. He’s played in all of the Warriors games, starting in all but two. He ranks in the top 20 in nine(!) different categories: total rebounds, offensive rebounds, win shares, offensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, offensive rating (#1), total rebound percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and defensive rebound percentage. Call me Shaq because I was unfamiliar with Looney’s game!
Fun fact that may only interest me
Seriously, how is this a rivalry? If this is a rivalry because they battled for the title four years ago, look no further than the lineups for both teams.
There are 7 players total (5 for the Warriors and 2 for the Raptors) that played in those Finals and are still on their respective teams.
There are TWICE as many players (9 for the Warriors and 5 for the Raptors) that played in those Finals that are no longer in the league!
At 17-6, the Warriors have one of the best home records in the league. That’s not good news for the Raptors.
When these teams met last month in Toronto, the Warriors stomped on the Raptors, 126-110, behind Jordan Poole’s career-high 43 points. Also, not good news for Toronto.
Did I mention that Andrew Wiggins AND Steph Curry were unable to play in the aforementioned meeting between the teams? Nope, not good, Bob.
Steve Kerr may not get his wish for a 72-game season (for now), but at least he can enjoy one of the “easier” games on the schedule. The Warriors trounce the Raptors, 119-109.
Steve Kerr on the Warriors sitting their big names in Cleveland tonight— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 20, 2023
“I feel terrible for fans who bought a ticket expecting to see someone play. It’s a brutal part of the business. It’s why I’m going to continue to advocate for 72-game seasons.”
Full soundbite pic.twitter.com/P0ZGbv1DNE
January 28 @ Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers enter this matchup with a sense of urgency. They had lost 8 of their previous 10 before thumping the lottery-bound Spurs on Monday. One of those eight losses occurred on January 8th against a Raptors team that was also in desperate need of a victory. The win did a few things for Toronto. It ended Portland’s 5-game winning streak against the Raptors. It (temporarily) kept the vultures at bay as Toronto tried to salvage their season. Finally, it marked the end of all questions about Scottie Barnes’ demise. He took charge from the jump, fell one rebound shy of a 20-10 double-double,
For Portland, their 9-3 start to the season seems like nothing more than a fairy tale rather than an indicator of how good the Blazers could be. Their recent slide has pushed them so far down the standings, only San Antonio and Houston — both essentially playing for Wembanyama — are below them.
However, with Anfernee Simons’ rise to stardom, Damian Lillard’s commitment to the city/team, and Jusuf Nurkic’s mere presence, all signs point to a Portland victory. More on this below.
Fun fact that may only interest me
On March 4, 1998, the Raptors — on their way to a franchise-worst 16-66 record — lost in Cleveland 122-88. Almost 25 years later, that seemingly insignificant game has multiple ties to this seemingly insignificant game between lottery teams.
The starting point guard for Toronto was none other than Blazers head coach, Chauncey Billups. Chipping in with some healthy garbage time minutes was Roy Rogers, who happens to be one of Chauncey’s assistant coaches!
Over on the Cleveland side, the Cavaliers started a past-his-prime, Shawn Kemp, who was once part of the greatest alley-oop tandem with Gary Payton. Of course, Payton’s son, Gary Payton III used to play for the Raptors 905, but now plays for Billups’ Blazers. Entering the game for some garbage time minutes with the Cavaliers was Scott Brooks — yes, another assistant coach on this Blazers team!
It wouldn’t shock me if another future Blazers assistant was in attendance at the game: Chauncey’s brother, Rodney Billups.
Sigh. There’s nothing quite like a back-to-back in the middle of the team’s longest road trip. Oh look, the Blazers had two days of rest too!
After losing their first three SEGABABAs, the Raptors have now won three of their last four when playing the second game of a back-to-back. Portland still turns the ball over a lot (#28 turnover rate) and isn’t built to hurt the Raptors inside the arc (below-average in frequency at the rim and in the mid-range area.
On the other hand, Portland is 4-1 with two days of rest and drain threes at top-10 frequency and accuracy.
Although Toronto will be at a serious disadvantage in rest, this figures to be one of the “winnable” games on the trip. The Raptors beat the Blazers 112-110.