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Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns

The Rap-Up: IST Conspiracy Theory

Toronto can wrap up its first In-Season Tournament by playing spoiler....to the Celtics!

Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Is anyone interested in a Raptors-related conspiracy theory?

When the schedule was released, every team was assigned 80 of their 82 games. The remaining two games would be decided by the In-Season Tournament. More specifically, how a team performed in the round-robin would determine who they faced for those remaining two games.

Every team controls its own destiny......and easing the schedule!

After losing two games, the Toronto Raptors were eliminated from advancing to the quarterfinals/knockout round of the In-Season Tournament. So, instead of facing 2 (or 3) of the hottest teams in the NBA, Toronto will (hypothetically) face easier competition.

Winning three of four round-robin games may not be enough to advance (depending on point differential), but only winning two games has already proven to be not enough. What if that was Toronto’s game plan all along? The Raptors played well enough to beat the Celtics, even without OG Anunoby. The blowout loss to the Orlando Magic could have been premeditated.

Instead of two games against the likes of the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, or Boston Celtics, the Raptors will get a pair against (possibly) the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, and/or Cleveland Cavaliers. If the NBA plans on keeping the In-Season Tournament, they’ll need to seriously consider a better reward (guaranteed playoff berth?), or else more teams will live with an extra loss if it means two easier games.

*I don’t actually believe what I just typed but it’s somewhat reassuring to know Toronto may have a pair of winnable games next week.

November 28 @ Brooklyn Nets

Just as the NBA had hoped, there will be drama on a Tuesday in November!

The Nets are still very much in the running to advance to the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament. If they beat the Raptors AND the Celtics lose to the Bulls, Brooklyn advances as the Group Winner since they’ll have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Magic.

If the Nets AND Celtics both win, there will be a 3-way tie at the top of the group with the Magic and the final group standings will be decided by point differential. Orlando ended group play with a +22 point differential. Brooklyn currently has +8, while Boston currently has +0.

Boston needs Brooklyn to win this game for a chance to win the group. If the Nets lose to the Raptors, a Celtics win would leave them tied with the Magic — who owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. In other words, Toronto has a chance to do something hilarious..... eliminate the Celtics by beating the Nets.

Yes, I realize the Celtics could still get in as the wild-card team, but the Knicks have a +18 differential AND they’re hosting the Hornets.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Ben Simmons was drafted 1st overall by the 76ers in 2016. While his injuries have been well-documented, it’s still quite alarming to see how few games he’s played in his career.

The following players were all drafted after Simmons in the 2016 draft but have played in more games:

  • Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
  • Juancho Hernangomez
  • Georges Niang
  • Monte Morris (2017 draft)
  • DeAnthony Melton (2018 draft)
  • Josh Okogie (2018 draft)

Prediction

Congratulations if you read everything I wrote above about the IST scenarios without gouging your eyes out. Brooklyn actually has a fairly good shot at qualifying for the knockout stage. If they win by at least 15 points (Toronto lost its other road IST game by 19) and maintain a better point differential than the Celtics (Nets currently have an 8-point edge), Brooklyn would win the group!

The Nets’ leading scorer, Cam Thomas, hasn’t played since November 8th because of a left ankle sprain and is listed as doubtful. Brooklyn’s starting Center, Nic Claxton, and backup Point Guard, Dennis Smith Jr. are both questionable. The Nets’ starting Point Guard, Simmons, is out.

While they may be banged up, the Nets have the right mix of players to make life difficult for the Raptors. Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Royce O’Neale, and Lonnie Walker IV all average between 2.1-2.8 made threes per game on 5.8-6.4 attempts per game. Whoever gets guarded by Dennis Schroder or Malachi Flynn is definitely draining 6 triples, at least.

This game will ultimately be decided by the defense — an area where Toronto is simply better than Brooklyn. The Raptors are 7-2 against bottom-10 defenses (Nets are 20th), with the two losses coming against teams Toronto have also beaten (Bulls and Bucks). Toronto avenges getting swept by the Nets last season and comes out victorious, 112-108.

November 29 vs Phoenix Suns

The Suns ride into Toronto with a 7-game win streak. Phoenix has turned the corner on a slow start and now sitting near the top of the Western Conference, as many predicted. What has been unexpected (to some, but certainly not me) is the unavailability of its Big Three. Bradley Beal has played in only three games — during a stretch where Devin Booker was injured. Beal is dealing with a lower back issue that will keep him out for at least the next two weeks. Kevin Durant will also be hobbled. KD has missed the last two games due to right foot soreness.

If KD is unable to play, you’d have to think Anunoby will get the Booker assignment. Well, him or The Raptor.

With Durant playing his first full season in Phoenix, the Suns have seen a dramatic boost in free throws. Last year, Phoenix ranked 27th in free throw rate. This year? The Suns rank 2nd! Thankfully for Raptors fans, the hyper-aggressive (and whistle-encouraging) Nick Nurse-led defense is a thing of the past. Darko’s more conservative approach has helped reduce Toronto’s opponents’ free throw rate from 25th last season to 3rd this season!

Fun fact that may only interest me

Player A: 30.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists on 53/36/94 shooting for a Western Conference team with an 11-5 record

Player B: 31.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists on 53/52/89 shooting for a Western Conference team with a 10-6 record

Player A is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Player B is Kevin Durant.

For all the talk surrounding Shai’s MVP candidacy (absolutely warranted, by the way), I’m simply not seeing enough recognition for KD. He’s carrying a Suns team that has only had Devin Booker for half the season so far and Bradley Beal for a total of 3 games.

Prediction

Toronto will be playing its 4th back-to-back of the season. They lost the second game of the first two B2Bs, both against Philadelphia, while narrowly squeezed out a win in Indiana last week. The Suns provide a little more on the defensive end than the Pacers, plus they haven’t played since Sunday’s dramatic win over the Knicks.

The outcome of this game may come down to who does and doesn’t play for Phoenix. Grayson Allen missed the Suns’ last game with an illness, so you’d have to think he’ll be ready after three days of rest. Durant has missed the last three games with right foot soreness. He may sit out the last game of the 3-game road trip, especially with the defending champion Denver Nuggets waiting in Phoenix on Friday.

If Durant plays, Phoenix squeaks out a 108-107 victory. In my totally subjective and highly professional opinion, KD sits out one more game and the Raptors pull off an inspiring 109-101 victory over the visiting Suns.

December 1 vs New York Knicks

I started this post by saying the NBA should consider alternate prizes for the IST. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be a prize. Take the Knicks and Raptors, for example. If they made a side bet around the current lawsuit New York has filed (again?), everyone would tune in.

Leon Rose and Masai Ujiri should make the following wager:

  • If the Raptors win, New York drops the lawsuit
  • If the Knicks win, the Raptors will donate $100,000 to the University of Villanova

With Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, and Ryan Arcidiacano on the roster (heck, throw in Kentucky alumni Julius Randle, Immanuel Quickley, and Jacob Toppin) and you might as well call them the New York Wildcats!

Fun fact that may only interest me

The running joke since the Canadian Men’s basketball team used the OVO Athletic Centre to prepare for the World Cup of Basketball was that the Noah Analytics board finally benefitted somebody’s shooting! It was geared more towards Dillon Brooks’ improved shooting and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s continued rise to superstardom, but RJ Barrett is quietly having the best shooting season of his career. Maple Mamba is currently shooting career bests from the field (45%), from three (45%!!), and from the charity stripe (84%).

Prediction

The Knicks are fully healthy and present a few problems for Toronto. Mitchell Robinson is modern-day Dennis Rodman. He’s head and shoulders above everyone in offensive rebounds — his 93 offensive rebounds are 24(!) more than the next-best total by Clint Capela. With Robinson and Randle both in the top 15 in rebounds per game, the Knicks simply own the glass. New York ranks 2nd in offensive rebounding percentage AND 1st in defensive rebounding percentage.

With Tom Thibodeau’s defense, expect a lot of possessions that end in isolation. New York is 1st in opponents’ field goal attempts, 2nd in opponents’ field goals made, and 4th in opponents’ assists. All of this sounds like a recipe for limiting Scottie Barnes’ effectiveness.

The Knicks will be playing the second game of a back-to-back, but the first game is against the Pistons, which is essentially a scrimmage! New York smothers Toronto and wins 108-99.

********

Last Week: 2-2

Season Record: 11-6

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