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Atlanta Hawks v Toronto Raptors

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The Rap-Up: Stuck in Neutral

At this point last season, Toronto lost some winnable games and never regained control. This week should define if the Raptors have entered that stage again.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

In last week’s quarter-season assessment, I wrote about how the Toronto Raptors put the ‘i’ in “mid.” Every depressing low valley was followed by an exhilarating high peak. Every disappointing player regression has been balanced with an inspiring player development.

Where was the balance last week?

Losing to a Miami Heat team without Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro at home? Losing to a Charlotte Hornets team without LaMelo Ball (heck, losing to the Hornets, period)?

Darko Rajakovic’s maiden voyage into the Head Coach position was expected to be rocky. While it has been rough, there have been signs of improvement — both in-game and between. However, the last two weeks have been painful to watch.

Gary Trent Jr. needs to replace Dennis Schroder in the starting lineup. It’s crystal clear (even before the season started) that his shooting would help space the floor for Pascal Siakam’s individual brilliance and/or Scottie Barnes to (finally) take over as the Point Guard.

Barnes needs another starter alongside when the reserves come in, or at least have 3 shooters* around him. (* “shooters” is a relative term on this team that falls on the front office, so only Otto Porter Jr., Gary Trent Jr., and Chris Boucher qualify here)

Why is Darko stubbornly sticking to a 10-man rotation when a) there are typically only 7 or 8 that can be trusted and b) Garrett Temple and Thaddeus Young continue to be excluded? This is not to say that Temple or Young will make a huge difference, but if part of the goal is playing 10 every game, isn’t it worth experimenting with how the veterans can help the younger players grow?

Let it be known that on December 10th, I paid my first visit of the season to Tankathon! The Raptors currently have a 9.2% chance of making the playoffs and are “too good” to keep their top-6 protected pick (currently projected to draft 9th) owed to San Antonio!

Watching this slow death of a Raptors season is actually worse than re-living the entire Shohei Ohtani experience from the weekend. Yes, the Blue Jays were used as leverage and the entire fanbase — casual and hardcore — were played like fools when all was said and done. But at least the mystery flight, false social media content, and eventual announcement all happened within 2 days. This Raptors season still has 60 games and 4 months left!

For someone whose glass is typically half-full (or at least fuller than most), even I’m having trouble defending this team. Something’s gotta give, and until that happens, this will be a long rest-of-season!

December 11 @ New York Knicks

When these teams met 10 days ago, it was obvious which one was gearing up to play in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals.....and which one gearing up to watch it.

Toronto generated 10 more field goal attempts but New York connected on 10 more three-pointers than the Raptors. Donte DiVincenzo drained more three-pointers (7) than the entire Raptors team (6).

After scoring 7 points in the first 4 minutes, RJ Barrett was held to 8 points on 3-for-13 shooting the rest of the way. Jalen Brunson had a fairly quiet shooting night (9-for-21, 22 points). Mitchell Robinson was limited to “only” 2 offensive rebounds (he averages 5.3 per game, easily the best offensive rebounder in the league).

In front of an energized Friday night crowd, rocking their ‘drip gold’ outfit, and coming off an impressive victory over the Suns, the Raptors couldn’t make the right plays and ultimately fell to a solid Knicks team. If only there was a solid two-way guard who was ready for a scenery change and in the same building.....

Fun fact that may only interest me

As if losing both games in the IST knockout stage wasn’t enough, the Knicks will end up playing the other 3 quarterfinalists FIVE times during the regular season. Thanks to the IST, New York has already faced Boston 3 times....and almost no one else in the division (outside of the aforementioned game in Toronto).

The Knicks are perfect 7-0 against the Southeast* division!

*This is fun to me because, like you, I also had to stop and think, “Who is in the Southeast division?!?”

Prediction

Everyone on the Knicks is healthy, while the Raptors are now dealing with an injury to Porter Jr. Toronto does not play as well on the road (3-7 record vs 6-6 at home). In the last meeting, the Raptors performed better than expected, especially when it came to rebounding. They collected 19 offensive rebounds against a Knicks squad that only allows 9.5 per game. Toronto also kept Mitchell Robinson off the offensive glass, limiting the league leader (5.3 per game) to only 2 offensive boards. Scottie Barnes put in another stellar effort, leading the team with 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 steals.

Alas, the Raptors could not hit from beyond the arc (6-for-32), defended poorly (Knicks shot 50% from the field and 44% from three), and were obliterated by New York’s reserves (52-25 in bench scoring). Both rosters look the same as the previous matchup, minus Porter Jr. for Toronto, while this game shifts from Scotiabank Arena to Madison Square Garden. The Raptors’ recent play does not give me any confidence that Siakam can replicate his 52-point performance at MSG last December — let alone win the game. The Knicks defeat the visiting Raptors, 113-102.

December 13 & 15 vs Atlanta Hawks

There’s no better indictment on the current state of Raptors fandom than this — the Atlanta Hawks will be just as excited to play a doubleheader in Toronto as the Raptors are to host them.

Since squeaking out a 120-119 victory over the Magic on November 9th, the Hawks have looked horrible. In the 13 games since, Atlanta has gone 4-9. One of the victories was an overtime win over the Nets. The other 3 wins have come against Washington, San Antonio, and Detroit, a.k.a. the holy trinity of easy wins.

This is not to say the Raptors are as bad as those teams, but the Hawks will be coming to Toronto after playing Denver, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Boston over the last two weeks.

Trae Young is going to look at Dennis Schroder the same way Wile E. Coyote daydreamed about the Roadrunner as a piece of steak. Clint Capela (1st) and Onyeka Okongwu (12th) are among the best in offensive rebounding percentage, so Jakob Poeltl and Precious Achiuwa will have their collective hands full. When Trae isn’t draining threes from 40 feet away, Bogdan Bogdanovic (9th in 3-point field goals made) will punish anyone who sags off of him. Dejounte Murray will play the role of pest (7th in steals per game). Suffice it to say, Atlanta has a deep team that can give Toronto problems.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Last season, the Raptors held the NBA season-high for transition points in one game. Toronto actually had 2 of the 3 highest single-game transition scoring totals.....in back-to-back games.

The Raptors preceded the 41 fastbreak points they scored against San Antonio on November 2nd, 2022, with an NBA-best 43 fastbreak points against the Hawks on Halloween!

Prediction

Atlanta’s transition defense has statistically worsened since last year from 116.3 points allowed per transition possession (21st in 2022-23) to 118.3 points allowed this season (25th). As mentioned above with Capela and Okongwu, the Hawks love to crash the offensive glass (#2 in offensive rebounds per game; #3 in offensive rebounding percentage), but that leaves them vulnerable to transition opportunities, made especially worse if it’s Young who missed a 40-footer and is now defending a 3-on-1 fast break.

I’m going to cop out and predict a split. Toronto has the motivation and urgency to take both games, while Atlanta has not looked good for the last month (28th-ranked defense over the last two weeks). But I’m admittedly jaded with how the Raptors have underperformed lately and need to see positive change in....any area (i.e. rotation, half-court offense)....before getting overly excited again. Toronto wins 114-111 but follows that up with a 107-105 loss.

Bonus prediction: GTJ finally starts in place of Schroder!

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Last Week: 0-2

Season Record: 12-10

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