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Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets

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The Rap-Up: Are the Raptors getting predictable?

The Raptors have a pair of games against the last 3 MVPs this week. Can Toronto give its fans an early Christmas gift?

Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The drawback of correctly predicting last week’s games (humblebrag) is that it also meant the Raptors lost to a Hawks team they had just beaten.

A perfect week also means the Raptors are starting to show signs of predictability. There are a couple of fairly reliable factors that play into how Toronto will perform.

Against defenses that are currently in the top 10, the Raptors have gone 1-6, with losses to the Magic, Celtics (twice), Sixers (twice, gulp), and Cavaliers. The season-opening win against the (now) #1 defense is looking more like an exception to the rule.

The opposite is not as bulletproof but the Raptors are still a respectable 7-4 against the bottom 10 defenses. They’ve defeated the Wizards, Pacers, Pistons, Spurs, and Mavericks while getting splits with the Bulls and Hawks. Losses to the Nets and Hornets (gulp) loom large in Toronto’s disappointing record.

What does that mean for this week?

Absolutely nothing! This team can still surprise you with a win over the Nuggets or Sixers this week, or numb you with a loss to the Hornets or Jazz. It’s not the kind of edge-of-your-seat excitement that you’d hope for. My only suggestion is to enjoy the little things: Scottie Barnes’ continued rise, OG Anunoby’s suffocating defense, and Pascal Siakam offensive brilliance (while he’s still here, gulp!).

December 18 vs Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte’s starting point guard (LaMelo Ball), backup point guard (Frank Ntilikina), and backup small forward (Cody Martin) are all out. Their starting center (Mark Williams) is doubtful. Their starting small forward (Gordon Hayward) and starting power forward (PJ Washington) are questionable. Oh, and there’s one other rotation player who will miss the game (more on that in the next section).

All of those injuries and potential players missing this game are irrelevant information when you remember that it’s the Charlotte freaking Hornets! The injury report shouldn’t matter because this is a dysfunctional team that should be an easy win for most NBA teams.

Yet it does because we’re talking about the Toronto Raptors!

When these teams met 10 days ago, the Raptors played without any sense of urgency until it was too late to complete a comeback victory in Charlotte. Trailing the Hornets for over 42(!) of the 48 minutes is a complete embarrassment — in addition to losing the game!

As the number of losses continues outnumbering the wins in Toronto, and with Charlotte dealing with its fair share of injuries, there’s simply no better time to get a win.

Fun fact that may only interest me

There won’t be a single fact for the rest of this post as fun(ny) as this.

Prediction

Toronto has won the last 5 home games against Charlotte. The last time the Hornets won at Scotiabank Arena was on February 28, 2020, otherwise known as the last home game before the pandemic! Charlotte comes to town after getting obliterated by 53(!!) points to Philadelphia.

When these teams last met, I typed the ominous words, “Let’s not overthink this.” Well, my wife is fully aware of how stubborn I can be, so I’ll put this in bold — let’s not overthink this. Charlotte’s missing its best player and may also be without 3 other starters. Meanwhile, Toronto’s fully healthy (sans Christian Koloko) and is the more desperate team.

The Raptors beat the Hornets 123-105 on the heels of another 30-assist performance, coupled with a relentless transition attack.

December 20 vs Denver Nuggets

The defending champs roll into town for their only visit to Scotiabank Arena. When talking about the Nuggets, everything starts and stops with Nikola Jokic. The two-time MVP is having another eye-popping statistical season, averaging 27.0 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 9.5 assists (the same point-rebound-assist total as his second MVP season). Although, his 54/31/79 shooting split is one of the worst of his career (three-point and free throw percentages are career lows), no one’s holding that against the Joker as he’s kept his team near the top of the rocky (sorry) Western Conference standings.

At this time last year, the top four teams were the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Suns. Currently, Denver is the only one of that bunch who’s even in a playoff position!

Jamal Murray (18.0 points, 6.0 assists, 46/41/92 shooting) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1.4 steals, 90% FT%) make up a solid backcourt while Michael Porter Jr. (16.8 points, 8.0 rebounds) and Aaron Gordon (13.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists) fortify the frontcourt alongside Jokic. Reggie Jackson (13.4 points, 4.6 assists) is the perfect 6th man that Raptors fans have dreamed of. The 12-year veteran has been a steadying force for the bench while maintaining his leadership in the starting lineup when Jamal Murray missed time earlier in the season. The bench isn’t all about Jackson though.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Christian Braun has done more than posterize former Raptors!

In June, he joined some elite company that includes Bill Russell and Magic Johnson after becoming the 5th player in history to win an NCAA championship AND an NBA title in consecutive years!

Prediction

The last time the Raptors played in Denver, the game was a hard-fought battle that came down to a clutch play in the final minute......by Scott Foster.

Jarring memories aside, the marquee matchup should be OG Anunoby guarding Jokic. Before Toronto acquired Jakob Poeltl and was essentially without a starting Center, Anunoby was incredible in limiting Jokic’s effectiveness. Rajakovic has been a lot more conventional with his matchups, so it may be Poeltl who is tasked with guarding Jokic, but I will be keeping my eye on any moments when Anunoby gets the assignment!

Regardless of how that matchup goes, Toronto (#4) and Denver (#2) are two of the best assisting teams in the league. Don’t expect to see much isolation!

This game will be won in the paint. The Nuggets take fewer three-point attempts (25th) than most teams, while the Raptors can’t make their threes (25th in three-point field goals made). Atlanta just corralled 16 offensive rebounds against Toronto on Friday. Denver’s not far behind the Hawks in Offensive Rebound percentage. If there’s a time to rejuvenate a desperate Raptors fanbase, it would be with a victory over the defending champs. Unfortunately, Denver’s healthy and playing like the team that lifted the Larry OB. The Nuggets beat the Raptors 115-104.

December 22 @ Philadelphia 76ers

This is absolute torture for the Raptors to play the defending champs followed by the league’s best team in 3 days (not to mention playing the last 2 MVPs)!

Nick Nurse has his new team clicking so well that he’s making Furkan Korkmaz look like Scottie Barnes!

The best record in the East belongs to the Celtics but it’s the Sixers who have been the best team in the conference. According to Basketball Reference, Philadelphia has the best Pythagorean wins total, margin of victory, offensive rating (yes, even better than Indiana), and net rating.

Maxey is making a serious case to have an All-Tyrese backcourt in the All-Star game. He’s averaging 25.6 points, 6.7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds while draining 3.2 threes per game on 40% 3-point shooting. Dare I say, Tyrese Maxey is the best point guard (offensively) Nurse has ever coached!?!?!?!

Fun fact that may only interest me

Joel Embiid has followed up his first MVP season with an even better campaign this year. At 34.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, and a career-high 6.0 assists, Embiid’s averages are higher than last year. What’s even more impressive/shocking/mind-boggling is that he’s doing this while playing fewer minutes than last year (33.9 this year vs 34.6 last year).

Prediction

Toronto has only won 3 of its 11 road games thus far. A date with the Sixers in Philadelphia — where Nick Nurse’s squad has only lost 3 of 13 — does not bode well for the Raptors. There’s also the fact that Darko Rajakovic may tinker a bit with player minutes since the Raptors have to travel back to Toronto (overnight) to play the Jazz. To recap, the Raptors have to play the Sixers in a back-to-back (for the third time this season, but the first time playing on the front end of the B2B), then fly back home on the busiest flying day of the year!

As mentioned in the Nuggets prediction section, a win over a championship contender would be the ultimate Christmas gift for Raptors fans. Wouldn’t it be very Raptors-esque for them to slay the dragon that is Nick Nurse & his Sixers, only to be followed up with a loss to the Jazz?

I doubt either will happen but am still riding the high of a perfectly predicted week, so I’m playing with house money. Toronto upsets Philadelphia 108-107.

December 23 vs Utah Jazz

Could this be an early Christmas gift from the schedule makers? A team with a worse record than the Raptors?

Despite having a 1-4 record, ranking 23rd in point differential, and 27th in defense over the last two weeks, Toronto has actually performed better than Utah (2-4, 29th, and 28th respectively).

Utah doesn’t do much very well, except for crashing the offensive glass. Lauri Markannen (2.2), John Collins (2.7), and Walker Kessler (3.1) grab offensive rebounds relentlessly and will test Toronto’s frontcourt. On the flip side, all that crashing opens up fastbreak opportunities for a Raptors team that loves to get out in transition.

From the it’s-still-too-early commentary section, I’ll still point out that Keyonte George, who was a possible Raptors pick if Gradey Dick hadn’t fallen to them, is averaging 10.5 points, 5.0 assists and showing early signs of being the next Malachi-Flynn-over-Desmond-Bane. Yay!

Fun fact that may only interest me

John Collins is a model of consistency. In his first season with the Jazz, his numbers are in line with what he averaged in Atlanta: 14.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, and 48/38/75 shooting, while leading the team in trade rumours.

Prediction

Utah has only won 2 of its 14 road games this season. This will be the Jazz’s third game in four nights after playing a road back-to-back in Cleveland and Detroit. The schedule makers were not kind to Utah sending them on a 5-game road trip around Christmas.

Another sign of a lottery-bound team is a plentiful injury report. Sometimes a picture says a thousand words.

And yet.....I should double down on what I wrote in the Sixers section. The Raptors inexplicably lose to the Jazz, 123-120.

Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones! Enjoy another Christmas day free from the stress of watching Raptors basketball!

********

Last Week: 3-0

Season Record: 15-10

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