The stretch run is officially underway!
The All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Toronto Raptors. The layoff allowed the team to get healthy. Gary Trent Jr. is off the injury report, while O.G. Anunoby and Thad Young are listed as questionable for the Pelicans game, but are expected to play. Newly (re-)acquired Jakob Poeltl had a full week to get up-to-speed with Nick Nurse’s playbook. Toronto’s closest rivals in the standings are showing kinks in their respective armours.
So, where’s the excitement?
Yes, there are concerns about Toronto’s remaining schedule.
The Raptors' have the 5th hardest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA.— Keerthika Uthayakumar (@keerthikau) February 22, 2023
9 of their 23 games left are against top-4 seeds, 13 of 23 are on the road & they'll play 3 sets of back-to-backs.
Let’s dissect this a little bit. Three of the nine games against top-4 seeds (2 in Boston, 1 vs Milwaukee) occur in the final week of the season when those teams are very likely resting starters. Toronto will have the rest advantage in the second Denver game (at home) and in Philadelphia. I’ll probably reiterate further down that the Raptors are 3-0 against their lone top-4 opponent this week: Cleveland.
Another aspect to consider is Toronto’s competition. Washington is exactly where folks predicted before the season: play-in bound, nothing more, nothing less. Atlanta actually has a tougher remaining schedule than Toronto AND they just fired their Head Coach. Miami is dealing with a bevy of injuries and hoping to get something (anything) productive out of Kevin Love. New York is in that coveted 6th spot but only has a 4-game advantage in the loss column. Toronto also won the season series against New York.
It’s an uphill climb but not an impossible one. This week, the Raptors face a Pelicans team without Zion Williamson, a Pistons team without Cade Cunningham, and a Cavaliers team that hasn’t beaten them yet (wow, that reference came up shorter than I anticipated). Whether or not Toronto climbs up the standings, the Front Office’s decision to not tank has guaranteed us 23 games (at least) of competitive, entertaining Raptors basketball. Enjoy the ride!
February 23 vs New Orleans Pelicans
Toronto’s first game back from the break is filled with intriguing matchups!
Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl is a battle of former Raptors (that were traded away for players that helped bring a championship to Toronto).
O.G. Anunoby will have his hands full in his first game back from injury as he tries defending Brandon Ingram.
Fred VanVleet and Jose Alvarado is a battle of undrafted point guards that definitely annoy every fan base but their own.
Scottie Barnes and Herb Jones are battling for the title of best-player-from-the-2021-draft-until-Cunningham-is-healthy.
CJ McCollum and Gary Trent Jr. will take turns trying to prove they’re the better, streakier, scorer.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Apparently, Zion Williamson likes visiting Toronto!
The people love coming up to Canada @Zionwilliamson via @GrantAfseth pic.twitter.com/67GgjJ3WvW— UNINTERRUPTED Canada (@UNCanada) February 21, 2023
He must love coming “up” to New York and Toronto during the summertime because he’s played 1 game in each of those cities.
Those numbers will remain the same because the Pelicans follow this game with a visit to New York. Zion will miss both games as he continues dealing with a hamstring injury.
Toronto should have plenty of fastbreak opportunities against New Orleans. Not only are the Pelicans 24th in turnover rate, but they rank 27th in transition opportunities allowed off live rebounds (and 24th in transition frequency altogether). The Pelicans also rank dead-last in putbacks points per play allowed. With Poeltl’s offensive rebounding skills added to Toronto’s group of offensive-board-hungry forwards, the Raptors should also win the second chance points battle. Toronto defeats the visiting Pelicans, 109-105.
February 25 @ Detroit Pistons
Follow along as I play out a possible scenario of Detroit’s near future.
The Pistons win the lottery and draft Victor Wembanyama. With Cunningham fully recovered from his shin injury, Cade and Victor quickly become the NBA’s favourite dynamic duo. With Jaden Ivey and Killian Hayes’ continued improvement and Alec Burks’ veteran presence, Detroit’s backcourt is as solid as it’s been in years. Troy Weaver is heralded for hanging on to Bojan Bogdanovic as he continues to punish defenses for focusing on Cade and Victor. Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren prove to be a bruising front court while Wembanyama swoops in for weakside blocks.
Did I forget to mention Detroit will have over $40 million in cap space this summer? The Pistons could bolster the Center position with Brook Lopez or Nikola Vucevic. They could bring back old Pistons in Jerami Grant or Christian Wood. Oh hello, unrestricted free agent wings: Cam Johnson, Dillon Brooks, and Lonnie Walker.
With two franchise-altering stars plus a solid supporting cast of rising stars and seasoned veterans, the Pistons become the darlings of the NBA as they successfully write their own worst-to-first story and claim an improbable NBA title in 2024!
And all of this happens in the first season after they fire Dwane Casey. (Ouch)
BetOnline's odds for the next NBA head coach fired:— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) February 22, 2023
• Silas (Rockets) -125
• Casey (Pistons) +250
• Donovan (Bulls) +500
• Clifford (Hornets) +500
• Billups (Blazers) +1000
• Nurse (Raptors) +2200
Fun fact that may only interest me
This is a fairly “streaky” series. Since March 2017, each team has ended the others’ win streak with one of their own.
- March 2017 - April 2018: Raps win 6 straight
- November 2018 - March 2019: Pistons win 3 straight
- October 2019 - January 2020: Raps win 3 straight
- March 2021 - March 2022: Pistons win 6 straight
The Raptors have won the first two meetings this season. If my math-ing is correct, Toronto’s due for at least one more win in this rivalry.
Guessing the outcome of a Raptors-Pistons game is a futile act. Up is down. Down is up. When all numbers suggest the Raptors should win, Detroit ends up getting the last laugh. When the Pistons have somehow won six straight and Toronto is without VanVleet, Siakam, and Precious Achiuwa... the Raptors win.
Detroit has poor transition defense (24th), poor halfcourt defense (29th), and just plain, old poor... defense (29th in defensive rating). This obviously means the Pistons will win. This also means I’m making a huge mistake: the Raptors defeat the Pistons in front of a home crowd at Little Caesars Arena, 122-119.
February 26 @ Cleveland Cavaliers
One year ago, the Cavaliers had 23 losses at the All-Star break and sat in 4th in the Eastern Conference standings.
A year later, the Cavaliers have 23 losses at the All-Star break and sit in 4th in the Eastern Conference standings!
Last year, the injury bug hit Cleveland at the worst time, causing the Cavaliers to plummet down to 8th, where they’d lose both play-in games.
Injury luck aside, Cavaliers fans have to be feeling confident about their playoff chances this year. Cleveland has joined Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia as the clear-cut top-4 in the conference. The 5th-place Nets aren’t catching them, especially after trading away Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Cleveland will not only avoid the play-in this season, but by gaining home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, they have a chance to win their first playoff series without LeBron James since 1993(!). Only four players on the current Cavs roster were even alive at the time!
Fun fact that may only interest me
Remember that stat at the top about Toronto having the 5th-hardest remaining schedule? Let’s look at where the Raptors’ opponents this week rank:
- New Orleans: 3rd-easiest
- Detroit: 2nd-easiest
- Cleveland: 4th-easiest
Have I mentioned the Raptors have won all 3 matchups with the Cavaliers? Two of Donovan Mitchell’s worst games of the season have come at the hands of Toronto, namely Anunoby. Cleveland’s twin towers, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, have helped the Cavaliers to 4th in FG% at the rim. It’ll be interesting to see how the Raptors fare now that Poeltl is on the roster.
In Cleveland’s favour, they’re catching Toronto on the back end of a back-to-back and boast the 2nd-best home record (25-6) in the league.
The Raptors probably won’t shoot 19-of-37 from beyond the arc as they did in the previous meeting. Although ‘probably’ may have been the wrong word choice. Toronto has shot 40% or better on threes in 11 games this season. Three of those 11 games have come against the Cavaliers. Toronto completes the season sweep with a 113-111 victory in Cleveland.