It feels like we were just in this same scenario... oh right, because we were in a very similar situation exactly one year ago. Coming off the All-Star break, under .500, a season full of injuries and setbacks — but still ready to make a playoff push. That’s what the Raptors face as they head into the final stretch of the regular season.
Doesn’t it feel like the season only JUST started? Yet, here we are in February with a record of 28-31, trade deadline come and gone, Jakob Poeltl back on the team, Siakam a two-time All-Star, Scottie Barnes developing, and much more. It’s been a season of ups and downs, and the end is still a little far away.
It’s now or never for the Raptors to try and make a playoff push this season. They are currently 4.5 games behind 6th place in the Eastern Conference — a placing that would have them avoid the play-in tournament AND having to face a top seeded team in the first round. They did it last year, why not this year?
That was the story last season, when the Raptors made a late push to end up in the 5th seed in the East, ultimately having a brutal string of bad luck in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia. Despite injuries, illnesses, and the power of Joel Embiid, the Raptors took that series to six games. Not bad for a team who had been in the lottery the year before.
Can they repeat that push to the end? It will be a little difficult given their schedule, but the team was looking refreshed even before the All-Star Break, with a true centre now on the team. Jakob Poeltl may be their ticket to the playoffs this year.
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.
The push starts tonight as they welcome the New Orleans Pelicans to Toronto. The Pelicans have a record of 30-29, hovering just above .500 in a STACKED Western Conference. If it wasn’t stacked pre-deadline, it’s sure stacked now, with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant now on West Coast (ish) teams.
Now, you may be thinking “didn’t the Raptors get TOSSED around by the Pelicans in their last game?” Yes, that’s correct, BUT that was on the tails of a 33 point Zion Williamson performance, and Zion Williamson is OUT of this game having suffered a hamstring injury.
So, it will be up to CJ McCollum and the rest of the Pelicans to try and hold off the Raptors Thursday night in Toronto.
When: Thursday February 23, 7:30 PM EST
Where to Watch: TSN
Toronto: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl
New Orleans: CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Jonas Valanciunas
Toronto: Otto Porter Jr (Out for Season), O.G. Anunoby (Questionable, Wrist), Gary Trent Jr. (Questionable, Hamstring), Thaddeus Young (Questionable, Knee)
New Orleans: Zion Williamson (Out, Hamstring), Dyson Daniels (Probable, ankle), Larry Nance Jr. (Probable, Groin), EJ Liddell (Out, knee)
Taking Advantage of the Schedule
One of the most frustrating things that the Raptors have been doing this season is losing close games — especially against teams they could easily beat. With the 5th hardest schedule in the NBA to close out the year, they are going to need to WIN those games against teams that are around or below .500.
Tonight is a great example of that. The Pelicans are without their best player, They recently went on a ten game losing streak, and they are feeling the effects of the late season push. The Raptors need to get in there and get the win.
It might even be a little easier now than before, not only because Williamson is out, but the Raptors now have a big guy to compete with Jonas Valanciunas.
The Lineup Dilemma
With Anunoby set to return to the court, the Raptors finally have to answer the looming starting lineup questions. Who will head to the bench now that Anunoby is healthy and Jakob Poeltl is here? It seems like it may be Gary Trent Jr., but that may not be the best choice.
It’s a hard dilemma, I feel for Nick Nurse. On one hand, you need the length of Poeltl — especially against the Pelicans and JV. On the other hand, Gary Trent Jr. is playing SO well, and he scored 35 point the last time the Raptors played the Pelicans.
Do you bench Anunoby while he conditions back to full strength? Not necessarily, he’s the best defender on the team. Siakam and VanVleet are surely not options, nor is Scottie Barnes most likely.
I feel like I talk about the bench a lot... but if the Raptors are gonna contend for a solid playoff spot, the bench will need to contribute when called up. The trust in them has been low, and with Poeltl now around some of their minutes will definitely be cut.
Yet, their job now is incredibly important. In the later games of the season, players are tired, people get injured. Guys like Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher are going to have to really make the most of their minutes now.
If it’s Trent Jr. now coming off the bench, it definitely helps their guard depth. He’ll surely still get plenty of minutes, and he’s the type of player who doesn’t let things like coming off the bench effect him mentally. He’ll still perform the way he usually does, and the Raptors need that leadership off the bench for sure.
Catch the Raptors in their first game back from break, against the New Orleans Pelicans, tonight at 7:30 p.m. on TSN.