The playoffs have arrived!
Granted, the official playoffs don’t kick off for a couple of weeks but let’s face it, playoff intensity will be present in each of Toronto’s remaining 7 regular season games. (Yes, even the two games in Charlotte)
Speaking of the Hornets, see if you can find them on this chart.
The Efficiency Landscape. What Jumps Out? pic.twitter.com/3pUHOK4Q9M— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) March 24, 2023
This week’s Toronto Raptors opponents range from pure excellence (Sixers #1 net rating) to pure trash (Hornets offense). Yet, it’s the team in-between, Miami, that will be the talk of the town this week. With only seven games left, and a wide range of postseason scenarios still in play, Toronto will look to continue their solid play of late against the best in the East (plus Charlotte).
March 28 vs Miami Heat
As far as playoff-like matchups in the regular season go, nothing will feel more playoffs-y than the Miami Heat, with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry in tow, visiting Scotiabank Arena with both teams fighting for playoff spots! Every time these teams play, you might as well place a steel cage around the court because it’s nothing short of a bloodbath. Considering the impending physicality that always comes with Heat-Raptors games, the home crowd should brace themselves for unfavourable whistles.
Insane. top free throw disparities in the league this year. Adam Silver is going to jail for fixing games to get the Lakers in the playoffs pic.twitter.com/e32xotLMbK— Kevin Vote 4 Brandon Johnson April 4th (@NBACouchside) March 23, 2023
It’s not enough that Miami gets to the line at a top-10 rate (#7 in free throw rate) and that Toronto is 26th in free throw rate allowed. It’s not enough that Lowry is back from injury, just in time to pester his old teammates. It’s not enough that while Anunoby is focusing on Butler, Miami has enough outside shooting in Max Strus, Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin, and Lowry to hurt the rest of Toronto’s scrambling defense,
Despite all of what was typed in that last paragraph, I personally cannot hate on Miami because they have one of the most respected coaches in the league. Someone who proudly represents the country where my parents were born.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Almost a year to the day (April 3rd, 2022, to be precise), Lowry made his return to Scotiabank Arena. He’d finish with a double-double, pouring in 16 points and amassing 10 assists. More importantly, the Heat won and inched closer to clinching the #1-seed in the East, while the Raptors dropped into a tie with Bulls in the East playoff standings.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the Heat find themselves in Toronto with a chance to inch closer to getting out of the play-in and into the 6th-seed, while the Raptors, if they lose, would likely drop into a tie with... the Bulls in the East playoff standings.
A late-season road back-to-back is not ideal for one of the older teams in the league. The Heat follow this critical game with another one that greatly affects the East playoff race when they visit the Knicks.
Since the All-Star break, the Heat have had a home-heavy schedule with 9 of 15 games in Miami. Their 6 road games, however, have been uninspiring with losses in Charlotte, Milwaukee, Orlando, and Chicago. One of the two wins was against the tanking Pistons.
Catching Miami in the standings is probably out of the picture for Toronto but a win tonight would give the Raptors a 3-1 season series win. Toronto hasn’t won a season series against Miami since the championship season.
The Heat looked playoff-ready in a 127-120 win over New York last Wednesday, but followed that up with an absolute dud against Brooklyn on Saturday in a 129-100 blowout loss where they were outscored 64-31 in the second half. The Raptors’ story isn’t that different. Toronto has won 19 of the 24 quarters they’ve played at home in March, but the only quarter they lost to Indiana was enough for the Pacers to steal a win. The Raptors continue to be a frustrating team to predict because of their inconsistency.
Two factors weigh in Toronto’s favour: home record and recent play. The Raptors are a season-high 10 games over .500 at home. According to Cleaning The Glass, Toronto has the 2nd-best offense and 4th-best point differential over the last two weeks. While Miami’s offense has been very good (#5 over the same stretch), their defense has not (#25). The Raptors survive and win a crucial matchup with the visiting Heat, 112-107.
March 31 @ Philadelphia 76ers
This may sound familiar to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs but maybe, just maybe, this might be the year for the Sixers! If you’re getting a sense of deja vu, it’s likely because Philadelphia is playing so well that they look like championship contenders. Joel Embiid has never looked better. Full stop. He’s an MVP candidate (favourite?), having the best season of his career, and looking as unstoppable as ever. (I’ll squash the momentum a little here by posting my most popular tweet from last year, based on quote tweets)
For seven straight possessions in the 3rd Quarter, the Raptors attacked Embiid. It led to the following:— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) April 26, 2022
- 1 dunk
- 2 free throws
- 4(!) layups pic.twitter.com/ELIZHgEsGA
It’s a shame this version of Precious Achiuwa has been missing since the All-Star break (only 1 double-digit scoring game) but this still illustrates that Toronto is not afraid to attack Embiid.
Anyway, back to Philly’s dominance. James Harden has looked very comfortable in his role with the Sixers and has played a key role in their ascension up the East standings. The Beard leads the league with 10.8 assists per game and is performing better than his career averages in 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, assists, and rebounds. His backcourt partner, Tyrese Maxey, is having a career year, averaging 20.4 points on stellar shooting (48/43/84).
Embiid, Harden, and Maxey comprise the highest-scoring trio in the league at 75.1 points per game.
Fun fact that may only interest me
The Raptors better play well against the Heat and Sixers because the free-throw situation is going to irk a lot of fans. While Miami does it with the disparity in attempts, Philadelphia does it in volume — specifically with their two stars.
Embiid (11.9) and Harden (6.5) are the only teammates in the league to average at least 6 free throws a game. Their combined average of 18.4 attempts is more than what the entire Raptors team averages (17.3) if you remove Siakam.
As far as trap games go, this could be one for the Sixers. After playing against the Suns, Nuggets, and Mavericks, Philadephia hosts Toronto before going up against the Bucks and Celtics. The Raptors are their “easiest” opponent.
Philadelphia has a 2-1 edge in the season series and has been chasing down the Celtics and Bucks for the East’s top seed. After catching Boston for the 2nd-seed on March 18, the Sixers have lost 3 of their last 4 and settled back into the 3rd-seed.
Maybe I’m drinking too much of the kool-aid. Maybe I’m getting more adventurous because I’m guaranteed to have a better prediction record than the Raptors’ season record. Or maybe... just maybe... my gut feeling is right. Toronto takes advantage of Philadelphia’s 25th-ranked transition defense, or 17th-ranked defensive OREB percentage, or their history of performing well in Philly (winning 3 of the last 5 regular season meetings at Wells Fargo Center. Maybe it’s the presence of an actual Center in Jakob Poeltl and the defensive versatility of Anunoby that help limit Embiid’s impact. Whatever the reason, I’m going with the Raptors upsetting the Sixers, 106-104.
April 2 @ Charlotte Hornets
Why are Raptors-Hornets meetings always grouped together?
The NBA has had two seasons where double-headers were used with regularity. In 2021, the reason was pandemic-related. This season, the reason has been to cut down on travel. Over the two seasons, the Raptors have had 11 double-headers (this would be the 12th). Charlotte has been (will be) Toronto’s opponent in 3 of these double-headers.
Tonight also figures to be Svi Mykhailiuk’s revenge game!
Protesting tonight's game on the grounds that Svi shot 3/5 on 3s https://t.co/gY6YxCIWI6— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2023
Malachi Flynn and James Bouknight could be entering this game on relative highs. Both of their alma maters — San Diego State and Connecticut — are in the Final Four and, by the time this game is played, possibly headed to Monday’s Championship game.
As for Charlotte’s rotation players, LaMelo Ball is out for the season, while Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Terry Rozier have been out of the lineup recently due to
tanking various ailments.
Fun fact that may only interest me
At this time of the year, a big factor that swings games is where teams are in the standings and, subsequently, which players are load managing. Teams like Milwaukee or Denver will soon rest starters as they prepare for a deep playoff run. They’re able to do this because they have clinched their playoff seeding.
On the other side of the coin, teams like Detroit and Houston rest their starters because they are indirectly trying to lose games and improve their draft lottery odds. So, why don’t we ever read about teams “clinching” their draft lottery position?
The Hornets, for example, have a magic number of 2 before they clinch the 4th-best lottery odds. They cannot mathematically “drop” to 5th and are 5.5 games behind the Spurs with 6 games remaining. If we assume they’ve clinched their lottery odds by the time Sunday rolls around, what incentive do they have to tank?
While these two games against Charlotte are the easiest games remaining, they’re also not guaranteed wins. The Hornets just swept a double-header against the Mavericks — also a team trying to battle their way out of the play-in.
The Raptors and Hornets have identical 12-24 records — Toronto on the road; Charlotte at home.
We’ve done this rodeo enough not to trust the Raptors will sweep a double-header in Charlotte — even if they’re in tank mode. The Hornets have the #1 transition defense and rank 3rd in defensive FG% at the rim. With the fast break opportunities at a minimum and points in the paint limited, the Raptors are a cold-shooting night away from another deflating loss. Let’s give this first matchup to the home team. The Hornets sting the Raptors, 123-115.