Pop quiz: What would you consider to be the Raptors’ statement victory this season?
Unless it was a beatdown against a championship contender, I tend to disqualify the first 10 games when trying to find a statement victory. So, that removes the season opener against the Cavaliers and the consecutive wins against the Heat and Sixers.
November 28 against the Cavaliers where O.G. Anunoby held Donovan Mitchell to eight points? December 23 against the Cavs is probably more impressive because Mitchell was shut down again (12 points) and it was in Cleveland.
For a non-Cavs contender, does anything top the atmosphere of a 52-point game by Pascal Siakam at Madison Square Garden?
The December 30 victory over the Suns loses brownie points because Phoenix was without Devin Booker, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson. The February 5 victory over the Grizzlies is also sullied since Memphis was without Ja Morant and Steven Adams.
Toronto’s 18-point thrashing in Sacramento where they held the Kings to a season-low 95 points is probably the most impressive win of the season.
So, that’s it? Toronto’s statement victory is either a December game against the Knicks or a January game against the Kings? A quick glance at Toronto’s remaining schedule reveals very few opportunities to revise the answer. Yes, the Raptors end their season with two games in Boston, followed by a home finale against the Bucks. But how confident do you feel that either team will field their regular starters when they both will have already locked up the top-two spots in the East?
It would have been ideal if Toronto ended the Bucks’ 24-game winning streak, but the Sixers made sure on Saturday that Milwaukee wouldn’t get to 17.
A road game against the best team in the West, who also boasts the best home record in the league and, to boot, employs the two-time reigning MVP? Oh yes, that fits all the criteria of a statement victory! If the Raptors fall to the Nuggets as expected, claiming their first win over Kawhi Leonard in a Clippers uniform wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize!
March 6 @ Denver Nuggets
For the first time since mid-November, the Raptors will share the floor with a healthy Porter Jr.! Unfortunately, it’s not Otto.
The Nuggets have lost four home games this season. Nikola Jokic missed two of those games (a 3-point loss to the Knicks and a 2-point loss to the Thunder). The other two games were also one-possession losses (a 2-point loss to the Pistons and a 1-point loss to the Mavericks).
If you combine Pascal Siakam’s ability to score in a multitude of ways with Scottie Barnes’ incredible court vision, you’d get Nikola Jokic....who is also surrounded by the best three-point shooting team in the league. There’s certainly a cause-and-effect at play here.
Here are the largest changes in team 3pt percentage from last year to this year.— Bucket List Fans (@bucketlistfans) February 28, 2023
What stands out? pic.twitter.com/dy7wLaPqMy
Fun fact that may only interest me
Denver is 42-14 when Jokic plays. A lot of that success is fueled by Nikola’s ability to set up his teammates. When he amasses at least 10 assists in a game, the Nuggets are an astounding 31-1. However, that also means that they’re 11-13 when he doesn’t get to double-digits in assists.
Toronto has faced Jokic 14 times and limited him to single-digit assists in 11(!) of those games.
How do you defeat a team that has only lost four home games by a combined eight points? How do you stop or slow down a superstar at the height of his powers and on his way to a third consecutive MVP?
First, you bring in a true center who can hold his own when Jokic is in the paint. Hello Jakob Poeltl. Next, you make sure there’s at least one other defender you can trust if your Center is out of the game. Hello O.G. Anunoby. Finally, you stay home on shooters.
That last one is especially tough for the Raptors because they switch so freely on defense. The Nuggets aren’t the #1 three-point shooting by mistake. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Aaron Gordon average 8.5 made threes per game. If Anunoby, Siakam, Barnes, and VanVleet can stay glued to their defensive covers, respectively, Jokic will have no other choice than to be Denver’s bucket-getter (and not the deadly facilitator).
Toronto’s notorious transition offense can generate steals (Nuggets are 21st in turnover percentage) and get some easy buckets against Denver’s porous transition defense (26th in frequency off steals; 26th in transition points per play). I’ve been hinting at this from the start, so let’s spell it out. Toronto will beat Denver, 117-112.
March 8 @ Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers emptied the proverbial cupboard to bring in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to lead this franchise to heights it had never reached. In fairness, they were successful in carrying the Clips to their first Conference Finals. Six games later, they were back where they always are in June: watching the NBA Finals on tv.
We’re in Year 4 of the Kawhi/PG era and the question has to be asked: are they any closer to hoisting the Larry OB?
PAUL GEORGE: "I had to be honest to myself. In order for me to win at the highest level or get to where I want to get to. I don't think I'm the 1 guy. I can. I can score with the best. I can take over games with the best. But I don't honestly think that's pic.twitter.com/7GIHQvntds… https://t.co/yEXxl6Pfjz— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) March 1, 2023
This clip made the rounds last week and called to question George’s admission that he’s fine with not being “the guy.” A couple of soundbites got lost in the virility of his statement. In the interview, he was referencing his time in Oklahoma City when he decided it was time to take a backseat to Russell Westbrook. The irony of that statement is that he’s reunited with Westbrook... and George is again opting to not be “the guy”, this time in favour of Leonard.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Norm Powell currently has the 3rd-best odds of nabbing the Sixth Man of the Year award. The former Raptor turns 30 in May. If he makes up significant ground on Malcolm Brogdon over these last few weeks and wins the award, he’d join a select group of first-time winners of the Sixth Man of the Year award after turning 30.
- Bobby Jones
- Danny Manning
- Manu Ginobili
- John Starks
- Bill Walton
- Darrell Armstrong
- Lamar Odom
The Clippers are 1-5 since picking up Russell Westbrook off the buyout market. That lone victory came on Sunday in a home game against a Grizzlies team that was without Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks, and Steven Adams.
Kawhi Leonard is 12-2 when facing the Raptors and 5-0 since joining the Clippers.
Similar to the Chicago matchup last week against DeMar DeRozan and Zach Lavine, Nick Nurse will have to choose between George and Leonard to decide who gets the Anunoby treatment, while the other drops 40 points on Toronto!
George and Westbrook’s propensity to turn the ball over (7.6 combined average turnovers) certainly contributes to LA’s porous transition defense (27th overall; 29th off steals). That may not be enough against a Clippers team that is just as desperate as the Raptors to get out of the play-in field.
Clippers beat the visiting Raptors, 108-101.
March 10 @ Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers replaced Russell (Westbrook) with (D’Angelo) Russell.
Actually, “replaced” is used loosely as D’Angelo has missed more games (6) than he’s played (4). He’s dealing with an ankle injury. Whether or not he’ll be ready for this matchup begs a larger question: what are they playing for?
LeBron James is still dealing with a foot injury and will be re-evaluated in a couple of weeks. Not necessarily cleared to play... just re-evaluated. When that time comes, the Lakers will only have eight games remaining. For someone who prides himself on taking care of his body and openly declares his intention to play alongside his son in the NBA, why risk further damage to play for a team that’s clearly not good enough to be a playoff team, let alone a play-in team?
New Orleans’ downward spiral without Zion Williamson also indirectly helps the Lakers’ motivation to tank. The first-round pick swap may not be as wide a gap as it looked earlier in the season when the Pelicans were #1 in the West.
Fun fact that may only interest me
The Lakers will be without LeBron James and that may not actually be bad news. They are 1-6 against the Raptors when the NBA’s all-time leading scorer suits up. Since James left Cleveland (a second time), Toronto has made it their unspoken vow to try and erase years of “Lebronto” torment.
There was a stretch between 2006 and 2014 where LeBron played in 26 games against the Raptors... and won 25!
To put that span in perspective, Andrea Bargnani was drafted in 2006 and traded in 2013.
When I think about Pascal Siakam’s best highlights throughout his career, I immediately jump to his moments against the Lakers (after the Finals-related highlights, of course).
SIAKAM... MVP MVP MVP— F. NYEKI (@Mr_NYEKI) November 11, 2019
Il enrhume toute la défense de LAL avec un cross over (hypothequant au passage les chevilles de Davis ) et ensuite il me contre LeBron avec autorité pic.twitter.com/Qmk3JnWoS7
Over his last three games, Siakam has scored 20 points or less as Fred VanVleet has taken more of a leadership role. However, the sight of the purple and gold always seems to bring the best out of Spicy P.
All three of Toronto’s opponents this week have bottom-10 transition defenses, but the Lakers’ 28th-ranked transition D may be the easiest one for the Raptors to exploit because they’re missing at least one of their best defenders (James), while another is injured (Mo Bamba). The Raptors finish the road trip on a high note with a 118-106 victory over the Lakers.