There’s always a bittersweet feeling at this time of the year.
Don’t get me wrong. The excitement that accompanies the playoffs still reigns supreme but the finality of a season-long journey hangs over it all. Say what you will about their disappointing season, but after Victor Wembanyama is drafted, free agents are signed, and Summer League wraps up, there will be multiple times during the three months without NBA basketball that you’ll miss the Toronto Raptors.
The good news is that for the 9th time in 10 seasons, the Raptors will play at least one postseason game. Who Toronto plays rests entirely on how they perform this week (plus one more loss by the Hawks). They’ll finish their season against a plethora of familiar faces.
Raps will now face Svi, Justin Champagnie, and Goran Dragic before the season ends. They’ll then play some combination of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the play-in tournament https://t.co/J0G8DITEeG— (@AaronBenRose) April 3, 2023
Maybe the sight of some former Raptors will remind the current squad of their roots: a team that prided itself on winning at the margins. Toronto has a golden opportunity to end the season in the 7th or 8th seed and two opportunities to qualify for the playoffs. Will they be able to pull through and end the season on a high note?
April 4 @ Charlotte Hornets
For the second game in a row, Charlotte will host Toronto while missing every Hornet averaging at least 10 points a game. Despite having their lottery position locked in at #4 and with literally nothing to play for, the Hornets will be without LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre Jr., Cody Martin, and PJ Washington. Dennis Smith Jr. may also miss the game, but it really makes you wonder if anyone at Spectrum Center would notice.
With a number of end-of-bench and/or young, inexperienced players taking the floor for Charlotte, maybe the person to spotlight is their coach, Steve Clifford.
Fred VanVleet holds the franchise records for both points and assists in a game. The opposing coach in both games: Steve Clifford— Joseph Strauss (@PreferablyJoe) April 2, 2023
Maybe VanVleet has a never-ending vendetta against Clifford after Orlando’s Game 1 victory in the championship season? Whatever the case, weird stat lines always occur at the end of the season and Steady Freddie surely has a thing for setting records with Clifford on the opposing bench. His career-high in steals is seven, just two shy of Doug Christie’s franchise record. With very little experience on the other side of the floor and the Raptors in must-win mode, VanVleet has the right environment to add his name to another page in the Raptors’ history book.
Fun fact that may only interest me
Svi Mykhailiuk was traded to the Hornets at the trade deadline but only saw the floor twice in the month of February. So, he’s basically only been with the team for a month. Yet, he’s in line to play his 17th game with Charlotte and make his sixth start of the season. Mykhailiuk is in his 5th season, averaging just over 50 games per season and 16 minutes per game — in line with someone who should be the 9th or 10th man on a team’s rotation.
Thanks to all the injuries, Svi Mykhailiuk, at the ripe old age of 25, will be the most experienced Hornet to take the floor. End-of-season lineup fun, baby!!
The benefit of having the two games of a doubleheader split between “Rap-Up” editions is that I can alter my prediction. Initially, I had these games as a split because of Charlotte’s fairly good defense since the All-Star break. While a disappointing showing by the Raptors is always a possibility, the depleted Hornets roster really leaves little to the imagination. Toronto completes their second doubleheader sweep against Charlotte, winning 117-109.
April 5 & 7 @ Boston Celtics
There’s a real possibility that 9 of the next 11 games for Toronto will be against Boston (and 9 of the next 10 games for Boston will be against Toronto).
That, of course, runs under a lot of assumptions.
It assumes that Toronto emerges atop the 8th-place Battle Royale against Atlanta and Chicago. It assumes that Toronto can steal a play-in victory in Miami and claim the 7th seed. It assumes, rather comfortably, that Boston will not be able to make up the two-game deficit to catch Milwaukee for 1st, nor give up their three-game lead over Philadelphia for 2nd.
This also makes the biggest assumption — that a first-round series between Toronto and Boston would go the distance!
Over the last two weeks, the Celtics have had the #1 defense, #3 offense, and, unsurprisingly, rank #1 in net rating. Jayson Tatum is going to finish in the top 5 in MVP voting. Jaylen Brown will cap his career-best season with an All-NBA selection. Marcus Smart will (probably) end up on his 4th All-Defensive team in the last 5 seasons. I say “probably” because he may not be the Boston guard to receive that honour. Derrick White has been excellent on the defensive end all season and could garner his first selection. The accolades don’t end there as Malcolm Brogdon is the odds-on favourite for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Boston is looking like the team that was running circles around the league earlier this season and is peaking at the right time.
Fun fact that may only interest me
If you flipped the script and it was Toronto near the top of the East standings and Boston fighting for a play-in position, would you want the Raptors to rest their players for a long playoff run or step on the throat of a hated rival?
The Celtics have apparently decided on both!
In the G League, Champagnie averaged 3.0 offensive rebounds per game. At 6’6, he’s the shortest player to average that many offensive boards. It’s apples-to-oranges, but all 12 NBA players averaging 3.0 offensive rebounds this season are classified as Centers, with only Kevon Looney and Alperen Sengun (both 6’9) anywhere near that “short.”
Both teams will enter Wednesday’s first matchup on the back-end of back-to-backs. While Toronto flies into town after a pair of games in Charlotte, Boston returns home after a date in Philadelphia. That Celtics-Sixers matchup holds a lot of importance in the East playoff race, not only for the # 2 seed, but also for Toronto’s chances to move up from 9th. If, for example, the Celtics clinch the second seed (they’ve already clinched the season series with Philadelphia), they may rest their stars.
That certainly does not imply the Celtics will just lay down and take a pair of losses to a division rival in front of their home crowd.
In the first game, Boston may still be mathematically alive to capture the #1-seed, so a fully healthy Celtics squad (probably without Robert Williams who usually sits out the second game of back-to-backs) should be able to take care of business against a Toronto roster possibly missing its best defender in O.G. Anunoby. Celtics take the first game 112-105.
With their seeding secured, the Celtics roll out their ‘B’ squad in the second game. At any other time of the season, I’d actually predict a Boston victory. Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Blake Griffin, and definitely Champagnie can all play the role of Raptor killer. But with the 8th seed still in sight, the Raptors eke out a 117-115 win.
April 9 vs Milwaukee Bucks
Welcome to the Mike Budenholzer experimentation bowl!
By the time the Bucks and Raptors suit up for Toronto’s final home game of the regular season, Milwaukee will very likely have clinched the #1 overall seed for the third time in the last five seasons. While that obviously means Milwaukee will be resting the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and/or Brook Lopez in some combination, Budenholzer has the unique opportunity to use this game as intel for a possible first-round matchup.
Box-and-one on Fred VanVleet and dare the other Raptors to self-create? Sure!
Throw out a lineup including Goran Dragic, Grayson Allen, and Meyers Leonard to try and incite an all-out war inside Scotiabank Arena? Why not!
Force O.G. to drive, dare Scottie to shoot, and use the Hack-a-Jak in the second quarter? Yes, yes, and oh yes!
Fun fact that may only interest me
Goran Dragic was once asked what was his favourite subject in school.
“Geography and some History, learning about different places and countries.”
Sorry, I just choked on my coffee. History will show that the geographic area he’s about to play in will teach him something memorable!
The final home game of the regular season is always a fun one at Scotiabank Arena. As a former employee of the ‘Fan Patrol’, I can tell you that we cleaned out the prize closet for the season finale. So, if you’ve got tickets, come prepared to win all the giveaways!
As for the product on the court, the Raptors just need to take care of business against a Bucks squad that will be without their best players. Milwaukee has one of the older rosters in the league — one of my many reasons why Giannis should not have re-signed there (What? No I’m not still bitter!) — and just wants to get to the playoffs as healthy as possible.
The Raptors give the home crowd what they want: a victory over the rival Bucks and the 8th-seed to boot. Toronto ends their regular season over .500 with a 118-105 victory over Milwaukee.
Before we store this away and wrap up the 5th season of The Rap-Up, I’d like to thank all of you for reading along! This may not have been the most enjoyable season to watch, but at least it wasn’t the Tampa tank season! A special shoutout to our Editor-in-Chief, Josh Kern, for editing this mish-mash of words, week in and week out. There are no words for his unwavering support! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I cannot wait to have my Sunday nights (and Monday mornings) back!