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The Rap-Up: Drama-filled week ends with a visit to OG’s Knicks

Toronto faces an archrival — no, not Diar DeRozan — when Boston comes to town. The week wraps up with the Raptors’ first game against OG Anunoby.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The NFL’s Wild Card Weekend kicked off and I found myself thinking about the Raptors.

The start of any playoff season is always exciting but nothing matches the tension and anxiety of the beginning of the NFL and NCAA tournaments. Do you know why? Because it’s win-or-go-home!

Whether the teams are evenly matched or there’s a large talent gap, once the game starts, season records are thrown out the window and the cliche of “on any given Sunday” rings true.

The blessing (and curse) of the Play-In tournament offers that same sudden-death feel to the NBA postseason. While this season, in particular, likely means a team with 35 to 37 wins gets in, all that really matters is how that team performs when it counts. Last season, two teams from the Play-In tournament continued deep into the playoffs. The Miami Heat advanced all the way to the NBA Finals, while the Los Angeles Lakers made it to the Western Conference Finals — both teams fell to the Denver Nuggets.

The Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, and Atlanta Hawks are not scaring anyone in a possible 9-10 matchup, especially considering all three teams will likely be selling at the trade deadline. An 8-9 matchup against an inexperienced team like the Orlando Magic or Indiana Pacers also lends to the possibility of an upset. We don’t need to take this any further to guess how Toronto would fare in a 7-game series with Boston, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee — a playoff spot would be enough to deem this transitional season a success!

Toronto finally has a half-court offense that can get buckets. How the Raptors perform against better defenses this week could go a long way in helping the front office decide what to do next with the roster.

January 15 vs Boston Celtics

The first game after a long road trip has typically led to a sluggish effort when the Raptors return to Scotiabank Arena. (Not like you need an excuse when playing the best team in the NBA)

This will be the final regular-season meeting between the teams. The talent gap between the teams lies somewhere between the 23-point drubbing Boston handed Toronto on November 11 and the narrow 3-point win they last visited Scotiabank Arena. When they last met on December 29, the Celtics escaped with a 2-point win despite not having Jayson Tatum or Kristaps Porzingis in the lineup.

Boston and Oklahoma City (Shai!!!) are the only teams ranked in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive rating, with the Celtics ranking 1st in net rating. Their schedule since the calendar flipped to 2024 has not been forgiving. Boston has amassed wins over the Pacers, Timberwolves, and (the red-hot) Jazz, while falling to the Pacers (in the game where Tyrese Haliburton injured his hamstring), Bucks, and the aforementioned Thunder.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Jaylen Brown will miss this game as he continues dealing with a knee issue. While his absence might help a Raptors team desperate to move up the standings, this also offers me a chance to answer one question that’s bugged me for a while.

What does Brown’s Twitter handle — @FCHWPO — stand for and mean?

“Faith, Consistency, Hard Work Pays Off” is Brown’s mantra.

As an acronym aficionado, I would’ve gone a different route and tried to spell out a word or phrase. @HAWPOWFAC — hard ass work pays off with faith and consistency — is at least easier to say phonetically! (I’m open for hire, Jaylen)

Prediction

To say this “rivalry” has been one-sided would be a gigantic understatement! The Celtics have won 15 of the last 18 matchups with the Raptors. Toronto’s only wins were, “The Patrick McCaw game, Scottie Barnes’ second game of his NBA career (a breakout game that quieted any naysayers who wanted the Raptors to draft Jalen Suggs), a narrow victory where Boston was without Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Robert Williams!

Maybe the calculus of this matchup changes with Toronto’s newest additions but the Raptors need a fully healthy roster for a fighting chance against the NBA’s best team. With no Jakob Poeltl, this smells like a second consecutive season sweep by the Celtics. Boston beats Toronto, 119-117.

January 17 vs Miami Heat

As has been the case for almost the entirety of their time as an NBA franchise, the vibes in Miami are amazing! (Warning: This somehow turned into a Pat Riley appreciation post)

Pat Riley announced that Dwyane Wade will receive a statue outside of Kaseya Center — a fitting tribute to the GHOAT (wow, that certainly does not look or sound as clean as GROAT).

Riley’s other move last week was signing Head Coach, Erik Spoelstra, to an 8-year contract extension worth $120 million. That wouldn’t normally be newsworthy except for the fact that Spoelstra just finalized his divorce last month!

Signing the largest contract extension an NBA Head Coach has ever received is not only a testament to what he’s done this season (more on this in the next section), but what he’s done with this franchise. Consider this:

  • 71.8% win percentage in the 4 seasons with LeBron James, including 4 trips to the Finals
  • 58.6% win percentage in the 4 seasons with Jimmy Butler, including 3 trips to the Finals

There’s obviously a lot of missing context but my takeaway is that Spoelstra can lead his team to the Finals whether he has the GOAT (that’s right, I said it......and I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan!) and a Big 3, or he has an All-Star with non-lottery overachievers!

Fun fact that may only interest me

Heat Culture is a term I have poked fun at a LOT. But there’s no denying the winning environment that Riley and Spoelstra have fostered in South Beach.

With a 23-16 record and the Heat battling for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, you’d figure Miami’s Big 3 of Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro would have played a big role. Here’s a look at the players with the most total minutes played this season for Miami:

  1. Jaime Jaquez Jr.*
  2. Duncan Robinson
  3. Bam Adebayo
  4. Kyle Lowry
  5. Josh Richardson

*Bonus stat because it gives me an excuse to mention the best nickname in sports, Juan Wick.

Butler was acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Sixers. Miami sent out Josh Richardson (Philadelphia), Hassan Whiteside (Portland), and a future 1st round pick (LA Clippers). Richardson has been traded 4 more times since then, before re-signing with the team that drafted him this past summer.

As for the future 1st, that pick was part of the blockbuster package LA sent to Oklahoma City for Paul George (single tear). OKC would later trade that pick back to Miami 3 years later. The Heat used that pick to draft.......Jaime Jaquez!

Patrick James Riley turned Hassan Whiteside into Jimmy Butler and Juan Wick!!

Prediction

Over the last two weeks, Miami has the #5 defense. In 3 of their last 4 wins, the Heat have held their opponents under 100 points. Considering the astronomical boxscores being churned out nightly, that’s an amazing feat.

Miami is not a good rebounding team (26th in offensive rebounds, 23rd in defensive rebounds) but is excellent in “one-and-done” defensive possessions (1st in opponents’ field goal attempts). This means they’re forcing opponents into late shot-clock situations since poor defensive rebounding normally leads to more field goal attempts.

The Raptors will need to be efficient when they get in the paint. Miami is excellent at deterring shots at the rim (#4 in opponents’ shot frequency at the rim) but not great at keeping scores low (#27 in opponents’ shot accuracy at the rim). Replacing Anunoby’s and Precious Achiuwa’s inconsistent forays in the paint with Quickley’s floater and Barrett’s bullishness may have turned the tide in this matchup.

That’s enough evidence for me to flip my original prediction of a Heat win and surmise that Toronto will prevail 109-105 over Miami.

January 18 vs Chicago Bulls

Not to alarm you but, at this point, we’ve officially reached the halfway point of the Toronto Raptors’ season! Depressing, isn’t it?!? Even if your expectations for this team were somewhat tempered, a win total that’s lower than 18 is quite deflating.

Although, that’s probably not as deflating — not even close — to whatever’s happening in Chicago.

If Diar DeRozan had not shown up to the Play-In game at Scotiabank Arena last season, maybe the Raptors would have won. Maybe a Raptors’ win would have been enough to save Nick Nurse’s job and/or keep Fred VanVleet in Toronto. Maybe Dennis Schroder doesn’t end up in Toronto and Nurse doesn’t end up in Philadelphia.

But also, maybe the Raptors hold onto Anunoby for more “run it back” vibes and Toronto never experiences the joy of RJ Barrett donning the jersey of his childhood team or Immanuel Quickly skipping after threes.

So, thank you(?) Diar!

Fun fact that may only interest me

The Bulls won 4 straight after Zach Lavine went down with an injury in late November. With his name swirling in trade rumours, plus the emergence of Coby White, it only made sense to imply that Chicago was better without the 2-time dunk champion. However, the Bulls would finish 10-7 in Lavine’s absence....and currently 4-1 since his return.

Prediction

Chicago will have a distinct rest advantage with 2 days of rest since their previous game, a Monday night tilt in Cleveland.

Toronto has won the 4 games at Scotiabank Arena when the Bulls have come to town. (Well, the last 4 non-play-in games. sigh) While Chicago is currently 3 games up on the Raptors and has taken care of business against the likes of San Antonio and Charlotte (accounting for 4 of their last 7 wins), the Bulls are still a beatable team that may shake up the roster at any given moment.

The Raptors don’t have Anunoby around to shut out DeMar (or Zach) but Chicago is still a team with a lackluster offense (#23 halfcourt offense; #30 in transition frequency) and a porous transition defense (#30 in opponents’ points per possession). Toronto’s played well enough to win both games against the Bulls (I’m still bitter about that comeback loss on October 27) this season, with a third one coming shortly. The Raptors edge the Bulls, 113-112.

January 20 @ New York Knicks

Pascal Siakam goes one-on-one against OG Anunoby.

Pascal Siakam goes one-on-one against OG Anunoby.

Pascal Siakam goes one-on-one against OG Anunoby.

Pascal Siakam goes one-on-one against OG Anunoby.

The last remaining core pieces of the 2019 championship roster (sorry Chris Boucher) have had their share of battles of the years. Unfortunately for fans, those battles were never televised as they occurred during practice.

Quickley and Barrett’s return to Madison Square Garden will surely be met with warm ovations. It’s still early but this trade has taken on the mold of a win-win for both teams. Based on social media responses, each of the cities misses the player(s) traded away (well, at least the feature players) but is generally happy with how the new roster construction looks.

New York has been one of the best teams in the league since acquiring Anunoby and are starting to look like a force to be reckoned with in the second half of the season.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Plus/Minus is not a very useful stat. Add Shaquille O’Neal to my rec league team and I, too, will see a spike in my plus/minus when we share the floor!

However, there are some rare instances where a larger picture can be told with that stat.

Maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe Anunoby truly is the missing piece. Regardless, you can’t help but be happy for Anunoby and the well-deserved coverage he’s receiving.

Prediction

Playing 3 games in 4 nights is not fun. Playing the third game in 4 nights at a venue where the opponent has a 73.3% winning percentage (11-4) is also not fun. Playing said game against a team that’s won 6 of 7, has the #1 point differential and #1 defense since a certain trade is straight-up brutal.

Just as entertaining as it’ll be to watch Anunoby defending Siakam, we’ll also get to witness Quickley try to maneuver his way around Brunson’s flopping and show New York’s front office they chose the wrong Point Guard for their future. I also would thoroughly enjoy another efficient shooting night from “toxic asset” Barrett (ideally with Stephen A. Smith in attendance).

Vibes may be moving in an upward direction for both teams but let’s go with the home team in this one. The Knicks beat the Raptors 123-112.

********

Last Week: 2-1

Season Record: 26-13

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