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Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors

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The Rap-Up: Final tryouts conclude this week

Trade deadline week is upon us! As the Raptors finish its 6-game road trip, it will be interesting to see who is still on the roster when Toronto welcomes Fred VanVleet to Scotiabank Arena.

Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Do you remember what it was like to try out for a sports team in school?

Dozens of aspiring athletes hoping to be part of the lucky chosen. You already knew there were “locks” for the team. You probably had a good idea of who wouldn’t make the team. The folks in the middle, though — not good enough to be a lock but a fighting chance of making the cut — that’s where the real competition lay.

No, the Raptors aren’t having tryouts for the rest-of-season roster. It has become more obvious, however, who the “locks” are moving forward: Scottie Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and Gradey Dick. Everyone else is auditioning to be part of the Scottie timeline (yes, even Jakob Poeltl, as far-fetched as that seems).

The difference between what the front office is doing versus what your high school coach was deciding, was that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster don’t necessarily have to complete their ideal roster with the players currently under contract. Garrett Temple, Thaddeus Young, and Otto Porter Jr. are on the wrong side of their NBA careers to be considered for Toronto’s current direction. Will each of them have a new home come Friday or will they ride out the season (and current contract) parked on the bench? Toronto’s longest-tenured Raptor, Chris Boucher, has fallen out of Darko Rajakovic’s rotation. Has he played his final game for the franchise?

As the Raptors wrap up its longest road trip of the season (by days away from home), the roster will take its final shape for the 2023-24 season.

February 5 @ New Orleans Pelicans

Don’t let the record fool you — the Pelicans are quietly putting together a solid season.

Despite being with the team since February 2022, CJ McCollum had only played 10 games alongside Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson heading into this season. With New Orleans’ Big 3 mostly healthy, the Pelicans have finally begun to realize its potential. They each excel in each of the three levels of scoring. McCollum has been hitting threes at a better rate (44%) than all other point guards in the league. Ingram takes more mid-range shots than any other wing and scores them at the 89th percentile (48%). Williamson is simply a bulldog who gets what he wants at the rim. Zion produces shooting fouls on 20.6% of his shot attempts — 91st percentile among bigs.

After starting the season with a 4-6 record and losing its 5th game in a row, the team held a players-only meeting to air out grievances. Since then, New Orleans has fielded the league’s 4th-best net rating, 5th-best defense, and 8th-ranked offense.

Rumours of Herb Jones wanting out seemed odd at the time, especially considering the Pelicans’ strong play of late. He’s essentially the OG Anunoby of this team. Jones is destined for All-Defense selections (plural) while his 3-point shot has developed into a threat (climbing to 40% this season after hitting at 33.6% over his first two seasons). It seems more like the Pelicans are baiting teams into calls to discuss other players. New Orleans has young talent (Trey Murphy, Dyson Daniels, Jordan Hawkins), veterans (Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr.), and all of its first-round picks to dangle in trades. With the team in as good a position since the days of Anthony Davis, the Pelicans are a team to watch as the trade deadline approaches.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Zion Williamson was selected first overall in the 2019 draft. Since then, the Pelicans and Raptors have faced each other 8 times. Williamson’s injury history has resulted in him only playing the Raptors on 3 occasions. Two of those games were in New Orleans, while the only “home” game was in Tampa. Bonus fact: the Centers for those three games were Thaddeus Young and Aron Baynes (x2).

I’ll probably reuse this stat when the Pelicans come to town on March 5th but Zion has never played in Toronto.

Prediction

Toronto will be playing the second game of a road back-to-back after playing in Oklahoma City the night before. Meanwhile, New Orleans would have a 2-night break after Friday’s thrilling win over the Spurs.

The Raptors have lost its last 3 visits to New Orleans. The Pelicans have been Jekyll & Hyde so far in 2024. Eight of its nine wins have been double-digit margins....but so have five of its seven losses.

The Barnes-Jones matchup is not only a tete-a-tete with two of the strongest prospects from the 2021 draft, but an incredible test for each of their respective strengths. Valanciunas and Poeltl will wage war down low like they both deserve a piece of the 2019 championship. Kira Lewis probably doesn’t get a “welcome back” video.

New Orleans takes advantage of a weary Raptors squad that played a double-overtime game in Oklahoma City less than 24 hours prior, winning 124-107.

February 7 @ Charlotte Hornets

Brandon Miller won’t win Rookie of the Year honours, but he’s certainly proven many doubters wrong (myself included) with how his professional basketball career has started. At the very least, he’s quieted those (myself included) who felt strongly that the 2nd pick in the 2023 draft should have been Scoot Henderson. Miller continued his solid rookie campaign with a season-best 35 points against the Pacers on Sunday.

It’s obvious he’s putting in the work. Too bad the rest of his teammates seem to care.

Fun fact that may only interest me

To hammer the point home with Miller vs. Henderson, here’s a look at their stats so far.

Brandon Miller

16.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 44/39/82 shooting

Scoot Henderson

12.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 38/31/80 shooting

Prediction

Charlotte is 5-19 at home. They’ve lost 12 of their last 13 home games since defeating the Raptors 119-116 at Spectrum Center on December 8. It’s only been two months, but so much has changed between the teams. For Toronto, 4 of the 10 players that played have been traded (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn), while another 2 have fallen out of the rotation (Chris Boucher and Otto Porter Jr.). For Charlotte, Terry Rozier has since been traded, while Gordon Hayward and Mark Williams have been out due to injuries.

In Sunday’s game against the Pacers, Hayward and Williams were joined on the sidelines by LaMelo Ball (ankle), Cody Martin (knee), and Frank Ntilikina (hip). This isn’t Memphis-level of injuries, but it definitely has the symptoms of a tanking team.

Barnes has been outstanding against the Hornets this season. He had a 31-point triple-double in the first matchup in Charlotte, and a 22-point, 17-rebound performance in the second meeting in Toronto. The Raptors blow past the Hornets 127-115.

February 9 vs Houston Rockets

With the Raptors fully engaged in rebuild mode, this matchup with the Rockets carries a lot of emotional baggage.

Fred VanVleet’s return to Scotiabank Arena will provide all the feels (more for the crowd than the players, as you’ll soon read in the next section). His name is littered across the franchise’s record books while his many highlights will forever live in Raptors lore.

This also marks the first game after the trade deadline. As I write this on Sunday, the silence on the trade front is deafening. It will surely pick up over the next few days after this is published, crescendoing on Thursday at 3 pm. Unlike previous seasons where the Raptors are featured in trade rumours and, in most cases, remain quiet, this year is different. With the team pivoting towards the Scottie Barnes timeline, the foundation is being laid with Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and Gradey Dick. The likelihood of change — and with a plethora of tradeable contracts — is very high.

After the fans applaud the return of VanVleet, they may be spending the rest of the game learning about who the new players are and how they fit in.

Fun fact that may only interest me

There has been so much turnover on the roster (and probably more by the time this game rolls around) that Fred VanVleet’s “reunion vibes” will be stronger with other games in Houston’s schedule this week.

Before visiting Toronto, the Rockets visit Indiana and Pascal Siakam, with whom he played 371 games together. A couple of days after this game, Houston returns home to face the Knicks, with whom Fred played 305 games together with OG Anunoby. That’s 676 games combined.

Toronto only has (as of Sunday) SIX players who were on the roster for VanVleet’s final game as a Raptor — Chris Boucher (237 games alongside FVV), Jakob Poeltl (128), Scottie Barnes (125), Gary Trent Jr. (116), Thaddeus Young (61), and Otto Porter Jr. (4). These players have played a combined 671 games with VanVleet.

Prediction

Houston has a brutal road record (5-16). The Rockets started the season by losing its first 8 road games. Houston has lost 6 of its 8 road games in 2024, with the only wins coming in Detroit and Charlotte.

Toronto normally comes out flat after a long road trip. Considering how listless the team looked in Houston last week, that’s not exactly a promising sign heading into this one. This game does, however, kick off a home-heavy section of the schedule where the Raptors only play TWO road games between February 7 and March 7!

The Raptors come out with a much better effort this time against Houston but ultimately fall 122-118. Toronto will likely be playing short-handed after a busy trade deadline. Even at full strength, Poeltl and company will not be enough to slow down Alperen Sengun. Oh, and did I mention the Raptors are 1-11 on Fridays?!?

February 10 vs Cleveland Cavaliers

With all the media’s focus on the New York Knicks and its dazzling record since acquiring OG Anunoby (15-3), the Cavaliers have flown under the radar, winning 12 of its last 13 games. Mind you, the competition hasn’t necessarily been to the caliber New York has faced, but Cleveland has taken advantage of a soft spot in its schedule.

Give Donovan Mitchell his flowers for carrying the offensive load while the team was short-handed. He will play in his 5th consecutive All-Star game and is on track to collect his 2nd consecutive All-NBA selection.

While other contenders are looking for difference-makers at the trade deadline, Cleveland has recently been injected with All-Star talent. With Darius Garland and Evan Mobley back on the court after lengthy absences due to injuries, the Cavaliers are a team to watch in the second half of the season.

Fun fact that may only interest me

This game has the potential for a track meet. Here is how these teams match up in some transition stats:

Points per 100 possessions: Toronto #1, Cleveland #2

Points per play: Cleveland #1, Toronto #2

Points per play off steals: Cleveland #6, Toronto #5 (defensively)

Points per play off live rebounds: Toronto #2, Cleveland #6

Prediction

Toronto will be playing its second back-to-back this week, 3rd game in 4 nights, and 6th game of the month! Add in the emotional burden that accompanies the trade deadline (not to mention how different this team could look) and it would surprise no one if the Raptors dropped one of their no-show performances in this matchup. Toronto, however, has won 10 of the last 11 games when the Cavaliers have visited, including the last 4 straight. Granted, this is a much different Raptors team with no Anunoby to shut down Mitchell, and no Siakam to take the defensive attention away from Barnes.

Over the last two weeks, Cleveland has had the #2 defense. Jarrett Allen has been playing out of his mind on the defensive end and the Cavaliers will only be stronger with Mobley back in the fold. Toronto has not won yet on a Saturday (0-5) and it doesn’t look like that trend will cease against one of the hottest teams in the league. Cleveland defeats Toronto 109-107.

********

Last Week: 2-1

Season Record: 31-18

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