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The Rap-Up: Can Toronto tip the balance in their favour?

Toronto Raptors play the Washington Wizards
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In a three-game week where Toronto faces two possible playoff foes, is it strange that the one against the lottery team is the most worrisome?

It’s all about balance.

The Toronto Raptors have split double-headers with the Sixers, Heat, and Bulls. They’ve defeated a lottery-bound West team (Spurs) and lost to another (Thunder). Toronto beat another team from Texas (Rockets) but fell short against another (Mavericks). The Raps have won at home against two East teams (Cavaliers & Hawks) and lost on the road against 2 East teams (Nets & Pacers).

Insert Thanos meme about balance.

If you’re wondering which way the Raptors are going to tip the balance scale this week, read further below. Obviously, the next few games already have an asterisk next to them with all of the injuries Toronto is currently experiencing. The longer outlook, however, is looking quite rosy.

Put everything together and you’d better believe I’m alluding to an Avengers Endgame-like* turnaround from the Raptors! This is a team that has looked like they can compete with the very best in the league when fully healthy. It’s not a complete surprise to see them with a projected higher point differential than all but one West team.

*Pascal Siakam is Spider-Man. Precious Achiuwa is Dr. Strange. Khem Birch is Drax. This analogy admittedly falls apart with Fred because there’s no way he’s not Captain America or Iron Man.

Alright, I need more coffee. On to this week’s picks!

November 14 @ Detroit Pistons

Yes, we already know Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Precious Achiuwa will miss the game. But Cade Cunningham will also miss the game and he’s as important to Detroit as Fred, Pascal, and Precious are to Toronto... combined! The Pistons are 3-17 (0-2 this year) when Cade is out of the lineup.

Yes, the Raptors have already lost the first two games of this three-game road trip against sub-.500 teams. But Toronto answered Friday’s debacle in Oklahoma City with a great first three quarters in Indiana. They understandably fell apart in the 4th because it was the back-end of a back-to-back without their two best players and best reserve.

Yes, the Pistons live rent-free in Raptors fans’ heads after sweeping the season series in 3 of the 4 seasons since Dwane Casey was fired and then hired by Detroit. But Jerami Grant and Trey Lyles are not walking through that door. Heck, Saben Lee’s doing just fine with the Raptors 905!

Fun fact that may only interest me

In his 9th NBA season, Bojan Bogdanovic is having the best season of his career. He’s averaging 20.3 points per game on 51/43/92 shooting splits. The elusive 50/40/90 club only has five members who’ve also averaged at least 20 points per game: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, and Kyrie Irving.

Everyone except for Irving led their teams to the best record in their respective conferences that season. Yet, all of their seasons ended the same way Bogdanovic’s will likely end — without a championship!

Prediction

Detroit has the worst defense and lowest net rating in the league. They’re tied with the Hornets at the bottom of the East with a 3-11 record. The Pistons rank 28th in transition points per play. They’re dead last in eFG% and FG% at the rim.

You’re expecting me to say the Pistons will somehow win this game, right?

My parents were always quick to tell me, “TIGAS NG ULO MO,” which is Tagalog for “you’re hard-headed.” I’ve written similar predictions with similar stats in the past outlining how much worse the Pistons are than their Highway 401 neighbours — only to come out on the losing end. Well, sorry mom & dad, I continue to not learn my lesson. The Raptors defeat the Pistons 107-99, in front of a raucous, Raptors-heavy crowd at Little Caesars Arena.

November 16 vs Miami Heat

** Jim Ross voice ** “BAH GOD, IS THAT KYLE LOWRY’S MUSIC????

The G.R.O.A.T. returns to Scotiabank Arena in hopes of helping the Heat climb above .500 for the first time this season (assuming they also defeat the Suns on Monday). He’s doing his part in trying to lift Miami from a slow start. Lowry was two assists shy of a triple-double in Saturday’s win over the Hornets.

Jimmy Butler is having another All-Star calibre season. He’s one of eight Eastern Conference players (Pascal Siakam is another) to average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Of those eight players, only Kevin Durant ranks higher in terms of Win Shares.

It’s no secret that Toronto’s switch-and-recover defense often leads to a ton of corner threes (30th in corner threes allowed). Miami ranks 3rd in corner three frequency, so expect a flurry of sigh-inducing bombs from the likes of Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Gabe Vincent.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Shocking fact (part 1): Nobody on the Heat has drawn more charges this season than Chris Boucher.

Shocking fact (part 2): Two Heat players, however, have equaled Boucher’s drawn charges total... but neither one is named Kyle Lowry! (Duncan Robinson and Gabe Vincent also have drawn 3 charges).

Prediction

Toronto has won 9 of the last 13 home games against Miami (removing the two games they split in Tampa because let’s face it, those weren’t home games). The Heat have only won once on the road, while the Raptors currently sport a tidy 5-1 record at Scotiabank Arena. Miami will either be without Tyler Herro (left ankle sprain) or playing him at less than 100%.

This prediction hinges on the availability of VanVleet. On one hand, it’s not a good sign that he was ruled out against Detroit over 24 hours before the game. On the other hand, a possible three-game losing streak could force Nick Nurse’s hand.

With all due disrespect to Detroit, this is the game that has playoff tiebreaker implications, so I think VanVleet’s return trumps Lowry’s return. Toronto defeats Miami, 109-105.

November 19 @ Atlanta Hawks

Let’s start with the good news for Atlanta. The addition of Dejounte Murray (and the development of Onyeka Okongwu) has turned around the Hawks’ defense. They’ve skyrocketed from 26th in opponents' points per possession and 24th in opponents’ eFG% to 7th and 3rd, respectively. Trae Young’s brilliance continues to shine through, despite career-low field goal and three-point percentages. Of the 15 players averaging at least 25 points per game, Young has the highest assists average with 9.3 dimes.

Now for the not-so-fun news in Atlanta. Their improvement on the defensive side has come at the expense of outside shooting (Kevin Huerter’s outstanding season in Sacramento notwithstanding). The Hawks have dropped from 2nd in points per possession and 9th in eFG% last season to 15th and 25th respectively this season. More importantly to the Raptors, Atlanta was a top-6 team in free throw rate in each of the previous two seasons — and used that to their advantage against Toronto’s aggressive defense. This year, they’ve plummeted to 24th in free throw rate.

Fun fact that may only interest me

The aforementioned Bojan Bogdanovic has raised his career scoring average up to 15.1 points per game.

Only one player averaged exactly 15.1 points per game last season: Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Come for the Avengers analogies, stay for the lame attempts to link unrelated people who share the same last name!

Prediction

This is where Siakam’s absence will hurt the Raptors this week. In the Halloween matchup, Pascal was all kinds of spicy as he picked apart every Hawk defender and also led multiple transition opportunities. Okongwu’s excellent defense will now shift from Siakam to Scottie Barnes, who has been working his way through the sophomore slump lately. Murray can use all of his annoying wingspan on VanVleet. Young will still be targeted on defense, but Siakam’s and Achiuwa’s attacking mentalities, plus Gary Trent Jr.’s shooting slump will hamper Toronto’s options. Atlanta exacts revenge from the Halloween Massacre by defeating the visiting Raptors, 123-110.

********

Last Week: 3-1

Season Record for Predictions: 10-4









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