This past week marks the beginning of Lent. In the bible, Jesus went into the desert, prayed, and fasted for 40 days. For Catholics, it’s a time to test one’s self-discipline by sacrificing something for 40 days. No, I’m not going to force any religious beliefs onto you. This is very much a space to continue reveling in Toronto’s resurgence.
However, the thought of giving up something for 40 days has me pondering a recent sacrifice of my own.
After Pascal Siakam missed his second consecutive buzzer-beater in Portland last month — and the Raptors fell to 2-8 — I made the decision to un-follow a horde of Raptors “fans” on Twitter. You know who I’m talking about. They think Siakam is a “choke artist,” dismissing his excellent play during the championship run or the defensive versatility he affords the team night in and night out. They thought, at the time, the best route for the Raptors was to tank for a high lottery pick. They throw every single Raptor into the Trade Machine after every loss. Frankly, it’s toxic energy I have no patience for anymore. All of 2020 was filled with enough negativity to last a lifetime and I’m having none of it in 2021.
The hours that followed the loss to the Trail Blazers exposed all the Raptors bandwagoners on my timeline. One by one, like a sniper picking off targets, I unfollowed each naysayer. When Siakam’s game-tying layup failed to drop against Minnesota last week my Twitter timeline was… surprisingly slander-free!
Ignorance truly is bliss!
Whatever your religious beliefs are, I encourage you to make a similar “sacrifice.” It may be harder now to decipher which fans are the bandwagoners — what with the Raptors winning and all — but it’s a worthwhile endeavour that will prep you for the rest of the season.
Now, onto this week’s picks.
February 23 vs Philadelphia 76ers
Danny Green is really going to get his Lakers championship ring before his Raptors ring!
Last summer before the Raptors and Lakers tipped off inside the Bubble, Green stated that he’s fine with waiting to receive his ring until it’s in front of the Scotiabank Arena crowd. Obviously, this was said without the foresight knowing the Raptors would still be playing their home games in Florida. Last night, he stayed true to his word — or maybe the Raptors did — and Green played on the Raptors’ “home court” without getting his ring.
Joel Embiid had his worst shooting performance of the season (6-for-20) as the Raptors, yet again, found a way to shut down the opponent’s star. In fact, every Sixer who attempted at least three field goals shot below their respective season averages (except Green and Ben Simmons). Seth Curry missed twice as many free throws (2) in last night’s game then he has all season (1). Suffice to say the Raptors defense saved the day.
Sixers – Fewest Points with Simmons & Embiid in Lineup This Season
Dec 29 vs TOR – 100
TONIGHT vs TOR – 103
Jan 27 vs LAL – 107
— Chris Black (@DownToBlack) February 22, 2021
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
Out of all the ways to illustrate how much Fred VanVleet has improved, his numbers against Philadelphia will always be the first that comes to mind.
During the epic seven game series in 2019 against the Sixers, VanVleet shot 3-of-24 over the entire series! Philly had the length to bother him then and, actually, still have the length and quickness to bother him now.
However, in just the first quarter last night, Steady Freddy was 4-for-4 from three and single-handedly carried the team back from an early double-digit deficit. His growth as a leader has been nothing short of amazing!
When the season started, I stubbornly predicted Raptors victories while the team struggled to find its identity. Now that the team’s rolling, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and stubbornly predict Raptors losses. On one hand, the Raptors have won 16 home games in a row against Philly — this one without Kyle Lowry, who typically brings out his best against his hometown. On the other hand, the Raptors were bailed out by Chris Boucher’s hot shooting (Rivers will probably adjust and not have his bigs drop back on him) and the Sixers shooting poorly from three (29.7% last night vs 36.1% season average). On yet another hand (yes, I have three hands now), the Raptors are now 9-2 in these 2-game mini-series’ (swept Charlotte, Orlando, and Milwaukee; split with Miami and Indiana). Whether it’s Lowry possibly returning or the Raptors showing that Chris Finch’s departure won’t slow down their humming offense, I’m drinking the kool-aid and predicting the Raptors to complete the mini-series sweep (and season series victory) by beating the Sixers, 110-106.
February 24 @ Miami Heat
The Raptors will be playing the back-end of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. On the season, they’re 1-4 in such games, with the only victory coming against Minnesota on Friday (I use the term “victory” very loosely). At least this will be the final back-to-back of the first half of the season.
Miami is trying to make their own Raptors-like resurgence from lottery to playoff position. Since falling to a season-worst 7-14 record, the Heat have compiled some nice wins over quality opponents like the
Wizards Knicks Rockets Kings…..oh hey, they beat the Anthony Davis-less Lakers on Saturday!
Unlike the previous two games these teams played, though, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro will be in uniform and ready to annoy Raptors fans.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
Butler is widely known as a Raptor Killer. His one and, maybe, only meeting with Toronto this season should test that theory because of his new shot profile.
For nine of his previous 10 seasons, Butler’s most frequent shot distance was at the rim. This year, the location has moved away from the rim slightly, with 34% of his attempts coming in the short mid-range (3-10 feet). Interestingly enough, the short mid-range is Toronto’s best-defended area. Opponents shoot 39.4% in that area — good for 5th in the NBA.
In their last matchup, the Raptors appeared to have solved Miami’s zone defense. With Lowry possibly back (he missed the second game vs. Miami) and the rotation mostly figured out, Toronto could very well continue their winning ways and win the season series with the Heat. However, a large reason why Toronto won the previous matchup was Baynes’ impressive defense on Bam Adebayo. If Baynes starts, will we see ineffective Bench Norm again? If Baynes doesn’t start, how will Siakam hold up (I’m assuming OG Anunoby will again sit out the second game of a back-to-back)? Miami’s returning home after a long 7-game road trip. We recently saw what happened to Toronto and Milwaukee when they returned home from long road trips……sluggish play and eventual losses. I expect the same here. Toronto wins the game (and season series too), defeating the Heat 107-97.
February 26 vs Houston Rockets
Happy Birthday Fred VanVleet! It’s actually the day before, but you get the picture. The future All-Star looks to add to his All-Defense resume by going head-to-head with the rejuvenated John Wall.
VanVleet and Wall have strikingly similar stats in points (FVV = 20.1; Wall = 20.4), assists (6.6 vs. 6.3), rebounds (4.4 vs. 3.7), PER (17.8 vs. 17.3), and TS% (55.2% vs. 53.9%). Off the court, they have two of the best narratives in the NBA: VanVleet, the undrafted, short guard who became an All-Star candidate; Wall, the former All-Star who suffered a devastating Achilles injury, yet returned after two years and somehow matched his pre-injury form!
Unfortunately for Wall, the dreary mess he left in Washington has followed him to Houston. With James Harden gone and his replacement, Victor Oladipo, already missing six of his first 17 games as a Rocket due to injury, Houston has plummeted to the bottom of the Western Conference, losing 7 games in a row.
In his heyday, Paul Silas coached the then-Charlotte Hornets to top-10 defensive seasons, year after year. His son, Stephen, has followed in his footsteps as his Rockets currently have the 4th-best defense in the league. With Houston planning on parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins, (tell me if you’ve heard this before) they are fully embracing their small ball identity.
Whether it’s in Japan, Canada, or the U.S., it’s always a fun matchup when these teams collide!
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
What’s with the fascination over Cousins? Unlike his Kentucky Wildcat teammate, Wall, Cousins has not fully recovered from an injury that kept him out for all of last season. The big man is nowhere near the All-NBA force he once was.
Think about all the times Aron Baynes has frustrated you with missed bunnies at the basket. He’s currently shooting 58% at the rim, which ranks in the 23rd percentile among bigs. Cousins has been demonstrably worse, shooting 43% at the rim, or aptly ranked in the 2nd(!) percentile among bigs.
On the defensive end, Baynes has picked up fouls at a high rate (5.1%, 21st percentile among bigs) as he’s been trying to get accustomed to Nurse’s system. How would Cousins be the answer when he’s been even worse (5.8% foul rate, 11th percentile among bigs)?!?
The Raptors have lost their last three against the Rockets. While Houston has the half-court defense to frustrate Toronto, a few factors are working against their favour. The Rockets turn the ball over at a high rate (26th in the NBA), allow transition opportunities at a high rate (15.4% or 23rd in the NBA), and give up transition points at a rate that ranks 27th in the league. That’s a recipe for success for a Raptors squad that thrives on live-ball turnovers (#2 in steals, #1 transition offense) and has the small-ball personnel to match Houston’s. Toronto continues their winning ways and dismantle the Rockets, 120-112.
February 28 vs Chicago Bulls
Zach Lavine is having himself an All-Star-worthy season. He’s averaging 28.9 points per game on 52/43/86 shooting splits. Since this is being written before the All-Star reserves are announced, I’m going to guess that he makes the team over VanVleet. Why? Bradley Beal has a fairly similar profile — elite scorer for a lottery team — and finished first in all three All-Star voting categories for East guards. Scoring always catches voters’ eyes and Lavine’s doing it at an elite level.
If the Bulls’ record was any worse, or if they hit a rough patch before the trade deadline, expect Toronto’s name to pop up in a lot of Bulls-related rumours. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are both on rookie contracts with bright futures. Thaddeus Young is a bit pricier ($13.5MM this season) but would fit in very nicely. He would fill a need on the glass (#16 in offensive rebounding percentage) and seemingly fit Toronto’s defensive profile (#14 in steal percentage).
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
I bring this stat up every time these teams play each other because it never ceases to amaze me. Check out the winning streaks these teams have compiled against each other through the years.
January ‘97 to February ‘99: Chicago wins 8 straight
March ‘99 to December ‘02: Toronto wins 16 straight
December ‘02 to December ‘06: Chicago wins 15 straight
February ‘14 to February ‘17: Chicago wins 11 straight
March ‘17 to present: Toronto has won 12 straight
If we can agree that the Raptors have elevated their status to a “quality opponent,” then the Bulls are in trouble. Since defeating the Dallas Mavericks on January 17, Chicago has lost five of their last six (Lakers, Celtics, Blazers, Clippers, Sixers) against quality opponents, with the lone win coming in overtime against the Pacers. That Pacers game also doubles as the Bulls’ only victory over a team with a record above .500.
Oh, and did I mention the Raptors have won 12 straight against Chicago? The Raptors defeat the Bulls, 125-113.