Raptors Face Biggest Test of the Season

Toronto, ON- The Toronto Raptors have continued their winning ways into the holiday season, sporting their best all-time record as of Dec. 22nd, at 22-6; this has happened despite losing their best offensive threat in Demar Derozan.

Without the 2013-14 all-star, the Raptors have not lost a step, going 9-3 since Derozan injured his groin vs. the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 28th.

Every member of the team has contributed in Derozan’s absence, none more so than Kyle Lowry, who is averaging 20 points and nearly 10 assists per game to go along with 3.5 rebounds and almost two steals in the month of December. In the final month of the calendar year: Lowry, Lou Williams (almost 15 PPG), Patrick Patterson (12 PPG, 55% from field and from the three-point line), Jonas Valanciunas (averaging a near double-double with 12.2 PPG and nine RPG) and others have all valiantly covered for their missing all-star.

Photo courtesy: Sportsnet
Photo courtesy: Sportsnet

The thing is, the Raptors have been aided by a very easy schedule to date, especially over the first three weeks of December. Take a look at the Charlotte Hornets schedule to start the season, and imagine where the Raptors would be if they had to play those teams out of the gate.

Heading into Monday night’s game vs. the Chicago Bulls, the Raptors played a stretch of six games vs. teams under .500. Like good teams do, the Raps took advantage of the fortunate schedule, going 6-0. Looking back at their first 28 games this season, 18 have come against teams at or under .500. The Raptors are 16-2 in these games. When playing teams with a winning record, the Raptors are 6-4. (All win-loss records as of Dec. 22.)

After Sunday’s game against the Knicks, Patrick Patterson told Raptors.com that his team is looking forward to this road trip, “all these games we’ve had have been at home or against East coast opponents,” he said. “Now we get a big opportunity to play against some tough teams and in tough environments.”

Photo courtesy: Steve Russell/Toronto Star
Photo courtesy: Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Patterson is right. Nineteen of 28 games have been played against much weaker Eastern Conference opponents. However, in nine games vs. the West, the Raptors have fared very well going 7-2.

Keep in mind, six of those games came vs. teams under .500 while the Raptors played the Oklahoma City Thunder when both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were out injured.

Furthermore, the Raps were lucky to catch a very good Memphis Grizzlies team when they had a short bench. Back on Nov. 19, a nasty stomach bug forced five players to sit-out, including defensive stalwart Tony Allen. The Raptors were able to win both games, once again, a case of taking advantage of fortunate situations.

But things change now.

Beginning with the Bulls (17-9) on Monday Dec. 22nd, the Raptors start a six-game road trip, following up with:

  • Los Angeles Clippers (19-8)
  • Denver Nuggets (12-15)
  • Portland Trail Blazers (22-6)
  • Golden State Warriors (22-3, best team in the NBA)
  • Phoenix Suns. (15-14)

Five of those six teams are over .500, five of those six teams are Western Conference opponents, three of those six are teams the Raptors have not played yet, and all six will be played without Demar Derozan, who is not close to returning from his groin injury.

Photo courtesy: Toronto Sun
Photo courtesy: Toronto Sun

A grueling road trip beckons, with the Raps about to travel thousands of miles, moving from cities with different elevations to stadiums they have not played in yet this season. It’s a good thing they banked those wins against easy competition, because their schedule is about to become very difficult.

As previously mentioned, the Raptors enter this road trip on a high, having built themselves a comfortable cushion by winning six straight games. Even if they were to lose all six upcoming games, the Raptors would still find themselves one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference at 22-12.

Obviously, coach Dwane Casey and his team will want to do better than that, “We go into it with positive vibes,” Casey told reporters in his post-game interview Sunday night.

“We go in with winning on our mind. If we don’t come out, we learn from it, we continue to grow and move forward. We’re a growing team and we’re going to hit rough spots,” Casey conceded.

The Raptors remain the second best offensive team in the NBA, only behind the Dallas Mavericks. They average an impressive 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but some of the teams they are about to play will have no problem filling up score-sheets as well.

The Los Angeles Clippers are the third-best offensive team in the NBA, averaging 110.5 points per 100 possessions, the Golden State Warriors are 5th with 107.5 points, the Trailblazers are 8th, Bulls 10th, and Suns 11th. That’s four of the next six teams that rank in or around the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

Making matters more difficult, unlike the Raptors, some of these teams can also play very stingy defense. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The Trailblazers are 3rd and the Bulls are 9th. We’ve already seen the Raptors struggle against Tom Thibodeau’s defense when they lost to the Bulls 100-93 back on Nov. 13th.

“We have to approach this game a little pissed off because last time they played better than us,” said Greivis Vasquez on Raptors.com, referring to the Raptors loss to the Bulls earlier this season. “It’s important that we play good teams because it really tests our character. We haven’t really faced adversity,” he said.”

The Raptors have faced quite a bit of adversity on the glass this season.

Rebounding has arguably been the team’s greatest weakness.

The Raps rank 21st in the NBA in total boards averaging 50.3 rebounds per game. Out of the six teams they’re about to play, the Nuggets (2nd in the NBA at 55.3 RPG), Bulls (6th at 54.5), Trailblazers (7th, 54.2) and Warriors (10th, 52.8) all rebound better than the Raptors. The Raps will catch a bit of a break as the Warriors will be without starting centre Andrew Bogut who will undergo knee surgery.

This is the biggest test the Raptors have faced this season, after a relatively easy 28 games. The six-game road trip will take us into the new year, and will inch us closer to the second half of the regular season; a second half that will not nearly be as forgiving as the first.

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