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Five Storylines for the Week of January 27th

The Toronto Raptors are 32-14 and currently sit 2nd in the Eastern Conference. They are on a seven-game win-streak and play just five more games before the trade deadline on February 6th. 

Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:

  • Tuesday, January 28th at 7:30pm: Atlanta Hawks (12-35) @ Toronto Raptors
  • Thursday, January 30th at 7:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ Cleveland Cavaliers (12-34)
  • Friday, January 31st at 7:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ Detroit Pistons (17-30)
  • Sunday, February 2nd at 3:00pm: Chicago Bulls (18-30) @ Toronto Raptors 
  • Combined winning percentage of 31.4

Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:

1. Push for the No. 2 Seed

The Raptors find themselves in a race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference along with the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and the Philadelphia 76ers, all of whom are currently within 2.5 games back of the Raptors for the 2nd seed.  

It’s a highly coveted position to finish the season because finishing 2nd guarantees two things: First, the 2nd seed gets to avoid playing the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals. Second, the 2nd seed gets a relatively easy first-round matchup — avoiding the best six teams in the East and instead of playing either the Orlando Magic or Brooklyn Nets — along with home-court advantage for the first two rounds.

But there’s an additional incentive for the Raptors to remain the No. 2 seed by the time the All-Star break comes around in mid-February: The coach at the top of each conference gets to coach the All-Star game, but since Mike Budenholzer of the Bucks coached last year’s East team, he is unable to do it again. That means the coach of the No. 2 seed will coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team, which provides ample tampering opportunity with captain Giannis Antetekoonpo and center Joel Embiid. Plus, it would just be fun to watch Nick Nurse coach a front-court of Giannis, Embiid, and Pascal Siakam. 

The Raptors have one of the easier schedules leading up to the break, with a double-header against the Pacers on February 5th and 7th being their biggest challenge. 

2. Siakam’s mid-range game

Pascal Siakam is having another unbelievable season by all accounts. He will appear in his first All-Star game as a starter due to a restless work-ethic that has helped him improve nearly every aspect of his game, not the least of which his shooting.

Siakam is shooting a career-high 37.3 percent from three, more than doubling his attempts per game from 3.7 to 6.1, which has opened up the rest of his game. Now that he is a threat to shoot off the bounce, hitting 16/43 pull-up threes this season, defenders have no choice but to guard him tightly at the three-point line and have to hesitate to go under screens, opening up driving lanes for Siakam and the rest of his teammates. 

It’s great that Siakam is continuing to take threes, keeping defenses on their toes, but there is another skill he will likely need to utilize in tight playoff games that Siakam has shied away from: the mid-range.

Sure, the Toronto Raptors play an analytical style of basketball where threes and layups are encouraged, but Siakam is different. He is the player the Raptors will rely upon to get them a bucket in the closing minutes of tight playoff games, and it will be hard to do that without a reliable mid-range shot. Relying on the three-ball is simply too risky and sometimes impractical. 

My problem isn’t that Siakam is shooting poorly on mid-range shots, it’s that he barely shoots them at all, and the regular season is when he should be practicing skills he will need in the playoffs. Siakam is shooting just 6/17 from mid-range in his eight games since coming back from injury, which translates to just 2.1 mid-range shots per game. Before his injury he was taking 3.3 per game. 

Siakam is shooting just 33.3 percent from the mid-range on the season, so it’s clearly one of his more inefficient shots. Still, it’s a tool Siakam will need in the playoffs when teams chase him off the three-point line, and one he should be practicing as the regular season wears on.

3. Fred VanVleet is underrated

Somehow, someway, Fred VanVleet’s season is flying under the radar.

No, VanVleet doesn’t deserve to be an All-Star due to games missed (10) and the fact that the Raptors already have two players who are more deserving (Lowry and Siakam).

But VanVleet is turning in the best season of his career — his first as a starter — and his development is a big reason the Raptors have been so good this season. When talking about the Raptors’ impressive season people continuously mention Siakam’s leap and Lowry’s grift, but they often forget to mention that nearly every Raptor has taken a step forward this season, VanVleet included. 

VanVleet is playing 36.1 minutes per game (up 8.6 from his career-high last season), taking 14.9 shots (5.5 more than his career-high), and 7.0 three-point attempts (3.4 more than his career-high). He has seen his usage spike from 17.9 to 22.5 percent while his efficiency has remained largely the same, shooting 40/40/83 with a 54.7 true shooting percentage and 17.0 PER. 

Sure, VanVleet struggles in the mid-range (9/39 on the season) and his shots still get blocked far too often around the basket, but Kawhi Leonard’s departure has been a blessing for VanVleet, who has seen his role expand greatly while remaining one of the most steady Raptors this season.

I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though, considering VanVleet has made a significant leap each season and proved his doubters wrong time and again. But the leap from backup point guard to a starter is not an easy one, and VanVleet has done it seamlessly. 

VanVleet still has one more leap to make and it is considered the toughest: from an All-Star level player to a superstar. Regardless, VanVleet is getting the bag this summer. Bet on yourselves, kids. 

4. Are the Raptors too small?

As the trade deadline approaches on February 6th, it’s worth at least considering this question about the Raptors’ best players: are they too small?

Here’s the thing: the Raptors are one of the most versatile teams in the league, which is a huge part of the reason they won the championship last season. They have the personnel to match up with virtually every team in the league. 

With that being said, the Raptors best five players this season have been Lowry, VanVleet, Norman Powell, Siakam, and Marc Gasol. Two of those guys are 6-foot point guards and Powell is just 6-foot-3. That might cause an issue against big teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks who are big at every position and swallow up rebounds for second-chance opportunities. It’s not like the Raptors don’t have alternatives, because they can go to OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka for big minutes, but the fact remains that their five best players are probably not big enough to close out games against those big teams, and you sometimes can not afford to sacrifice skill for size when the margins are so small.

The lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, and Gasol has only played 28:10 minutes this season, which is largely due to all of them being out with injuries at various points. Still, that lineup is -33.4 points per 100 possessions, an ugly mark and a worrisome one considering they mostly play together at the end of games. 

It’s worth monitoring how that lineup fares over the next few games leading up to the deadline and, if it continues to struggle, whether or not the Raptors try to make a big move in order to get bigger, no pun intended.

5. Kobe Bryant’s lasting legacy

Yesterday was a sad day for the NBA when news came out that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant were killed in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles. 

Words can’t describe what the Lakers legend meant to the game of basketball but one thing is for sure: basketball in Canada wouldn’t be where it is today without Kobe.

Kobe didn’t only help grow the league internationally, but millions of Canadians also grew up idolizing Bryant and fell in love with the game because of him. That love for the game has been passed down to younger generations of Canadians who grew up with basketball and the NBA being everywhere, but it wasn’t always that way and surely wouldn’t be without Kobe.

Bryant is the reason so many of us fell in love with basketball and the NBA. Rest in peace, Kobe. 

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