West Coast Woes Await! Raptors Insider Lookahead: April 28th-May 4th

Well, this ought to be fun.

The Toronto Raptors kicked off a stretch of five straight games against top ten teams with a 116-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night. The latter four games of this stretch come in the form of the team’s second west coast trip of the year, working their way through the mountains in Denver and Utah before ending in California to take on a double-header with the two teams in Los Angeles.

This is the stretch that should firmly dictate the team’s direction for the remainder of the year; they are 12th in the East, sitting one and a half games out of the play-in tournament, and a strong stretch here would seriously improve their playoff chances. Conversely, they also currently have the eighth-worst record in the league — only a half game ahead of the Sacramento Kings — and a poor stretch here may firmly place them in the lottery and could bolster their odds.

Make no mistake: this is as difficult a stretch as it gets. They are facing four of the top five teams in the West (only missing second-place Phoenix), with all four teams rounding into form in some way.

Thursday, April 29th: at Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM EST, Sportsnet)

Even with the devastating injury to Jamal Murray that ended his season, the Denver Nuggets have managed to keep the ship afloat. Since Murray tore his ACL on April 12th in a loss to Golden State, Denver has won six of its past seven games.

The impact of Murray’s absence has been minimized by the stellar play of Monte Morris, who continues to be an analytics darling. He is once again among the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, and constantly helps the team with his smart decision-making and efficient shot selection.

The Raptors are going to be swimming in deep water with this one. The Nuggets have finally figured it out defensively, and the Raptors are going to have a tough time containing Nikola Jokic, who continues to solidify his MVP case. This guy is an absolute wizard with the basketball, and while it may come at the expense of the team’s success, my best advice is to enjoy the show he will inevitably put on.

Prediction: Nikola Jokic does Nikola Jokic things, Raptors fall to 0-1

Players to Watch: Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee

Denver was one of the sneaky winners of the 2021 trade deadline, landing two impact pieces in Gordon and McGee. These two have bolstered Denver’s defensive play both in the starting lineup and off the bench, providing production in these roles they desperately missed since the off-season when Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee departed for the Detroit Pistons.

These two have been major positives since the Nuggets added them, and will be a huge factor as to why Denver can make a deep playoff push, even without Murray. Expect Gordon to play Pascal Siakam tough and McGee to cause havoc on the offensive glass.

Saturday, May 1st: at Utah Jazz (10:00PM EST, Sportsnet)

Of the four games on this west coast trip, this actually feels like the most winnable game, despite Utah sitting at the top of the NBA standings.

The Jazz are missing star guard Donovan Mitchell and recently lost back-to-back games to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are playing much better under Chris Finch. Losing Mitchell has put tremendous pressure on the Jazz offensively, as he is the best slasher on their team and initiated a lot of their offence on drive-and-kicks. Without him, the Jazz look discombobulated on this end as they have nobody who can attack defenders or generate clean shots.

In recent years, the Raptors have played the Jazz notoriously tough, winning four of the last five games over the past three seasons. With how much better the Raptors have looked as of late, I expect this to be a competitive game, but Utah still has a lot of weapons and a potent frontcourt that can hurt them on the glass.

Prediction: Raptors lose a nail-biter to fall to 0-2

Player to Watch: Rudy Gobert

I expect rebounding to be the reason that the Raptors will have issues on Saturday night and Rudy Gobert is going to be at the forefront of this.

He averages 13.5 rebounds per game, the second-highest mark in the league. Barring a superstar performance from Khem Birch, Gobert will likely feast on the Raptors, who rank bottom five in the league in both defensive rebounding percentage and second chance points allowed. It will need to be a team effort to box out Gobert and close out defensive possessions, otherwise it could be a long night.

Sunday, May 2nd: at Los Angeles Lakers (10:00PM EST, Sportsnet)

Even without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers soundly handled the Raptors in their last outing in Tampa. Now, Davis is back, and with LeBron’s return imminent, this could be a difficult game.

The issues at the centre spot have plagued Toronto all season long, and without anybody to even contain Anthony Davis, I expect a full-on rampage from The Brow. Add to the fact that Dennis Schroder will be looking for revenge for – uhh, whatever this is – it isn’t going to be a pretty one.

Just sit tight and enjoy the ride. Malachi Flynn might have a nice game off the bench, otherwise I can’t hype up what might be a bloodbath, especially if LeBron James returns to the floor by then.

Prediction: Dinosaur team loses an ugly one for the 0-3

Player to Watch: Anthony Davis

He is going to put on a show. That is all.

Tuesday, May 4th: at Los Angeles Clippers (10:00PM EST, TSN)

Finally, the Raptors close out their trip facing the other Los Angeles team, who have been surging since adding Rajon Rondo at the trade deadline. He has finally provided the Clippers with someone who can initiate their offensive sets properly, a dimension they’d lacked since last season. They are now seriously looking like they can make a push and perhaps advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever.

Kawhi Leonard was already dangerous enough on his own (though Raptors fans should already know that), but the Clippers were forcing him to be the primary playmaker on most possessions, which was never going to be sustainable. Paul George has struggled in isolation, but has been playing much better since the addition of Rondo since he can focus on getting to his spots and scoring in rhythm.

The Clippers may also expect to be a little healthier come Tuesday, with Leonard and Patrick Beverley returning from injuries, and potentially looking for Serge Ibaka to come back by then as well from a back injury that has sidelined him since March 14th.

All in all, the Raptors look to be in trouble once again and will need defensive efforts from both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to have a chance here. All the while limiting Ivica Zubac on the glass and finding someone to chase Nic Batum off the three point line. A tall task, indeed.

Prediction: Raptors run out of gas, finish the trip 0-4

Player to Watch: Luke Kennard

For the Raptors to have a fighting chance, they will have to take advantage of any minutes without Leonard and George on the floor. Tyronn Lue has typically staggered the two of them to ensure one is on the court at all times, but their bench depth is essentially Luke Kennard, the three-point sniper.

The Raptors have plenty of wing defenders to throw at him, and if they can hold Los Angeles’ secondary shooters to a cold night and force Leonard and George to do all the damage, it could make things easier by breaking them down and forcing them into isolation situations. It is easier said than done, but it is certainly a possibility!

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