Baker's Dozen - Raptors on the Rise

After a one week hiatus, Baker's Dozen is back! Let's dive into the hottest team outside of the state of Utah - the Toronto Raptors. 

Raptors are back in the Playoff Mix

In the first edition of Baker's Dozen, I highlighted the fact that the Raptors were off to a slow start and looking disoriented. Pascal Siakam was having a rough start to the year. Their offense was looking ragged, and at 2-8 they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the first time in years. 

Despite the sluggish start, they have now clawed their way back above .500% at 16-15. Following their win on Sunday night versus the 76ers, they've now reeled off 14 of 21 games. The 76ers are in firm control of the Atlantic Division, but the Raps are coming for them, as they now have more wins that the Celtics, who lost in overtime to the Pelicans. 

Since Norm Powell was inserted into the starting lineup on January 22nd the Raps have gone 10-5, and Powell has been marvelous, averaging 22.1 ppg on 52% FG. It's obvious that Powell is much better in the starting lineup as opposed to coming off the bench - 22 ppg as a starter vs. 10 ppg as a reserve. Either Norm has to figure out how to be as effective coming off the bench, or Nick Nurse has to keep him in the starting lineup. One thing is clear - Toronto need Norman to score in bunches to be successful. 

Speaking of Nurse, he continues to be one of the best coaches in the league. When the ball goes up, it's very rare that Nurse is outcoached. He has been able to keep the Raptors steady on the defensive end of the floor, buying his offense time to work its way into the season. He is a master of infusing all players into the lineup and getting the most out of them. On Sunday, he started a small-ball lineup that had Siakam starting at center, with small forward OG Anunoby taking the opening tip against Joel Embiid. Despite the significant size advantage, Philly couldn't do anything with it. Nurse sent multiple defenders to trap and befuddle Embiid throughout the game. It's one example of Nurse's genius. Go an ask Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks about recent back-to-back losses against Toronto, scoring only 96 points in the 2nd game.

Pascal Siakam has also turned the corner and he's done it on the defensive end of the court, which has led to his confidence building on the offensive side of the floor. In the first 15 games of the year, he was averaging 0.8 spg & 0.5 bpg. Since then, he's been at 1.6 spg & 1.0 bpg. His defense had a significant impact in the Raptors ugly win against Minnesota on January 19th, as he blocked 3 shots in the 4th quarter alone, helping seal the 86-81 win. When Pascal is rolling on defense it impacts his offense and he is more confident, relying on his slithery moves around the basket and shooting the basketball with conviction. As with most players, when he is playing with confidence and assertiveness he is a completely different player. 

Of course, the player who has been the steadiest for the Raps all year has been Fred VanVleet. He's the only player who has started all 31 games (Chris Boucher is the only other Raptor to play in all 31 games) and is 2nd on the team in scoring with a career-high 20.0 ppg. He leads the team in assists at 6.5 apg and is 2nd in the NBA at 1.7 spg. Some may point to a poor 40.6 FG%, but his teammates know when FVV is going to shoot the ball, so they're prepared to react accordingly. Fred can get hot at any time - just take a look at his performance in a Raptors-record 54 points

No matter what happens the rest of the season, the Raptors will be in the playoff mix. While they may not have the firepower to go all the way and win the championship they won't back down from any challenge and will certainly be a tough out for any team in the playoffs. 

Quick Hitters

Utah Stays Hot: After an 11-game winning streak was busted, the Jazz promptly ripped off another run - this time a 9-game streak. They're 20-2 in their last 22 games and show no sign of slowing down. They have two tasty matchups coming up before the All-Star Game - February 24th against the LA Lakers and March 3rd against the East-leading 76ers. Both games should be a good barometer for the Jazz.

Line(s) of the Week: Joel Embiid gets the nod for the 2nd time this year, but will have to share it this time with Jamal Murray - as both went off for 50 points in the same night. Embiid scored his 50 on an efficient 17/26 FG, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 4 blocks - what a performance! Murray was even more efficient in his 50 as he went 21/25 FG, including 8/10 from 3-point land. Murray also contributed 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals, as both players led their respective teams to a win. 

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports