At first glance, this evening’s opponent for the New Orleans Pelicans probably doesn’t appear all that intimidating to the average fan.
The Toronto Raptors have a 19-17 record overall and Pascal Siakam is the lone All-Star (2020) in the starting lineup. It’s not remotely the same roster that won the NBA championship a few years ago.
Looking deeper, however, these Raptors have won five straight games. They boast the fourth winningest record since December 2, and during this 10-4 stretch, Toronto ranks sixth in offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating.
They’re more than solid and there’s a lot to like when examining their top seven players.
Fred VanVleet feels like one of the best players in the league since December 14, averaging 30.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 2.0 steals. He’s also making 5.6 threes per game and getting to the free throw line at almost five times a contest. The shooting percentages have just been outrageously good.
Herbert Jones’ defensive talents could be put to the test against VanVleet, but there are other weapons to contend with. With Josh Hart not making the trip after contact tracing opened the door to a possibility that a positive covid test could leave him stuck in Canada for some time, it’s probable that Garrett Temple grabs a starting lineup position again. Willie Green would have the option to put his veteran guard on VanVleet, giving Herb the opportunity to contend with one of Toronto’s bigger wings.
OG Anunoby (19.4 points, 2.6 threes, 1.7 steals) and Pascal Siakam (20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists) are above average players, with OG potentially deserving of an All-Star game or two down the road.
There’s also the 4th overall pick from the 2021 NBA Draft. Scottie Barnes is the real deal and in the running with Evan Mobley and Cade Cunningham for 2022 Rookie of the Year. He has the size, athleticism and intelligence to impose his will in so many areas — it would be entertaining as heck to see a matchup against Herb.
Not to be forgotten, Gary Trent Jr. is a fine floor spacer who doesn’t lack for confidence and the center rotation of Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher can make an imprint on games in about 20 minutes of action.
Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas are going to have to carry the scoring loads, but who is going to step up in Hart’s absence? Even if Devonte’ Graham produces another fine offensive output, one has to think that Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes need to be noticeable positives in their minutes.
Toronto won 6 of 9 games to start the season but went on to compile a 8-14 record afterwards. Don’t believe that we see that latter version, especially since they’re flying high again.
It must be noted that New Orleans has also struggled immensely against the Eastern Conference on the road, amassing one paltry victory in six attempts so far.
The Pelicans are going to have to play really well to knock off the Raptors. Glancing at the gambling spread, it looks like Las Vegas agrees, listing New Orleans as 7.5-point underdogs at the time of this writing.
To be perfectly honest, I’ll be surprised if the Pels leave Toronto with the W.
When: January 9, 2022, 5:00 pm
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, NBA League Pass
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM