The Toronto Raptors have a challenging first 10 games of their NBA schedule. If they survive, it could go a long way in validating their 5-1 preseason performance to date. The level of competition will be a serious upgrade from the Raptors' preseason schedule, though.
It is a schedule that includes four vital games within the very tough Atlantic Division in addition to stops at Oklahoma City and Dallas—not to mention facing the Pacers on opening night in Toronto and again back in Indiana later in November.
They also see a playoff team from the West in the Jazz visiting the ACC and a team that would like to be in that postseason mix in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Injuries to Kevin Love from those T-Wolves and Dirk Nowitzki for the Mavericks have made the road a little easier for the Raptors. Still, it is going to be a true test of if the Raptors can really make some noise this season in the Eastern Conference.
So let’s run you through the first 10 games and examine if the Raptors can get off to a solid start by building off an impressive preseason.
The fact that the Pacers swept the season series last year 3-0 is likely not a shock given where these teams finished last season. What might be a shock is that the Raptors under Dwane Casey lost all three games by five points.
Preseason attendance in Toronto has been nothing to write home about. That said, for opening night, they should pack the place. With no hockey being played, the Raptors opener will be a bigger deal than normal this year.
It must make Bryan Colangelo a little sick to his stomach anytime he sees the Pacers. After all, it was the trade he made that allowed the Pacers to have Roy Hibbert come to town. He turned out to be pretty good and was able to secure a max contract offer as a restricted free agent, which was matched by the Pacers.
He is the lone piece that remains, for either side, in the Jermaine O’Neal and T.J. Ford trade that also included the draft pick that turned into Hibbert. The Raptors may now have a guy that will make people forget this ugly trade in Jonas Valanciunas, who looks to start on opening night matched up with Hibbert.
The Pacers did make some changes despite a good season for them. Another former Raptor that they traded for is now a late edition to the Celtics in Leandro Barbosa. The Pacers, like the Raptors, have shaken things up a little at the point guard position. They have given D.J. Augustin a ticket out of Charlotte to join a contender.
He will be the backup, but was also a pain for the Raptors to deal with as a Bobcat. More ties between these two not so direct would be Danny Granger, who the Raptors passed on in favor of Joey Graham. That one is a Rob Babcock mistake for the record.
Game Outlook: The Pacers lost to the Miami Heat after having them on the ropes last season in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are a motivated, hungry group and could very well be the best option to compete with Miami this season. Good teams can win on the road, and do it under a lot of adversity.
A home opener in Toronto with a lot of Raptor fans thinking their team might just surprise is that type of adversity. It will be tough for the Raptors to pull out a win in this one, but it might be easier than the next time they will see the Pacers on their home floor.
Prediction: Raptors will fight hard and make a game of it, but I would think this one equals a loss.
I have had the great thrill of talking with Jack Armstrong, Raptors broadcaster and Brooklyn-born, for several years. One of the topics we have talked about was how little a home-court advantage the Nets have had for years. That all has changed this season for the now-Brooklyn Nets.
They have a state-of-the-art arena and will not need to be shipping games overseas with the Raptors, as they did a couple seasons ago when they played two home contests in the 2010-11 season in London, England. The Nets and Raptors ended last season playing each other in one of the more embarrassing contests in the history of the NBA, in which it was fairly obvious the Nets were doing all they could to lose and improve their lottery options.
Losing is no longer the goal for the Nets; they made that clear in what they did this offseason. Their gamble trading for Deron Williams paid off, as they were able to keep Mark Cuban and the Mavericks from stealing him away. That was only step one of an aggressive offseason that gave the Nets a makeover that would see Joe Johnson come on board from the Hawks as the major new piece to the puzzle. Former Raptor Reggie Evans also found his way to Brooklyn.
Not to mention it is still the home for Kris Humphries, who we all knew in Toronto long before he was on the covers of magazines at your check-out aisle at your grocery store.
Game Outlook: Williams, be it as a member of the Jazz or with the Nets, has pretty much owned Jose Calderon over the years. Wait, though—this is now Kyle Lowry on the other end of this matchup. That is a lot better for the Raptors, and something will likely repeat in matchups against teams like Boston with Rondo and Oklahoma City with Westbrook.
Prediction: Brooklyn will open the season against the cross-town rival Knicks. The Raptors will be a rested bunch heading to face the Nets. All that said, while I am not as high on Brooklyn as some people, I do think winning in Brooklyn will be difficult not just for the Raptors, but many NBA teams.
In the end, I think the Raptors leave Brooklyn 0-2.
The Raptors can not claim dominance over many teams in their history. Minnesota might be one they can. Since Kevin Garnett packed his bags for Boston, the Raptors have owned the T-Wolves. The two only met up once last season in Toronto, and it was an easy 10-point win for the Raptors.
It should be noted that was with both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love playing at the time. It looks like the Raptors hit the daily double here, as both Rubio and Love will not be ready in time for this early season contest.
There is no need to go any further with this one. You take the best two players off almost any NBA team, and they are in serious trouble. Do the Wolves have other players that will be a challenge?
Sure they do, but honestly, this game is a must-win based on the fact neither will be in the lineup and the Raptors most likely enter this game at 0-2.
Brandon Roy is attempting a comeback with Minnesota, and you wish him well in that as a basketball fan. If Minnesota had the old Roy with two healthy knees, you might feel differently about the Raptors' chances
Also, for whatever reason, the Raptors under Casey were not terrible against Western Conference teams when you consider their overall record.
Game Outlook: I think this is one the Raptors should win without much trouble for all the reasons listed above. More importantly, this is one of those games they already have circled as a game they have to win.
Predication: Raptors win, get out the salami and cheese and the fans might even get free pizza, with the Raptors going over 100. That is a big deal for some people that frequent the ACC. It means nothing for me other than the Raptors will have a good scoring night.
This one is a gross mismatch on paper. It was last Easter when these two teams met up in Oklahoma City for the one and only meeting of the season. The Raptors were no match for the eventual Western Conference champions.
The Thunder remain pretty much that same great team that made the run to the NBA Finals, while the Raptors are better able to handle Russell Westbrook with a guy like Lowry. That only possibly solves one of many problems for the Raptors in this one.
They have nobody to match up with Kevin Durant. That can be said for pretty much 25-27 other NBA teams. Landry Fields will be overmatched by James Harden most likely. You pick the matchup in this game, and I am likely going to give the nod to the Thunder in almost every case.
This is all without taking into account the venue, which, for my money, is the best home-court advantage in the NBA.
Game Outlook: It would take some kind of cosmic event to stop the Raptors from losing this game. Oklahoma City should enter this season with a major chip on its shoulder. Oklahoma City feels totally forgotten about by the emergence of the Lakers and still bitter at losing to LeBron and the Heat. I expect the Thunder to get off to a strong start, and the Raptors can just not do much to stop them.
Prediction: Win for the team that last season, I dubbed on Twitter “The Best Team in the World.” They will look as dominant as CM Punk (WWE Champion), who inspired that nickname from me on Twitter. The Thunder deliver the Raptors the basketball equivalent of the “G-T-S,” leaving them at 1-3 heading for Texas.
Up until recent events with Dirk Nowitzki being taken out of action for six weeks with a knee issue, I would have said this was 1-4 for the Raptors. Now, this actually becomes an interesting contest. I have never been a fan of the whole Dirk and Andrea Bargnani comparison. Think it is somewhat an insult to all the big German has accomplished.
That said, Bargnani against no Dirk is a win for Bargnani. The Raptors also would get an edge at point guard in this matchup as well. The danger here for the Raptors is, as desperate for a win as they likely will be, at this point, the Mavericks might be even more so.
Also consider the fact that this is where Dwane Casey had his success as an assistant under Rick Carlisle, and you have an exiting coaching matchup where both know each other fairly well.
Game Outlook: This so far is the hardest one to call. Lots of interesting matchups, including O.J. Mayo, who was a player that caused the Raptors some headaches in the past as a member of the Memphis roster. I still like the Raptors' chances even if this is the second half of a back-to-back. If the Thunder game goes as expected, the smart move might be to pull the starters early and save them for Dallas.
Prediction: I am often accused of being negative. But here, I will take the glass half-full and take the Raptors in a mild upset given the circumstances. They get to 2-3 on the season.
The Sixers hope to have Andrew Bynum in the lineup for this game. I would not hold my breath given his history with his knees. In the past, the one guy that would punish the Raptors is now playing for the Nuggets thanks to the Bynum trade. Andre Iguodala took it personal that the Raptors passed on him for a bust of a center out of BYU.
Not that it was ever stated in words—more in action. How the Sixers offense will function without him should be interesting. There will be more pressure on Jrue Holiday to produce.
It also features two defensive-minded coaches in Dwane Casey and Doug Collins. This might not be the most entertaining game from a stylistic point of view as a result. In other words, if you plan on attending, don’t even think you are getting free pizza.
If the Sixers are still looking for Bynum to return or he is limited in minutes, that becomes a problem. Next man up for them is Kwame Brown, the former No. 1 pick of the Wizards, who keeps managing to convince teams to spend money on him. How that happens is one of the great mysteries of the NBA.
Game Outlook: Like I said, this is an old-school grind-it-out game for me. The winner might be the team that takes care of the ball best and plays the better defense.
Prediction: I make this on my assumption that we do not have an Andrew Bynum at anything close to 100 percent. So, keeping that in mind, the Raptors win a tight, low-scoring affair on their home floor. This will even up their record at 3-3.
Utah is an interesting team. It has managed to make the best of dealing away Deron Williams. The Jazz were rewarded with a nice package in return for him and, much like the Nuggets in the post-Anthony era, have been able to have some success. The Nuggets have been more successful, though.
Even though Jerry Sloan has gone, a lot of his values remain with Ty Corbin. He has managed to take a competitive young squad and turned them into a decent team. This, despite the fact that early evaluations on third overall pick Enes Kanter were less than kind.
The Jazz add Mo Williams to the mix this season at the point guard. The hope is he can add some stability to the position, along with some veteran experience. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are still the anchors to this roster. Both could provide issues for the Raptors to deal with.
You have a dunk contest waiting to happen with Jeremy Evans and DeMar DeRozan on the floor in this one. Expect some highlights if either team can get out on the break.
Game Outlook: This should be a fun contest given all the young talent on both sides of this matchup. If my predictions come to pass, the Raptors should enter this game with some momentum.
Prediction: The Raptors may not solve totally how to shut down Jefferson and Millsap, but I like them to ride some hopefully established momentum and take the win, going to 4-3.
Hello, your reality check has arrived. We talked at length about this matchup already. Teams will have a chance to watch whatever happens in the first meeting, so expect some adjustments from both sides.
One name I left out of the first look at the Pacers was Paul George. This guy showed what he could do last season against the Raptors and gave them fits. He is a tough guy to match up with. There is the thought that if he continues to rise, he would make Danny Granger expendable. We'll play it safe and assume both have lasted as Pacers to this contest.
A lot of Raptor fans talk about the great depth the Raptors now have. The Pacers are very deep as well.
George Hill is the point guard that we didn’t talk about in the first bite of the apple with the Pacers. He was a San Antonio Spur and learned his lessons well in his time with Greg Popovich. David West came over from the Hornets last season and fit in well. Tyler Hansbrough has been a nice role player after being a star on the college level.
Also, the Pacers added Gerald Green, who resurfaced in the NBA swamplands of New Jersey. He made an impression on the league as a player and not some guy blowing out a candle on cupcake.
The point is, the Pacers have some serious depth of their own.
Game Outlook: There is talk the fans are starting to come back for the Pacers. This is great and deserved for that franchise. It is not that a home-court advantage will be required to push them past the Raptors. You likely get a good effort from the Raptors, but will see similar results.
Prediction: The win streak ends, and the Raptors go down to defeat, falling back to 4-4
The Raptors will get a long break to recover from a tough contest with the Pacers and face likely an equal but more important challenge against the Celtics. Boston was in danger of dropping off some felt going into the offseason. That isn’t exactly what happened.
Ray Allen is gone, and the Raptors will not complain about that. He has been a thorn in the Raptors' side regardless of what jersey he wore—be it for the Bucks, Sonics or Celtics. He just has game when it comes to the movies and playing against the Toronto Raptors.
The Celtics might have lost Allen to the Heat, but they gained Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. With all due respect to Allen, I would call that a net gain for Boston.
They also added a couple of nice pieces in the draft. You also might recall Danny Angie being thought of as crazy for dealing Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder.
The major reason why he made that move is finally ready to roll for Boston. Jeff Green is of course who we are talking about. He was sidelined with a heart condition and was unable to prove his worth last season. More importantly, the young man is healthy and has been medically cleared.
Boston is deep as well, adding some interesting pieces like Darko Milicic and, previously mentioned, Leandro Barbosa. He's likely a stopgap for an injured Avery Bradley, who impressed coming out of Texas.
There could even be some Canadian content on this roster, with Montreal’s Kris Joseph selected in the second round to go along with Fab Melo, both from Syracuse. Jared Sullinger dropped in the draft, allowing him to be selected by Boston.
They also still have Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Brandon Bass also is still on board, who they acquired in a trade that sent Glen Davis to Orlando.
Game Outlook: This is going to be tough, even if the Raptors do have four days to prepare for this one. Rondo will have Kyle Lowry to contend with, and I am going go out on a limb and say Kevin Garnett is not going get in the face of Lowry the way he did with Jose Calderon in the past. I still can’t see Boston dropping this one to Toronto on its home floor.
Prediction: Boston will win in a game that will be closer than most people that sleep on the Raptors will expect. The Raptors fall to a losing record at 4-5.
Wait a second—yeah, that was the past, as all those people are no longer a part of this rivalry of sorts for the Raptors. No Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter either.
In fact, who the heck is on the Magic? Jameer Nelson still is, as he is the Jose Calderon of Orlando. He is often picked on by fans and never leaves. We just mentioned Glen Davis. In fact, this might be "Big Baby’s" team now. If that does not scare you as a Magic fan, I am not sure what would.
While Raptor fans should probably relate to Magic fans on a lot of levels, that really will not be considered by many, if any. What Raptor fans and this team will see is an easy win.
"It’s a trap," and this isn’t Star Wars. A trap game on the second night of a back-to-back. Be on alert, Toronto Raptors. We’re just having a little fun as we get to the end of this ride.
But if you honestly have no idea who is on the Magic, I would not fault you. They do have some marginal talent and some guys that used to be good.
At the top of that used-to-be-good list is Toronto’s favorite pizza-eating slacker, Hedo Turkoglu. Also a guy whose better days are likely in his past is Al Harrington.
The one true talent they might have, aside from their rookies, is Arron Afflalo. Someone needs to score on this team, so why not him?
People north of the border may take an interest in the Magic for one particular reason, though: Andrew Nicholson is a local product and was a riser on NBA draft boards after an impression he made on NBA scouts at the various combines. Moe Harkless is also someone the Magic are banking on after Superman flew out to L.A.
Game Outlook: If the Raptors play to their capability and ignore the fact this is a game they should win, they should be fine. The Magic still do have a lot of the shooters that surrounded Dwight, so defending the perimeter is still vital.
Prediction: Casey won’t let his team fall in the trap. Raptors even their record at 5-5
What have we learned if this all plays out this way?
The Raptors are a tough team that is going to be a pain in the butt to play and should hang around in the Eastern Conference playoff race to very end.
What if they don’t do as well?
Then there might be minor concern, but remember that the squad compared to the team from Bryan Colangelo’s first full season got off to a very slow start. This is not a clear sign it is the same old thing unless were talking a very awful start of, say, 2-8.
If they mange to exceed these expectations?
You really have to watch this team then. It could be a really wild ride for the Raptors that concludes is in the postseason. Especially if some of those victories come at the hands of teams within the Atlantic Division.
In closing, these are fair and reasonable projections. It takes into account some recent injures that have made this schedule potentially more manageable for the Raptors. There is no question, preseason or not, the fact they are 5-1 has caught some by surprise. True, they don’t count for anything, but they have given this group a positive start to enter the season with some confidence and a bit of momentum to feed from.