Raptors eager to see what they're made of on gruelling road trip

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) tries to drive between New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones (5) and guard Devonte' Graham (4) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, January 9, 2022. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The Toronto Raptors are 20-18, eighth in the Eastern Conference, but only two games out of fifth in the conference.

They managed to do this thanks to getting healthy again, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam playing all-star-calibre basketball and taking advantage of a very home-friendly schedule.

Even with fans forced out of Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors have been excellent at home since Dec. 2, amassing a 10-3 record and a plus-9.1 net rating, a number that’s really strong when you consider the fact the Golden State Warriors own a league-best plus-7.8 net rating on the season as a whole.

This sparkling recent home record has been a major factor in how the Raptors have been climbing the standings and have positioned themselves right in the thick of the playoff race.

Over their next five games, however, the Raptors won’t have the friendly (if empty) confines of Scotiabank Arena to help them out. Instead, they’ll be hitting the road for eight days as they see teams from both conferences.

Given how well Toronto has been playing, Raptors coach Nick Nurse seems eager to see what his team can do on the road, particularly because it will be basically at full strength.

“We’re looking forward to it for a number of reasons but mostly ... I think we’re feeling some building coming on here and, I said it the other night, it’s been some weeks now of some pretty solid building and basketball and learning a lot about the team and the players and the lineups, tough games and matchups and all kinds of stuff,” said Nurse on Thursday. “I think there’s a lot of guys looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do on this trip.”

Here’s a quick look at what to watch for as this Raptors’ five-game roadie gets underway.

Road trip schedule

Here’s a quick look at the schedule:

• Friday, Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. ET: Detroit Pistons
• Saturday Jan. 15 at 6:30 p.m. ET: Milwaukee Bucks
• Monday Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET: Miami Heat (on Sportsnet and Sportsnet ONE)
• Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET: Dallas Mavericks (on Sportsnet ONE)
• Friday, Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. ET: Washington Wizards

Hi, Kyle!

Without question, the highlight of this trip is on Jan. 17, when the Raptors visit South Beach to take on the Miami Heat and see franchise icon Kyle Lowry for the first time since he was signed and traded in exchange for Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic.

Lowry has been a fine addition to a talented Heat roster, averaging 13.6 points, 8.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. He hasn’t shot the ball very well (only 41.8 per cent from the field and 32.2 per cent from deep), but on the Heat he isn’t required to carry quite as large an offensive load as he did in Toronto.

The Raptors may catch a break on the trip as Jimmy Butler has been dealing with an ankle injury and may be forced to miss the Monday night’s matchup, and Bam Adebayo will almost assuredly miss the game while recovering from surgery, but the Heat have been resilient dealing with many injuries all season and have nicely weathered the storm.

Plus, if both Adebayo and Butler can’t play, how fitting would it be for Lowry to just completely ball out against his former mates?

True tests

On this trip, the Raptors will see a bad Detroit Pistons team and a mediocre – and possibly imploding – Washington Wizards club and a potentially very shorthanded Miami Heat squad.

However, also on this trip, the Raptors will take on the Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks. Although Jrue Holiday is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be there for the Bucks. And, against the Mavericks, even though it’s unclear if Kristaps Porzingis will be cleared from health and safety protocols in time for the Jan. 17 game, Luka Doncic should play.

In other words, like their game on Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, the Raptors will be facing steep tests against quality opponents with a team that should be nearly full strength.

The Raptors have benefited from playing shorthanded teams, making it harder to judge how “real” their wins have been. The close defeat against the Suns on Tuesday certainly provided good evidence as to why the Raptors are considered a solid squad, but more data is never a bad thing to help prove this hypothesis further.

Their games against the Bucks and Mavericks could provide just that.

Short-rest kickoff

The Raptors will kick off their road trip against the lowly Pistons, and if you’re a Toronto fan you’ll be hoping for a laugher in the Raptors’ favour early.

This is because this game will not only kick off the road trip, it also marks the beginning of three games in four nights.

After the Raptors take on the Pistons on Friday, they’ll see the Bucks on Saturday and, as mentioned, this is a Bucks team that’s going to have Antetokounmpo, meaning Toronto will need to be at full strength to make the most out of this test of its mettle.

Finally, this three-in-four span will cap off with the Monday night game in Miami that, no matter how shorthanded the Heat might be, is sure to be emotionally charged on both sides with Toronto facing Lowry for the first time since he was a member of the Houston Rockets, way back on March 7, 2012.

It’s always a good idea for a team to take care of business at the start of a road trip. For the Raptors, though, it feels like it’ll be even more important considering what will immediately follow their short trip to Motown.

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