Top 5 Raptors games to watch from first half of NBA’s schedule

Boston Celtics' Grant Williams (12) defends as Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam (43) looks to make a pass in the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

As the NBA continues to zip along at lightning speed towards the beginning of the 2020-21 season, teams (who have begun the process of starting training camps) now know who, when and where they will be playing following the league’s release of the first half of the season schedule on Friday.

So, now that 37 of the Toronto Raptors’ 72 total games are available for dissection, it only makes logical sense to scour them all and pick out which ones need to be highlighted, printed out, and stuck to the kitchen fridge.

One small note before diving in. While level of pure entertainment, key players, and inter-team narratives are all taken into account here, games against fellow Eastern Conference opponents will always be considered more vital to the Raptors’ season since those are the teams they will primarily see come the playoffs.

Now, without further adieu …

vs. Boston Celtics (Jan. 4)

In what bore out to be a gruelling seven-games series chocked full of breathtaking performances (Kyle Lowry had 33 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a dominant Game 6), buzzer beaters (OG Anunoby with 0.5 on the clock!), and high-level defensive gameplay, the Raptors last saw the Celtics triumphantly pumping their fists as they eked out a victory to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.

While plenty of Raptors didn’t have their best outings against Boston (or, at the least, were inconsistent when faced with a smothering defence), it was Pascal Siakam who took the brunt of the criticism as Toronto’s go-to guy. He was only able to score more than 20 points once (in Game 4), and averaged just 38.2 per cent shooting.

Having noted during his media week availability that he went into his off-season training “with a little edge,” and now having had a full season as the focal point of a team, one would think Siakam will be chomping at the bit to get another shot at the team that caused him so much grief in the post-season.

@ Brooklyn Nets (Feb. 5)

Toronto’s first crack at the new-look Nets comes a little later in the first half of their schedule, but no matter whether Brooklyn is blowing the doors off of teams or whether the pressure on them has intensified because they are underperforming, the Raptors’ prodigious defence stacking up against the combined all-time scoring talent of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is must-see basketball.

Adding a little bit of extra spice here is that the last time Durant stepped onto the hardwood, suited up and ready to play, was in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals against the Raptors in Toronto, where he scored 11 points in 12 first-quarter minutes before ultimately tearing his Achilles tendon.

If there was ever an opportunity for the Raptors-Nets rivalry (sparked back in the 2014 playoffs) to be rekindled in a serious manner, this is it.

vs. Milwaukee Bucks (Jan. 27)

By the time this game arrives, at least one crucial question will have been answered: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign the supermax with the Bucks?

Depending on that answer, Toronto (whose long-term plan has included maintaining salary cap flexibility should Antetokounmpo, or a player like him, become available in the summer of 2021) taking to the floor against the reigning two-time MVP for the first time this season could be bathed in an ephemeral aura, the kind which only presents itself at the beckoning of slowly rising tension.

Either way, as one of the best all-around players in the game today, Antetokounmpo is always worth watching, and though the Bucks had some colossal miscues in the off-season, the end result of their roster restructuring has them arguably better off than they were last season, when they rampaged through the league and finished with a 56-17 record.

@ Golden State Warriors (Jan. 10)

Unfortunately, the loss of Klay Thompson to a torn Achilles tendon hurts the anticipation for this matchup, but this will still be the first occasion the Raptors face former two-time MVP Stephen Curry since they defeated his Warriors at Oracle Arena (box-and-one, anyone?) in six games to win the 2019 NBA title.

Any game featuring who many widely consider to be the greatest shooter of all-time is one worth tuning in for, and with Fred VanVleet back on Toronto’s roster (he took the majority of the Curry defensive assignment in those Finals), that specific matchup should be entertaining enough in and of itself. Especially considering the Warriors had the league’s worst record last season and will be attempting to redeem themselves.

Beyond that, Toronto will get its first look at No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, and will face Canadian Andrew Wiggins once again, who has had some of his best games as a pro against the Raptors (in the two instances they met last season, he averaged 19.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.5 assists).

vs. Miami Heat (Jan. 20)

After barely scraping by the Raptors in the second round, the Celtics found themselves taken to task by the underdog Heat, who dismantled them over six games thanks largely to their prolific zone defence.

Now the defending Eastern Conference champs and having shed their dark horse label, every team will be gunning for the Heat, including the Raptors, who would have much preferred a series with them than the one against the Celtics based purely on matchups.

Additionally, this contest also features Siakam pitted against Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s cornerstone of the future whom they rightfully gave a max extension this past off-season, which is one of the better big-against-big duels the league offers.

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