The Toronto Raptors begin a seven-game, 11-day Western Conference road trip in Sacramento on Wednesday.
Considering the Raptors are 11th in the Eastern Conference and are six games under .500, this could be a make-or-break kind of trip for the team, particularly because by the time it returns home, the NBA trade deadline will be only four days away.
Here’s a look at seven things to watch for as the Raptors embark on their longest road trip of the season.
Quick look at the Raptors' schedule
Before diving into anything else, here’s a quick rundown of what’s in store:
Jan. 25 - Sacramento Kings
Jan. 27 - Golden State Warriors
Jan. 28 - Portland Trail Blazers
Jan. 30 - Phoenix Suns
Feb. 1 - Utah Jazz
Feb. 3 - Houston Rockets
Feb. 5 - Memphis Grizzlies
Despite the length of the trip, the Raptors should be reasonably rested with only one back-to-back to contend with.
Unfortunately, in terms of team quality, this isn’t exactly the easiest trip. Each team with the exception of the tank-leading Rockets sports a record better than Toronto’s and all but Houston currently have winning records at home — something that could prove problematic given the Raptors’ poor 6-15 road record this season.
If you’re hoping to see the Raptors turn this season around then you should be banking on them beating the Rockets and going at least 2-2 in what look like 50-50 games against the Warriors, Blazers, Suns and Jazz. Victories against the Kings and Grizzlies don’t look too feasible considering the quality of basketball both of those clubs are playing, but if the Raptors can pull them off they would be big wins.
Optimism Toronto can turn things around
Though it’s not all that surprising, the Raptors are entering this trip with a great deal of optimism.
“I think we’re making progress,” Pascal Siakam said Tuesday after practice before the team departed for the west coast. “It’s like we’re making progress but we’re not where we’re supposed to be and I think that we all know that. I like that we want to continue to work and when you look at a lot of the games that we lost we’re right there and we’re not even playing at our best.”
Siakam believes getting away on this long trip will do the team good and help it come together.
“It’s a good opportunity to go out there and play some good games on the road, get our confidence back, get some good wins and just play,” Siakam said. “Play basketball, play better and enjoy each others’ company.”
This is a sentiment that was echoed by Siakam’s veteran teammate, Thaddeus Young.
“This is a great time to go on a trip,” Young said. “It’s a good part of the season and it’s something where I think we definitely need a lot of time together so we can figure things out together as a team, as a family where we’re spending a lot of time together where we’re not just watching basketball games but we’re gonna be watching the football game together, too. We’re gonna be doing things together like team dinners and stuff like that.
“So, that different environment and different feel always brings guys closer together because we learn a lot about each other.”
Whether this leads to positive results or not is still anybody’s guess but at least on the surface the Raptors are still saying the right things in preparation of trying to rack up some wins during an extended time away from home.
The ever-encroaching NBA trade deadline
Of course, while the Raptors may be excited to get out on the road, the looming spectre that is the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline still hangs in the backdrop of this entire seven-game swing.
The Raptors know it and will be doing their best to try to block out the chatter that will surely continue to leak in with so many players on the team the subject of trade rumours.
“Well, I think that we really can’t worry about the noise or the pressure,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I mean, we’ve got to really dial in on just playing a little bit better. That’s it. It’s almost kind of like you go into a playoff run and you shut out everything and just really dial in on the game plan and your team and all that kind of stuff. That gives us the best chance, I think.”
Focusing solely on what the team can control is all Nurse, his coaching staff and the players can do but if the Raptors get out to something like an 0-3 or 1-3 start to this trip, then that will only up the volume on the trade buzz.
As much as they might not admit it, all the gossip around the Raptors is eventually going to catch up to them – unless they begin winning again.
Raptors will be all business this trip
In an effort to combat the inevitable trade speculation that will swirl around the team – and to try to win some games to boot – the Raptors say they’ll be approaching this road trip like that of a business trip.
“We’re gonna make this thing pretty business-like, professional, leaning towards a lot of work, a lot of meetings, a lot of practices,” Nurse said. “This is going to be a pretty focused and work-themed trip.”
If what’s been plaguing the Raptors has actually just been a matter of effort, then working that much harder could be the fix the team’s been in need of. However, finding more ways to get that extra bit of work in on the road will certainly prove more difficult than it does at home. And seeing as the Raptors have played eight of their last 11 games at home and only sport a 5-6 record during that span, there’s some evidence that suggests working harder in practice doesn’t necessarily equate to better results during games.
Defence will be a key focus
As part of this workman-like attitude the Raptors will be hoping to bring to this trip, it sounds like defence will be a point of emphasis over the next few games.
Revealing details of a team meeting he wasn’t exactly supposed to, Young said the Raptors sat and watched clips of how they played defence last season and how they might be able to replicate that again.
“We just watched a film session of basically how well we were playing defensively last year and some of the effort plays and stuff like that,” Young said. “If we bring that same intensity that we had in that tape to each and every game, we put ourselves in position to win this whole trip.”
Toronto boasted the ninth-ranked defence in the league last season but is hovering around the bottom third in 2022-23. Getting back to that old mindset is an important factor in possibly turning their season around, Young believes.
“That identity was when teams walked into Scotiabank Arena or when teams came to play us, even at their arenas, they’re like, ‘Man, [expletive]. This is gonna be a hard team to play against. This is gonna be a tough night.’ Opposing teams, I think they worried about us a little bit. Now, I think they’re getting away from worrying about us a little bit and just kind of saying, ‘Hey, if you do this, this and this we’ll be fine.’
“We want to put that fear back in peoples’ hearts. That’s the biggest thing. When they step into the gym with us we want them to worry about every single thing that we’re going to do on the defensive side of the basketball.”
Monitoring VanVleet’s health
Good news for the Raptors on the injury front is that O.G. Anunoby, who was listed as “questionable” for Wednesday’s game should be good to go.
According to Nurse, Anunoby was cleared and fully went through practice Tuesday and even joked with his coach that he was feeling “94 percent.”
The status of Anunoby’s ankle will be worth monitoring all through the trip but another possible injury to keep an eye on is the condition of Fred VanVleet.
Though not on the injury report, VanVleet has dealt with lower back and, more recently, rib soreness that’s forced him out of the lineup.
He’s a gamer and will play through pain but taking into consideration how many minutes he’s played over the last three seasons it wouldn’t be surprising to see him go down with another nagging injury during this trip, especially if he’s forced to log a lot floor time again in tight games.
Achiuwa returning to form
Precious Achiuwa made his return from an ankle ligament tear on Jan. 2 and has since been working his way back to form.
He was shaky during his first four games back but has shown promising signs over his last eight, averaging 12 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
These numbers are in line with the kind of production that was seen from Achiuwa over his last 24 games last season when it appeared the Raptors had found a key piece of their future from the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade.
This is a positive development for Toronto, particularly because Achiuwa primarily comes off the bench and plays alongside secondary and tertiary units, giving the club a much-needed boost.
“He’s really done a good job, I think, providing rebounding, defence and spirit,” Nurse said of Achiuwa. “I think he’s played tough, I think he’s got up and down the floor, he’s been active, he’s been strong. Those are things that have been all kinds of complementary traits that we need.”
On this trip, look for Achiuwa to keep up his steady play and maybe even break out offensively one or two games as that looks to be the way he’s trending again.
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