When the second half of the Toronto Raptors schedule for the 2020-21 season was released, it didn't take long for the analysis of the toughest games and stretches to come in.
While many takes were launched, most circled their calendars for a stretch at the end of April and the beginning of May as the absolute toughest. As the Raptors prepare to head out west, that stretch is now here.
In six nights, the team will play four games against four opponents with legitimate aspirations to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in July.
For a Raptors team that's 10-20 away from Tampa this season, the road ahead looks like this:
- Thursday, April 29 at Denver Nuggets (23-10 home record)
- Saturday, May 1 at Utah Jazz (26-4 home record)
- Sunday, May 2 at Los Angeles Lakers (17-13 home record)
- Tuesday, May 4 at LA Clippers (24-8 home record)
Adding to the allure of the impending trip is where Toronto stands in pursuit of the East's 10th seed, the final spot in the first-of-its-kind Play-In Tournament that is set to begin on Tuesday, May 18. With 10 games remaining in the season, the Raptors are within two games of 10th, meaning the Play-In is very much within reach.
As the stakes are higher than ever before, it begs the question: Is this the trip that will make or break the Raptors' season?
With a number of variables at play, it's a question that requires much more thought than a typical "yes" or "no."
This isn't the first time that Toronto has approached what many have viewed as a "crucial stretch" this season. In fact, it's easy to lose count of how many "crucial stretches" the team has faced in a year that could be described as a wild ride, only that description might not be vivid enough.
Through all of the ups and downs - including a nine-game losing streak and a 1-13 record in the month of March - the Raptors still have a shot to make a run for a playoff spot.
Each night on the trip provides unique challenges…
April 29 at Denver
Last meeting: March 24 - Raptors 135, Nuggets 111
Almost fittingly, the Raptors open up the trip by paying a visit to the only team they were able to defeat during the month of March. In that dominant win, it was hot shooting and the play of OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet that led the way.
With Powell gone, Toronto will again need big nights from the three players that remain as well as a fourth in order to contend with Denver.
Since that time the Nuggets added Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee via trade but lost Jamal Murray for the season to an injury. In Murray's absence, 22-year-old Michael Porter Jr. has stepped up to fill the void, while Nikola Jokic has all but secured his first-ever MVP.
Denver has plenty to play for as the season winds down as it is within striking distance of a top-three seed in the West standings, something it could strive for to avoid a potential first-round meeting with the defending champion Lakers.
While they are in pursuit of a higher seed, the Nuggets will be on the second end of a back-to-back, which could mean limited time for key players, with health being the ultimate priority leading into the postseason.
May 1 at Utah
Last meeting: March 19 - Jazz 115, Raptors 112
Utah's hold on the league's top record has dwindled over the past few weeks as the team has been forced to deal with the absence of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.
The last time these two teams met, the game came down to the wire as Siakam had an opportunity to tie things up but his 3-point attempt rimmed out. Siakam was one of six double-figure scorers in the first meeting, but with Powell traded and Chris Boucher injured, Toronto must look elsewhere for offence against a staunch defensive team in Utah.
Saturday night in Salt Lake City will be the second time on the trip that the Raptors will be at a rest advantage as the Jazz will come in on the second end of a back-to-back after taking on the Phoenix Suns in a crucial game on Friday.
Given where things are at this point in the season, there's no telling whether or not Quin Snyder will have his key players log big minutes on consecutive nights, especially considering the high stakes of their meeting with the Suns.
We might even see some players sit out for rest purposes.
Still, a trip to Vivint Arena, where the Jazz own the league's best home record at 26-4, is a difficult task regardless of who suits up.
May 2 at L.A. Lakers
Last meeting: April 6 - Lakers 110, Raptors 101
This time, it's the Raptors at a rest disadvantage.
On the second night of a back-to-back, Toronto is set to take on the defending champions, who, are patiently awaiting the return of one LeBron James. James, an MVP favourite before going down with an ankle sprain in late March. James could be back in the lineup by the time the Raptors make it to Los Angeles.
Both James and Anthony Davis were out during the first meeting between these teams, a strange and eventful game. Both Anunoby and Montrezl Harrell were ejected in the first quarter, the Lakers built out a 34-point lead and the Raptors clawed back to lose by just nine as Siakam managed to finish with 27 points (on 7-for-21 shooting).
Over his last three meetings with the Lakers, Siakam is averaging 22.0 points but doing so on 33.3 percent shooting from the field. The efficiency must be there for him in a game that will be much different from the last.
As we saw with the return of Davis, James being back in the lineup doesn't necessarily mean that he'll log heavy minutes, as the team will likely ease the 36-year-old back into action after missing over a month of game time.
On top of managing James' minutes, there will likely be rust and missed timing among lineups that haven't shared the floor in some time.
The Raptors have also won five in a row over the Lakers on the road, so they have that going for them, too.
May 4 at LA Clippers
Last meeting: Dec. 11, 2019 - Clippers 112, Raptors 92
It took almost the entirety of the 2020-21 season but the Raptors will finally get a chance to see familiar faces in Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka, even if they aren't in the lineup.
While Kawhi has missed eight games in the month of April, Ibaka has not seen any action since March 14. Without the former Raptors, the Clippers have still found ways to win, posting one of the league's best records since the All-Star break but they are in the midst of a tough stretch of their own.
After a loss to the Suns, LA returned to the Staples Center to take on the Nuggets on Saturday and face the Raptors two nights before meeting the Lakers.
As it's the first meeting between the two teams this season, you have to refer back to December 2019 to see when these teams last met. Much has changed since that time, but the biggest thing worth keeping an eye on is the potential matchup between Leonard and Anunoby, who is developing some Kawhi-like tendencies.
G in his bag tonight pic.twitter.com/RWstf4al7R- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 28, 2021
Anunoby will likely spend time guarding his former teammate.
As tough of a stretch as Toronto is in, LA finds itself in a similar situation, as it will take on three of the West's top five teams in a week's time. I won't call the Raptors a "trap" game for the Clippers, but it's fair to say their focus might be elsewhere.
That could work in Toronto's favour.
What it means
There aren't too many four-game stretches imaginable that shape out to be tougher than Toronto's late-season excursion out west, but just as the strength of the opponents works against the Raptors' favour, the timing of the meetings could work in their favour.
Opening the trip with a rest advantage over both the Nuggets and Jazz doesn't only give the Raptors a leg up from an energy standpoint, it could mean that they face teams that prioritize the resting of their key players with the 2021 NBA Playoffs just weeks away.
While the one rest disadvantage comes against the defending champs, the Lakers are a team that will be working to reincorporate key players, which could make for some margin for error. The Clippers, on the other hand, are in the midst of a difficult stretch of their own and will be working to find the balance of rest and reincorporating players as well.
The East's final Play-In spot will go to either the Raptors, Washington Wizards or Chicago Bulls. Given the nature of the Wizards' and Bulls' seasons and the fact that the Raptors have one more meeting with each team left, it feels safe to say that Toronto must go 2-2 on this trip to keep its hopes alive.
While anything less than .500 will likely break the season, I'm not confident enough to say that going 3-1 or 4-0 would make the season.
Given Toronto's propensity to play up to its toughest competition, a 2-2 finish is far-fetched at all, meaning the Play-In talks could be much much louder when this team boards the plane to head back to Tampa.
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