Much has changed since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals but one fact remains the same: The Toronto Raptors are the defending NBA Champions.
Tell 'em, @FredVanVleet 🏆 #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/RCEjtCLal5- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 7, 2019
Despite that fact, the roster turnover in Toronto has resulted in other Eastern Conference powers emerging as the favourites to advance to the NBA Finals this upcoming season.
Recent history shows not to rule them out just yet.
Just last season, a rough start from a preseason favourite in the Houston Rockets resulted in their needing a late-season surge to claw to the West's fourth seed. This meant that the presumed Western Conference Finals rematch of the Rockets and Golden State Warriors would come a round early, paving the way for a more unlikely team to land in the Conference Finals.
The Portland Trail Blazers were ultimately the beneficiary as they would make the Conference Finals for the first time in 18 years, falling short to the aforementioned Warriors in four games.
Now, more than ever, with the league as wide open as it has been in years, there's an increased importance surrounding the seeding and placement earned throughout the regular season.
One set of games - or an extended stretch - could be what ultimately makes or breaks a team's season
While Toronto begins its title defence at home against New Orleans on Oct. 22, it is the game that takes place in New Orleans weeks later that begins the first potential make-or-break segment of the upcoming 82-game season.
With that in mind, let's take a look at three potentially influential stretches for the Raptors this season.
An early Test out West
Less than a month into the regular season, the Raptors will embark upon a five-game road trip that begins in New Orleans, ends in Dallas and contains three big tests in the Pacific Time Zone in between.
As if facing some of the league's best young talents in Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic weren't enough, Toronto starts off on the West Coast with a back-to-back at the Staples Center.
On Sunday, Nov. 10, the Raptors face LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers and take the floor again on Monday, Nov. 11 to take on a familiar face in Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers.
Last season, Toronto made itself at home in LA, going 2-0 with an average margin of victory of 19.0 points. With an influx of star power in Tinseltown, this year is shaping to be much more difficult.
After the two-night stay in Los Angeles, the Raptors make their way to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Trail Blazers, who went 32-9 at home in the 2018-19 season.
Toronto, who dominated its cross-conference opponents with a 22-8 record last season, will be put to the grinder early on this season as it looks to go above .500 on a trip that presents all kinds of challenges.
The month of January
The Raptors ring in 2020 with a slate of 15 games in the month of January. Of them, over half are against teams that failed to qualify for the postseason in the 2018-19 season.
- Jan. 2 @ Miami
- Jan. 8 @ Charlotte
- Jan. 17 vs. Washington
- Jan. 18 @ Minnesota
- Jan. 20 @ Atlanta
- Jan. 24 @ New York
- Jan. 28 vs. Atlanta
- Jan. 30 @ Cleveland
Of the remaining seven games against Brooklyn, Portland, San Antonio (twice), Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Detroit, three take place at Scotiabank Arena and one of the road games is in OKC to play a Thunder team that might take a considerable step back from last season.
In short, January is a month in which Toronto can make the most of a potentially advantageous schedule.
Good teams avoid bad losses and beat teams that they're better than. In the 2018-19 season, the Raptors went a league-best 36-4 against teams that finished below .500.
That dominance and taking care of business played a huge role in the seeding that led to the franchise's first-ever title.
The team will have plenty of opportunities to take care of business in Jan. 2020.
While it's closer to the two-thirds mark in the year, the All-Star Break is often viewed as the midway point in the NBA season.
This season, All-Star Weekend takes place from Feb. 14 to Feb.16 - 55 games into the Raptors' season.
Once the Raptors return from the break, they host the Phoenix Suns in the first of a four-game homestand that also includes Central Division powers Indiana and Milwaukee as well as a meeting with the Charlotte Hornets.
With Phoenix and Charlotte on each end of the homestand, Toronto again has two opportunities to take care of business against teams that didn't make the playoffs last year and aren't projected to make the postseason in 2020. The Pacers and Bucks each provide unique challenges, but going 3-1 or 4-0 during this stretch would be major as the team prepares to head out west.
The Raptors begin the month of March in the Mile High City where they'll face a legitimate contender in the Denver Nuggets to begin their second five-game road trip of the season. From there, Toronto will wrap its season series with Phoenix before the trip ramps up once again in San Francisco.
In a Finals rematch that will look a bit different, the Raptors will face a Warriors team that could very well have Klay Thompson back in the fold as he is expected to be back around that time of the year. Toronto will then travel 90 miles North to take on a Kings team that will likely be vying for a playoff spot with fewer than 20 games remaining in the season.
To close the five gamer, the Raptors head to one of the toughest road environments in the league as they visit the Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Again, breaking .500 should be the goal for Toronto, who will only have 18 games remaining on its schedule upon returning home. Gaining positive momentum ahead of the final stretch of the season is crucial for the Raptors and could be the difference between opening the postseason at Scotiabank Arena and not having home court advantage in the first round for the first time since 2008.
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