The month of January is the most important of the Toronto Raptors 2019-20 season.
Entering the month, the Raptors' record (23-11) and seed (4th) reflected a keen ability to take care of business against lesser opponents. It's what good teams do.
And these are the defending champs we're talking about.
So far, Toronto is a perfect 17-0 against teams with records below .500 and now, the team can improve upon that mark to remain atop the Eastern Conference.
Reason being? In the month of January, 11 of the Raptors 15 games are against teams with records below .500. As pointed out by John Schuhmann in his NBA schedule analysis for the month of January, the .406 cumulative winning percentage of Toronto's opponents entering January is the lowest among all 30 teams.
By this metric, Toronto has the easiest schedule in the NBA in the month of January.
|Jan. 2||at Heat||.727|
|Jan. 4||at Nets||.500|
|Jan. 7||vs. Trail Blazers||.412|
|Jan. 8||at Hornets||.361|
|Jan. 12||vs. Spurs||.438|
|Jan. 15||at Thunder||.545|
|Jan. 17||vs. Wizards||.313|
|Jan. 18||at Timberwolves||.375|
|Jan. 20||at Hawks||.206|
|Jan. 22||vs. 76ers||.639|
|Jan. 24||at Knicks||.273|
|Jan. 26||at Spurs||.438|
|Jan. 28||vs. Hawks||.206|
|Jan. 30||at Cavaliers||.303|
|Jan. 31||at Pistons||.353|
*Win percentage entering January
While the month might not break the Raptors, success in January could be a difference-maker for the Raptors season. Here's more on why…
It's no secret that the biggest key to the Raptors' success in the new year is the health of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell, a trio that has not seen action since Dec. 18 and is still 'a ways away' from returning to action, per head coach Nick Nurse.
Down three key contributors, they're not exactly the same team.
Thanks to a relatively light schedule this month, there is far less pressure to rush any of the aforementioned three back into action, as Toronto has found ways to win without them.
In December, the Raptors earned victories over the Wizards, Mavericks, Celtics and Cavaliers in their absence while pushing the Pacers to overtime and having multiple chances to beat the Thunder down the stretch in what was ultimately a one-point loss.
As a team that has proven itself to be capable of beating who it's supposed to beat, January should spell opportunity, not doom.
Even so, if the team is fortunate enough to welcome back any or all of Gasol, Powell and Siakam to the lineup this month, there is a good chance that their load in their return games won't be as heavy should there be a lesser opponent in front of them.
In many ways, it's a potential win-win for the Raptors, who can stay afloat in their absence and ease them in as they return.
Ahead of their first game in the new year, the Raptors hold the East's fourth seed but just 2.5 games separate second and sixth place in the East.
There's a big difference between finishing second and sixth.
To be fair, the season doesn't end in January and there's plenty of basketball to be played but in a year that a logjam in the Eastern standings appears to be inevitable, Toronto can ill-afford to backslide in a month with plenty of opportunities to take advantage.
Last season the Raptors rode a league-best 36-4 record against teams below .500 to a 58-24 overall record and the second seed in the East. With three-and-a-half more months ahead, games in January might not seem as pressing in the moment but in the grand scheme, they can be just as important as games down the season's stretch run.
A successful month of January could either keep the Raptors right where they are among the crowd of teams seeded second through sixth or could result in their separating themselves from one or more.
Keep in mind that Toronto will play the teams in this group a combined eight more times this season, with two games coming in the month of January:
- Celtics - Mar. 20
- Heat - Jan. 2, Apr. 14
- Pacers - Feb. 5, Feb. 7, Feb. 23
- 76ers - Jan. 22, Mar. 18
Here's how their paths compare this month:
|Team||No. of Games||OppPCT||Lg. Rank|
The month of February is major in the NBA, as it holds the trade deadline (Feb. 6) as well as the (unofficial) midway point of the season in All-Star Weekend (Feb. 14-16).
For the Raptors, February means the team will see some of its most important tests.
Toronto only plays 10 times next month, but three (!) games come against Indiana, two are against Brooklyn and Milwaukee visits Scotiabank Arena for the first time since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Feb. 25.
The outlook of next month's schedule makes January that much more important.
It's an unfair expectation for the Raptors to win every single game against teams below .500, but a continuation of that trend in any form would give the team big momentum as it heads into a pivotal stretch.
After hosting the 76ers on Jan. 22, the Raptors close Jan. with games against the Knicks, Spurs, Hawks, Cavaliers and Pistons and open Feb. at home against the Bulls before their home-and-home with the Pacers.
Can they get a win streak going ahead of two key meetings with Indiana?
As mentioned above, the Pacers and Raptors will likely be close in the Eastern Conference standings for the remainder of the season. Toronto dropped its first meeting with Indiana this season, adding extra importance to this home-and-home.
A strong emergence from January could give Toronto the momentum it needs to pick up key wins.
Will they put themselves in a position to make a key trade?
Game 49 of the Raptors season is Jan. 30 and they will play their 50th game of the season four days before the trade deadline. Last year, we saw how a deadline deal could move the needle for a team, allowing them to reach their ceiling.
How important is the 50 game mark? Here's how the Raptors have looked in recent years:
|Season||Through 50 Games||End of Season||Seed|
This season, January will provide a good look of where this team is, and if they should make a deadline move to try and heighten that ceiling.
While it's the league's easiest strength of schedule, there are a few things adding to the difficulty of the month of January for Toronto, including:
- 10 of the team's 15 games are on the road
- Three are back-to-backs (Jan. 7-8, Jan. 17-18, Jan. 30-31)
- Two games are at a rest disadvantage
All in all, the Raptors will still have to work for it, and they'll do it largely on the road. While 10 of the 15 games in the month are on the road, there aren't any long road trips. Toronto will make four two-game trips and two one-game trips to Charlotte and Oklahoma City.
The rest disadvantage comes on the second ends of their back-to-backs in Charlotte (Jan. 8) and Detroit (Jan. 31), meaning both the Hornets and Pistons will have one day of rest while the Raptors will be playing their second game in two nights.
The opportunities are there, but this Raptors team will have to earn it.
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