We learned a few things about the Toronto Raptors in the first six weeks of the 2019-20 NBA season:
- Pascal Siakam is a legitimate star and deserves consideration for both MVP and Most Improved Player…again.
- Fred VanVleet embodies his "Steady" nickname each time he steps on the floor
- It's really, really hard for opposing teams to leave Scotiabank Arena with a win
- Whatever "Championship DNA" is, this team is made of it, finding ways to win despite all types of adversity
And while we've acquired that knowledge early on, over three-fourths of the season remains to be played.
After opening December with a large statement win over Utah, the Raptors look to take their impressive play into the new year to further legitimize the prospect of their title defence.
With that in mind, here are some storylines to keep an eye on over the next month…
A difficult schedule lies ahead
Regardless of what was expected of this Raptors team prior to the season, they have again established their legitimacy as contenders by the way they've started the season.
They are the defending champs, after all.
POWER RANKINGS: Where did the Raptors land?
Still, for those that remain skeptical, Toronto has a number of opportunities to prove itself throughout the month of December as nine of the 16 games come against teams that qualified for the postseason in 2019.
- Dec. 1 vs. Utah
- Dec. 5 vs. Houston
- Dec. 8 at Philadelphia
- Dec. 11 vs. LA Clippers
- Dec. 14 vs. Brooklyn
- Dec. 18 at Detroit
- Dec. 23 at Indiana
- Dec. 25 vs. Boston
- Dec. 28 at Boston
- Dec. 29 vs. Oklahoma City
The month of December also sees the Raptors host two teams in the Heat (Dec. 3) and Mavericks (Dec. 22) that look like playoff contenders after failing to qualify last year.
The Raps have reminded us time and time again that they're made up of a champion's DNA. The month of December provides them with the opportunity to make a number of statements with their performances against top teams.
Kyle Lowry returns to action
One of the more remarkable aspects of Toronto having a hot start to the 2019-20 season is the fact that it's done so despite being bitten hard by the injury bug.
The Raptors opened the month of December by welcoming big man Serge Ibaka back into the rotation while All-Star Kyle Lowry remained sidelined with a thumb injury he sustained on the same night that his teammate went down.
Given the fact that the two were on a similar recovery timeline, Lowry's return to action is imminent.
It should go without saying that a team getting its lead guard back adds another dynamic but that would be an understatement to what Lowry's return means to this Raptors team.
MORE: After hot start, Lowry says he can 'be a lot better'
Prior to his injury, the 33-year-old was on a tear of historic proportions, posting averages of 24.0 points (on .481/.429/.881 shooting splits), 6.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds through the team's first seven games.
It's a smaller sample size but Lowry's 42.9% shooting from deep is the best in the league among players that average eight or more attempts and his 8.5 transition points per game are good for second in the league behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Not only are these things good, but they're also sustainable.
Take into account that the Raptors lead the league in 3-point percentage (40.2%) and are second in transition points per game (27.3), Lowry allows this team to do an even better job at what it does best.
Home, sweet home
In the 2017-18 season, the Raptors were 34-7 at home.
In the 2018-19 season, the team posted a 32-9 home record.
This season, Toronto has opened the season with nine straight victories at home, a franchise record.
While the Raptors' December schedule consists of a number of tests, working in their favour is the fact that they'll be playing 11 of their 16 games in the month at home.
With Scotiabank Arena providing one of the best home-court advantages in the league, Toronto can continue to assert its dominance over visiting teams in order to remain amongst the top half of the Eastern Conference.
Kawhi's return to Toronto
Kawhi Leonard is a Canadian hero.
In under 365 days, he embraced the nation while leading its team to the first title in franchise history. Less than one month after hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, he decided to go home, signing with the LA Clippers as a free agent.
MORE: Relive Kawhi's best moments as a Raptor
In December, he makes his return.
Kawhi, Paul George and the Clippers are set to make their lone visit to Scotiabank Arena on Dec. 11 in what is sure to be an emotional return for the 2019 Finals MVP.
On a night in which Leonard will receive his championship ring along with the adulation of the Toronto crowd, the ring ceremony only serves as the backdrop of what should be a great game between two of the league's top teams.
Toronto will look to avenge a close loss from earlier in the season in which it was without Ibaka, Lowry and OG Anunoby.
Luka makes his lone visit
Luka Doncic has established himself as the league's brightest young superstar.
The 20-year-old's play this season has garnered MVP buzz early on, and rightly so. So far, Doncic has:
- Averaged a 30-point triple-double in the month of November
- Propelled Dallas to its best start in five years
- Led the team to early-season wins over the Nuggets, Raptors, Rockets and Lakers.
MORE: Is Luka Doncic the best 20-year-old…ever?
Luka makes his lone visit to Toronto on Dec. 22, as the Raptors have an opportunity to avenge another loss that they suffered while shorthanded on Nov. 16. In that one, Doncic finished with 26 points (on 5-for-14 shooting), 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Mavericks to an eight-point victory.
Dallas got the win, but Doncic's uncharacteristic shooting numbers were a testament to the Raptors' consistent defence on stars this season.
This meeting will be a good measure of the Raptors' ability to keep Luka in check and yet another opportunity for the 2019 Rookie of the Year to show just what he's made of.
Christmas Day at SBA
Winning an NBA title comes with its perks.
For this year's Raptors team, it means tipping off one of the biggest days of the NBA season as they'll host a game on Christmas Day for the first time in franchise history.
In fact, it's just the second Christmas Day game the team has played in, as it lost to the New York Knicks in 2001.
MORE: What happened the first time the Raptors played on Christmas?
The Raptors are the first to play during the league's five-game showcase as they host Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics. It's the first of a home-and-home between the divisional rivals as the Raptors travel to TD Garden for a rematch on Dec. 28.
As Toronto and Boston have established themselves as the class of the Atlantic Division this season, these games hold increased importance as they could have an impact on playoff seeding down the line this season.
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Toronto enters December with a league-record 33-game home win streak over divisional foes. The Raptors will put this on the line Dec. 14 when they host the Brooklyn Nets.
The Canadian presence in the NBA is real; look no further than the Raptors December schedule as proof.
At least one Canadian is set to suit up for the opposing team in six of Raptors 11 games at Scotiabank Arena in December.
- Dec. 5 - Kelly Olynyk, Heat
- Dec. 11 - Mfiondu Kabengele, Clippers
- Dec. 16 & 31 - Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers
- Dec. 22 - Dwight Powell, Mavericks
- Dec. 29 - Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort, Thunder
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