Five games into the 2020-21 NBA season the Toronto Raptors find themselves in a position that is largely unfamiliar, at least in recent years.
In the midst of a stretch that has included seven-straight postseason appearances and an NBA title, Toronto opened the season with three straight losses for the first time since 2005 and is 1-4 for the first time since the 2012-13 season - the last year the team failed to qualify for the NBA Playoffs.
Things won't be getting easier anytime soon, either.
After losing to New Orleans Pelicans (twice), the Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs, the Raptors are set to embark upon an extremely tough stretch of games in the month of January.
While it's hard to say that anything this early in the season is "make-or-break," solid play over the next week could quickly turn things around for Toronto or, at the very least, keep the season from going from bad to worse.
A quick look at the schedule ahead shows they've got their work cut out for them.
|6||Monday, Jan. 4||7:30 p.m.||Boston Celtics||Sportsnet|
|7||Wednesday, Jan. 6||9 p.m.||@||Phoenix Suns||Sportsnet|
|8||Friday, Jan. 8||10 p.m.||@||Sacramento Kings||TSN|
|9||Sunday, Jan. 10||8:30 p.m.||@||Golden State Warriors||Sportsnet|
|10||Monday, Jan. 11||10 p.m.||@||Portland Trail Blazers||Sportsnet|
Things begin as the Raptors return to Tampa for a playoff rematch with the Boston Celtics. Like most teams this season, Boston has had a few ups and downs early on but at its best, has looked like an East contender, even without All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who is out while rehabbing a knee injury.
Of course, it all begins with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown but, as we've learned, Marcus Smart seems to take things up to another notch when facing the Raptors in Central Florida. The Celtics proved to be an extremely tough matchup for the Raptors last season; including the seven-game playoff series, Toronto went 4-7 against Boston, losing by 16 or more points four times.
Last year's East Semis were especially forgettable for Pascal Siakam, who shot just 38.2% from the field and 12.5% from beyond the arc. As his struggles have continued into the 2020-21 season, he'll look to figure things out against a team that knows how to make things difficult for him.
It'll be a defensive test for OG Anunoby, too, as he will be one of the defenders tasked with making things difficult for Tatum. Historically, Kyle Lowry has also been charged with that task as well and, as we've seen in the past, Nick Nurse isn't afraid of sending multiple looks at stars.
From there, Toronto heads West, where the team has had success in years past but a few new challenges lie ahead.
Last season, the Raptors were 10-3 on the road against Western Conference opponents including two separate long trips that saw the team go 4-2 in November and 4-1 in March. This year's trip begins in the Valley of the Sun, where Lowry and Fred VanVleet will go toe-to-toe with the Phoenix Suns' All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
In facing his former team, Aron Baynes will look to employ some of his knowledge from facing Deandre Ayton in practice when he's matched up with the big fella.
MORE: How the Suns weaponize Ayton, Booker and Paul at the same time
Just as Toronto is off to one of its worst starts in recent memory, Phoenix is off to its best start in years and should continue to get better over time as its players continue to become acclimated with one another.
The Raptors are next slated to face a much-improved Sacramento Kings team that is enjoying the play of a healthy De'Aaron Fox as well as the early favourite to be considered the steal of the 2020 NBA Draft in rookie guard Tyrese Haliburton.
Sacramento is an interesting team that is excellent on the offensive boards and provides challenges with the above guards as well as Buddy Hield, who continues to be one of the league's best 3-point shooters.
The trip stays in California as Toronto heads to The Bay to take on a Golden State Warriors team that is also working to figure things out. Stephen Curry is back in action, as is Draymond Green, but things haven't exactly been ideal for the Warriors to open the season.
Trips to take on the Warriors aren't what they once were, either. Including the 2019 NBA Finals, the Raptors have won five straight in The Bay, including an eight-point win over the Warriors in March 2020, one of just five games played by Curry in the 2019-20 season.
In that one, Norman Powell played excellent basketball on both ends of the floor, which would be a welcome sight for Toronto this year as he hasn't quite been himself early on in the season, either.
As it stands, the meeting with Golden State might be the least intimidating game of Toronto's trip given the other challenges it will face.
The final challenge is yet another prolific backcourt as the Raptors will be on the second end of a back-to-back when it faces Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. The Blazers were a tough team last year and used the 2020 offseason to get even better.
The Raptors split two games with the Blazers last year when Jusuf Nurkic was unable to play. This is a deep Portland team that will put the pressure on Toronto's second unit to contribute. Powell will need to find his groove and Chris Boucher will look to continue his standout play from the start of the season.
As the Raptors' non-Lowry minutes have been troubling this season, the upcoming stretch could be when we see rookie Malachi Flynn get some meaningful time in Toronto's rotation. Stanley Johnson has given the team good minutes as Nurse continues to tinker with things to figure out what works best for this team.
A number of questions surround the Raptors after a concerning start but it's still early.
While the team isn't making excuses, there are a few valid explanations for why the start to the season has been so disappointing - training camp was shorter than usual, as was the preseason, there are a number of new players and all of the players are still getting acclimated to life in a temporary home.
As the team searches for the answers to its problems, it could use this upcoming stretch as a challenge to find them.
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