Toronto Raptors: Previewing the 5 biggest games of the New Year

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

At the conclusion of December, the Toronto Raptors once again stand atop the NBA with the league’s best win total. Five key matchups in January will determine if their high-flying ways continue.

Taking a look back, last season, the Toronto Raptors went 10-5 in the month of January, securing a 7-2 mark against Eastern Conference teams, a key to their first seed in the playoffs.

Coincidentally, the month of January was also the highest scoring for the teams’ leading scorer DeMar DeRozan (25.3). The two-guard was relied upon further with the loss of Kyle Lowry in three separate games. Jumping back to the present day, DeRozan is gone via an offseason trade for Kawhi Leonard and Lowry is once again hurt entering the month of January, with a thigh and back ailment to blame.

Now carrying the team is the aforementioned Leonard.

On the year, the wing has averaged a career-high average in both points (26.7) and rebounds (8.3). Alongside the scoring, Leonard is also averaging a career high in free throw attempts (7.3).

The problem for Leonard this year, a newfound problem, has been his defensive performance.

On the defensive end, Leonard has a career-worst 105 rating and 2.3 combined steals and blocks per game, down from his career average of 2.5 and a far cry from his best season with 3.1 in 2014.

Despite his personal struggles, the team has a ninth-best mark in defensive rating this year (106.4) and has allowed opponents to shoot 45 percent this year, the eighth-best mark in the league. With Leonard’s defense likely to improve, the team is shaping up to make a deep playoff run with the 2014 Finals MVP at the helm.

In order to host each of their opponents in the playoffs, the Raptors will have to garner similar success to last year’s January, with the five opponents ahead serving as critical contests.