As we enter the final stretch of the NBA season, it’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders. While Golden State seems to have a stranglehold on the league, teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Cleveland and even the Clippers are also in contention. But there’s one more team that’s getting lost in the shuffle. Evan Sally and Jim Bearor had an email exchange about the forgotten contender, the Toronto Raptors. How will they fare in the playoffs and how will they fare against Cleveland?
To: Evan Sally
This past weekend had a lot to it in terms of sports, pop culture, and political hype. My social media feeds sucked me in like quicksand, and I had no choice but to click videos and links of Super Tuesday projections, stories about the Oscars, and Steph Curry’s absurd game-winner (the clip doesn’t get old, I’ve probably watched it a cool 1000 times so far).
Lost in the shuffle, at least for me, was the Raptors taking down the Cavs on Friday. I mean I knew about it, but I didn’t really have time to digest it before the Thunder and Warriors slapped me in the face with the best game of the regular season. Toronto’s loss against the Pistons (who also beat the Cavs recently) on Sunday might have scuffed that shine, but I doubt the Raptors would be getting much love from national media anyways. They haven’t all season.
I understand it, and I’m sure you do too. They’ve been perennially disappointing in the playoffs, so to most people who follow basketball, it doesn’t really matter what happens until then. Part of me feels for the north though. They’re in this position where they’ve rebounded very well from last year’s first round loss, and they’ve been been taking care of business up there in Canada, out of the spotlight. They’re doing all the things a team should do to make that next step and become true contenders.
While there is something desirable and noble about plugging along with your head down, waiting for a chance to truly earn recognition, it seems like they’re being slighted more than they should be. This organization has rebranded itself and created genuine excitement among those who follow it. The roster is legit, and they’ve got a real shot to steal the top seed in the east.
Am I being a softy for thinking this team deserves some praise? Is there anything that can change the public’s perception of them outside of a playoff win?
– Jim Bearor
Interesting you mention how the Raps win over the Cavs got lost in the shuffle over the weekend. As a Cavs fan, it was a game I was looking forward to, an important game to help lock down Cavalier supremacy in the East. Not only would a win have given the Cavs a 4.5 game lead in the conference, but it would serve to demoralize the Raptors and their fans. The Raptors are well on pace to have their best season ever as a franchise, but a not so subtle reminder that winning and beating LeBron are separate things.
As we now know the Raptors came back from a 9 point deficit in the 4th to beat Cleveland, and while regular season results don’t necessarily correspond postseason success in a given matchup, a win like Friday’s gives them more confidence if they end up in the conference finals with Cleveland. From my perspective, and I’ll be honest, there are so few regular season games you truly care about when you’re rooting for a LeBron-led team. Games against the best out West will always get my attention as a measuring stick for the Finals, but it’s those games against fellow Eastern contenders that I always really want. I want to bury them. And I believe the Cavs felt similarly, given that LeBron played 40 mins for only the second time this year in a non-OT game. And yet the Cavs still weren’t able to close them out. I think that’s telling.
Why all this Cleveland talk in a Raptors article you ask? Well that’s because in the Eastern Conference for the past 5 years LeBron has been the measuring stick, so to win in the fashion they did is big for Toronto. But it’s not just about one game. For a franchise that’s sent it’s fans home to a Marvin’s Room of emotions the past two seasons and has famously only won 1 series in it’s entire history, the only way for them to be nationally respected before the playoffs will be to steal the 1 seed from Cleveland and have home court advantage for it’s crazed fans throughout the playoffs. They only sit 2 games back at the moment, so it’s very doable. But even if they do that, there will always be questions until they win a series or two.
Considering how rocky the first round has been for Toronto, is there any team in particular they may want to avoid? And do you have any concern that if things start to go wrong in a series that they may lose confidence and start to think, “Here we go again?”
As far as the matchups go, I think the Raptors have the capacity to beat any of the potential playoff teams below them. There are certain teams that may be able to throw Toronto off their game, but I think the Raptors measure up very well against the lower seeds. If they’re going to be challenged in the first round, a big part of it has to be attributed to the playoff monkey that’s been on their back so long that it’s surprising Drake hasn’t shouted him out yet.
Really though, teams like the Pistons, Hawks, and Wizards shouldn’t beat the Raptors this year, especially if DeMarre Carroll is back and able to play at a high level. Toronto’s defense is solid, their shooting is great, and both of these areas should improve with him back in the lineup. At least that’s how it looks on paper. I don’t need to be convinced that this team is good, I think they’re capable of upsetting the Cavs if absolutely everything goes right.
That “if” right there is about as big as The Wall that used to keep the Wildlings out of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s something I can’t get over, and I guess that’s why thinking about the Raptors makes me a little bit restless. We have a month and a half until the playoffs start. It’s close enough to make out a rough outline, but 10-12 games and 45 days separate us from the games that really matter for Toronto. It’s naive to think nothing will change until then, but if there is going to be some shift in the dynamic of the Eastern Conference (and surely there will be), I don’t feel any more confident guessing what it’s going to be.
As we both know, bumps and bruises will continue to pile up as as the long season winds down and the games become more important. Some teams will make runs, and some will wear down more than others. I have no idea how the Raptors will look in this final stretch or in the playoffs, but only judging by the way they’ve looked this season, they look like a dangerous playoff team worthy of the second seed in the East. It doesn’t work like that, though. It might seem so far gone, but the past provides a ton of context, especially for this organization. The north remembers, remember?
I commend this team for responding the way they have to last season. I expect them finish strong and enter the playoffs as a team to be feared. I also expect that once the first round games are set, and talking heads start breaking down Raptors-Pistons or whoever they draw, that unease will make a resurgence. I can’t pass judgement on this team until I see how they respond to the adversity that they’re bound to experience by the end of the first round.
Until then I’ll just watch them and try not to discount what they’re doing because of their past. I’m gonna hope things keep going their way, and I want Carroll to come back with a bang. I’m gonna keep worrying about their psyche until the first round is over.
And that’s what Ima do ’til it’s over,
’til it’s over,
but it’s far from over.
While it’s certainly far from over, you really have to admire what this team has accomplished so far. This is a franchise that not only has won just a single series in its history, but they haven’t even won 50 games in a season before. Now here they sit projected to win 55 games and with an offense and defense that ranks 5th and 11th respectively, per offensive and defensive rating. Considering no team has won the Finals without having a top 12 offense and defense, their current standing places them in a prime position. Raptors fans have every reason to be excited.
But it’s not just about the statistics, this team is flat out fun to watch, and their two stars lead the way. Kyle Lowry, who broke out two seasons ago, has only gotten better since showing this season in the best shape of his life. His minutes are up, his shooting percentages are up across the board and more importantly he’s taking 7 3s a game now and making 39% of them. His increased aggression has opened up space for everyone else on the offensive end of the floor.
And then you look at the intangibles. Lowry is just a great leader man. He always seems to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments, and he always seems to have the most energy of anyone on the floor at the end of games, once again a testament to the shape he’s put himself in. For a franchise that was betrayed by one star (Vince Carter) and abandoned by another (Chris Bosh), Lowry, a player who didn’t come into his own until 7 years into his career, is the perfect match of fan base and star. Lowry appreciates Toronto for believing in him as much as Toronto appreciates what he does for them on the floor and it’s beautiful to watch.
DeMar DeRozan deserves a ton of credit for becoming a star in his own right. With a game out of the 90s (taking less than 2 3s per game), there was always a fear about his level of effectiveness in the modern 3 point happy NBA, but he’s continued chugging along, getting to the rim more often than almost anyone else in the league. He keeps defenses honest by not letting them from focus too much on Lowry.
But when it comes to playoffs, I’ve been concerned about if DeRozan’s style translates to the playoffs and I’m not the only one. Typically in the playoffs when opposing coaches have more time to prepare for you, those driving lanes to the rim dry up, and when you put that in combination with refs calling less fouls than usual, the recipe is there for DeRozan to get frustrated and turn into a mediocre mid-range jump shooter, something that has happened in the past 2 Raptor first round exits. Despite all the improvements Toronto has made, despite Luis Scola extending his range to shoot 3s now, despite the excellent defense Bismack Biyombo has provided, how DeRozan’s offense translates to the postseason is the biggest factor to Toronto finally getting over the hump and making a deep run. If DeRozan continues to be aggressive or allows himself to be a playmaker in lieu of just settling for jumpers, the Raptors can be the Gods of the 6 (Kings of Toronto for all you lame people out there). But if he falls back into those old habits and forces Lowry to carry the offensive burden on his own, the Raps may find themselves in familiar territory: out in the first round in back to back (to back) seasons. Especially with old nemesis Washington lurking at the bottom of the East playoff picture.
But for right now, our friends up North should be excited. I think Toronto may have built something special and they should enjoy every minute of it. The path to the conference finals should be relatively clear, and then they’ll get their crack at LeBron, a series that promises to be entertaining as hell.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)
– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)