Toronto have been consistently near the top of the Eastern Conference since 2014 when they have finished third, then fourth, second, third again and now first place(!) in consecutive seasons. In 2016 questions were asked if, as a two seed they weren’t a legit finals calibre team. Built around Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, with complementary pieces such as DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas this team had one of the better defenses in the NBA and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. But they didn’t have all the parts needed and soon got knocked out by the eventual champions, King James and his Cavaliers.
This season however, it all seems a bit different. Despite their success, over the last couple of years the Six has become sort of a running joke because they can’t seem to win game 1 (2014 versus Brooklyn, 2015 versus Washington, 2016 versus Indiana and Miami, 2017 versus to Milwaukee). This season, they have beaten numerous playoff teams and good teams including; Houston, Cleveland, Portland, Utah, Philadelphia and the team they are matching up against in the first round, the Milwaukee Bucks.
This squad is solid all around, they lead the East in points per game and they are third in opponents points per game, holding teams to 103.7 while putting up 111.7 gives them a solid points differential. They played in what is actually one of the strongest divisions in the NBA, no matter how weak the East always seems, their division includes Boston and Philadelphia (the number two and three seeds in the Eastern Conference) and you could argue that their division is the strongest in the entire NBA alongside the Southwest which features Houston, San Antonio and the Pelicans.
Who defends LeBron James? With injuries to Boston and the fact that no-one can ever write off the King, a match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round is a real possibility. Toronto do not have the manpower to defend LeBron (granted no team matches up well against him), but Philadelphia can slow him down. Toronto on the other hand do not have the size to stop him. They have good defenders, but Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are both too weak to stop LeBron and Serge Ibaka, who matches up best strength wise, is too slow. That then leaves another issue, if you put Ibaka on LeBron who defends Kevin Love? Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl aren’t good enough perimeter defenders when K-Love starts hitting 3’s and, if they do go out to contest the shot, who then defends the paint? If they can figure out a defense which can slow down James, and Dwane Casey is a good coach so I am sure he can think of something, that will be key to a run to the Finals for the NBA’s Canadian representative.
In 2016 DeMar committed long-term to the Raptors and, despite performing well in the regular season, they just haven’t done much in the playoffs. 2014 – First round loss. 2015 – First round loss (swept 4-0). 2016 – Conference Finals loss. 2017 – Second round loss (swept 4-0). The front office isn’t going to be happy with just winning the regular season, LeBron has shown that in reality the regular season just isn’t that important and playoffs is where it all counts. Getting home court advantage is one thing, but if they blow game 1 (again), straight away they lose that advantage.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER?
Kyle Lowry is the most important player. Last year in that first round, game 1 loss against the Bucks, Kyle shot 2/11 from the field. The year before, in their game 1 loss against the Pacers, he shot 3/13. The strange thing is, it goes deeper, since the 2014 playoffs, in game 1’s in every single round his averages drop to 11.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists. For the Raptors to go anywhere he needs to get up to speed, fast.
THE ONE TO WATCH?
The Raptors are a considerably different team to past seasons, this collaboration of veteran role players, with some youth and energy in addition to the All-NBA levels presences of DeRozan and Lowry has turned this franchise into a real team to be feared deep into the postseason. If I had to pick one player, I would say Serge Ibaka, especially if this squad and Cleveland match-up because his potential defense on the King is vital to slowing the Cavs down and progressing to the first ever Finals appearance in franchise history.
Written by Sam Chadwick – Copyright © 2018 Double Clutch. Double Clutch is not affiliated with the NBA and does not claim ownership over any NBA audio or images used. All rights are those of the NBA/NBA UK and respected parties e.g. Getty images.