By: Rossy Pasternak
The Toronto Raptors are one of the most interesting and mysterious teams in the NBA. Since they traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings on December 8th, 2013, the Raptors have been a near-dominant regular season team in the East. Come playoff time however, they have struggled. First, a 7 game loss to an old, slumping Brooklyn Nets team. Then, an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Wizards, who returned much of the same team and are struggling to even make the playoffs. This season brings a new optimism in Toronto, and not only because Paul Pierce is in the Western Conference. Kyle Lowry is in the best shape in his life, and has been playing like a real superstar. Ditto for DeMar DeRozan. The supporting cast has been playing at a high level. The question is, then, do they have what it takes when the pressure is on?
First, lets talk about Lowry and DeRozan, unarguably the best backcourt in the East, and probably a top-3 backcourt in the league. Lowry is averaging a career-high in points, rebounds, and steals, as well as FG% and 3PT%. He is running the offence for the team, as most sequences begin with a pick and roll with Lowry as the ballhandler. When the ball isn’t in Kyle’s hand, he is much like Steph Curry, cutting every which way to get open for either a layup or an open 3-pointer. DeRozan is also averaging career highs, in both points and assists, as well as 3PT%. The issue with this is that both Kyle and DeMar were playing great basketball during the regular season last year, but it didn’t translate to playoff basketball, where defences key in on star players more than ever. Already, you see teams trapping DeRozan and making him pass the ball. Lowry is a shiftier player and a better passer, so teams like to force him to take difficult mid-range shots. This is likely the strategy that teams will deploy against the Raptors in the playoffs. If teams can force the Raptors other players to make plays for themselves, they will have a chance.
Now on to the supporting cast. Absent this season is Demarre Carroll. A career 37% 3-point shooter, Carroll is the definition of a 3-and-D guy. The problem for Carroll this season is that he has barely played, and it is not yet known how he fits with this current Raptors group. The depth on the wing will be a breath of fresh air for the team, but if it disrupts the rotations, it could be a problem. Speaking of rotations, the Raptors possess one of the best 5-man lineups in the NBA. The lineup of Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Biyombo have been one of, if not the best lineups in the NBA. Joseph is crucial to this, as he eases the amount of pressure on Lowry’s shoulders to run the offence. Ross and Patterson supply ample spacing to negate how bad Biyombo is offensively as well. Speaking of Biyombo, I really think he is the biggest difference between the current version of the Raptors and the ones who have failed to make it past the first round. For the first time, the Raptors have an elite rim protector who can make a huge play on defence and change the momentum of a game. He also is a very intense defensive leader, and runs the defence from the centre position. Biyombo is averaging nearly 2 blocks with 8.3 rebounds per game, in just 22.8 minutes. The intensity and defensive ferociousness he brings to the team causes all of the players to lock down defensively.
So, with this newly improved supporting cast, as well as the now skinny Kyle Lowry, can these Raptors make it past the first round? Can we even start to call them title contenders? Personally, I think we can. I have taken some heat for having the Raptors out of the playoffs in my preseason rankings, and rightfully so. The Raptors have vastly surpassed my expectations, and many other people’s as well. However, I still do think that this is a team with a coach who is not very good with his rotations, as well as a team that is susceptible to being stopped on offence in a playoff series against an elite defensive team. Having said all that, I do think the Raptors make it out of the first round, and I even think that they could make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. With how good they have been at home, I even think that they will have a chance to upset Cleveland if they end up coming first in the Eastern Conference. As long as Dwayne Casey plays the right lineups, and integrates Carroll properly, this team is a force to be reckoned with – at least in the East. To be completely honest, I don’t see any Eastern Conference team even putting up a solid fight against the Warriors or Spurs, one of who will undoubtably come out of the mighty Western Conference.
All stats taken from http://www.basketball-reference.com.
Do you agree with my opinion? Disagree? Have something to add? Comment below and let us know what you think!