Because if you haven't already, you really should jump on that bandwagon now.
Wait, the Raptors? Aren’t they sort of traditionally bad? Didn’t you, in Heroes and Villains 2013, say that the Raptors were playing badly?
Well, yes—they were bad. Indeed, in their first 18 games this season, they won six and lost 12. However, since then, the Raptors have won the Atlantic Division and ended up third overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 48-32, which is, not coincidentally, the best record the Toronto Raptors have had ever.
In two words: Masai Ujiri. The Raptors’ new GM, who won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award last year as GM for the Denver Nuggets before the Raps made him a very rich offer that he then accepted, pulled the trigger on a trade that sent arguably our biggest-name player, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings. Around the league, everybody assumed this meant that Toronto was intentionally tanking the season to get a high draft pick in this year’s NBA draft—and get a shot at Andrew Wiggins, the Brampton-born phenomenon widely expected to be a top pick this year.
In fact, right after the Rudy Gay trade, very reliable reports emerged that “the Masaiah” had put point guard Kyle Lowry up for trade and was in talks with the New York Knicks; the problem was that Masai wanted a very high price for Lowry, which nobody was willing to pay. So Lowry remained with the team—and the team started winning games at a rapid pace, which meant that Masai’s price for Lowry got only higher. And ultimately, we didn’t trade Lowry at all.
So why do I need to get on this bandwagon? I mean, I understand that the Raptors are winning, but are they good? I keep hearing that the Eastern Conference is terrible.
Granted, the Eastern Conference was terrible this year. However, the Raptors—or, at least, the post–Rudy Gay Raptors—are not terrible at all. Since the Raps traded Rudy, we’ve become a top-10 team in the entire league in both offensive and defensive efficiency; this is not something you achieve by being a bad team. More importantly, we have a winning record against the Western Conference (where most of the best teams play) this year, and most of our losses against the top-tier teams have been extremely competitive ones—such as our heartbreaking loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday, when it took Kevin Durant, the best player in the NBA, scoring 51 freaking points and going to double overtime to beat the Raptors by one point. We’re also a +.500 road team to boot.
…does that mean we can win the championship?
Can win: yes. Will win: probably not.
Here’s the thing: in the NBA, the best team usually wins—particularly in the playoffs, when star players like your LeBron Jameses and your Kevin Durants play upwards of 85 per cent of the minutes in every game (that simply doesn’t happen in any other sport). The Raptors are a strong young team with a lot of talent, but there are a lot of good teams playing at our level or better. Two of the best teams in the league play in the Eastern Conference: the Miami Heat (featuring LeBron James and former Raptor Chris Bosh) and the Indiana Pacers (the best defence in the entire NBA, and it isn’t even close). In order for the Raptors to make the NBA finals, we would almost certainly have to beat both of them. And then we’d have to beat the best team from the Western Conference—and whether that’s the Thunder, the L.A. Clippers, the Houston Rockets, or the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs, that would be an uphill battle for the Raps.
But we’ve got a shot. The Heat have been coasting all season, the Pacers have had a terrible second half as their offence has collapsed, and John Hollinger’s playoff predictions on ESPN currently have us with a 17-per-cent chance of making the finals (a respectable third place in the East) and a 3-per-cent chance of winning the title. That’s not bad for a team making its first playoff appearance since 2008.
Okay. I’m tentatively in. Tell me about this team.
It’s a good team with a lot of talent and depth. More importantly, it’s a young team as playoff teams go (traditionally, NBA playoff contenders tend to be loaded with veterans who know how to work refs during the playoffs and who get less rattled by stress), so this shouldn’t be a flash-in-the-pan team; this is the future of Toronto basketball, and it’s looking very good.
Up until about March, the Raptors were playing grind-it-out basketball; rather than being a fast-paced, high-scoring team, they played a defence-minded game, taking their time on their own possessions, and getting as many stops as possible. In the last two months of the season, when injuries made their defensive game less of a lockdown, they went ahead and turned into a remarkably well-honed offensive team that played middling defence. The talent on both ends is there; the trick, in the playoffs, will be getting that talent to show up at both ends.
They’re also a remarkably unselfish team and take pride in “going 15 deep” (in that they say they can put anybody on the floor, and they won’t suck. This is maybe a bit debatable, but it’s their brag). They’re also the best fourth-quarter team in the NBA (and it’s not even close—their fourth-quarter point differential is the best in the league, and more than double that of the second-place L.A. Clippers). And they hustle like all get-out.
Of course, being a young team has its drawbacks. The Raptors may be the best fourth-quarter team in the league, but that’s in part because they tend to get sloppy in the middle of the game—a very typical Raptors game is “jump out to early lead in the first quarter, watch that lead erode/disappear in the second and third quarters, and storm back in the fourth quarter.” The Raptors also aren’t the most efficient of teams (bottom half of the league in field goal percentage), don’t get a lot of steals (bottom third of the NBA), and foul a lot (second-highest in fouls per game in the NBA)—all things that testify to their overall low level of experience.
Who do I need to know on this team?
The three most important members of the team are Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan (who plays shooting guard or small forward, depending on matchup), and Amir Johnson (power forward, plays some centre occasionally when the team goes “small-ball”—i.e., smaller and faster).
Kyle’s the brains of the team: a recent AMA on Reddit by Raps guard Terrence Ross revealed that Kyle isn’t just the offensive mind behind the team (as point guard, he calls a lot of the Raptors’ offensive plays)—he also has a knack for recognizing the other team’s offensive plan when they’re coming down the court towards the Raptors’ bucket and warns his teammates accordingly. Lowry’s an undersized (six feet tall, small for the NBA) pit bull of a guard who plays like someone six inches taller; he’s particularly skilled at forcing opposing teams to commit offensive fouls. He also broke Morris Peterson’s team record for successful three-point shots this year, shooting 190 (Mo Pete had 177 in 2006).
DeMar’s the heart of the Raptors: Kyle runs the Raptors, but as the team’s best scorer (averaging 22.7 points per game this season), DeMar is the one who usually puts the team on his back and scores buckets to get the win. DeMar’s always been considered a one-dimensional scorer, but this year he’s dramatically increased his assist rate, and more importantly, he’s playing more aggressively and drawing more fouls (which means he shoots more free throws—he broke Chris Bosh’s team record for most free throws in a season this year). All of this resulted in DeMar’s getting his first appearance in the NBA’s All-Star Game this year. Also, DeMar has the season-defining quote for the Raptors, which came shortly after the Rudy trade when reporters asked him if the team was tanking:
You can sink and drown, or you can stay afloat. And we’re out here like Michael Phelps.
Finally, there’s Amir “Tall Money” Johnson, who’s the soul of the team. He loves Toronto, and isn’t afraid to show it—whether by participating in zombie walks, or going to Nuit Blanche, or buying an entire store’s worth of copies of the new Drake album and giving them out to people on the street. He’s also the lynchpin of Toronto’s defence. His stats aren’t particularly showy or impressive (although this year will see him record the second-most blocks in a season of any Raptor, after Chris Bosh), but if you look at advanced metrics, it quickly becomes clear that Amir’s defence (and efficiency on offence—he broke the Raptors’ team record for field-goal percentage this year) make him invaluable to the Raptors.
Okay: brains, heart, soul—check. But these guys have been on the team since the beginning of the season, right? Why are the Raptors winning now?
Because of the Rudy Gay trade. When the Raptors traded Rudy—a ball-hungry scorer of a player with serious efficiency issues—the team saw two positive results.
First, trading Rudy Gay meant we replaced Rudy, an inefficient scorer, in the lineup with second-year player Terrence Ross. Ross—last year’s Slam Dunk Champion—is a promising young player in multiple aspects: he’s a killer three-point shooter, a tenacious defender, and as you might expect, can throw a mean dunk on occasion. He’s still inconsistent, but for a young player that’s nothing unexpected, and Ross’ superior distance shooting “spaces the floor” (i.e., draws defenders away from the basket because they have to defend against his three-point shot, which opens up opportunities for other players to attack the basket) much more efficiently than Rudy did. (Rudy’s opportunities with the ball have been distributed relatively evenly across the team, but nobody has benefited more than Ross has.) Plus, Ross did tie Vince Carter for the Raptors’ all-time single-game scoring record this season, so there’s that.
Second, we got back multiple useful players from Sacramento in the trade—most critically, point guard Greivis Vasquez and power forward Patrick Patterson. Vasquez is a solid playmaker with a nice layup and a decent three, and Patterson, up until his recent elbow injury, had become the Raptors’ primary scoring option off the bench as a big player who’s capable of both attacking in the paint and scoring from mid-range. Contending teams need guys off the bench who can create instant offence, and Patterson and Vasquez have created depth in the Raps bench in that regard. We also got back two solid defensive veteran players from Sacramento in John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, so essentially Masai traded Rudy Gay for a lot of bench depth.
What about this Jonas kid?
Jonas Valanciunas (“YO-nus val-an-CHEW-nus”) is the Raptors’ starting centre and biggest hope for the future. He’s very promising, but still raw; he still makes defensive slip-ups, relies a little too much on his pump fake on offence, and has a bad habit of getting upset when a referee calls an awful foul on him. But he’s got heart and guts and he hustles, and the talent is clearly there, so the Raptors play him as much as possible because he needs experience desperately and the only way to give it to him is to play him as much as possible. Since the Rudy Gay trade, he’s been getting many more opportunities with the ball and more play time, and he’s generally improved on both ends of the court.
What’s this I hear about “The Raptor”?
The Raptor is our creatively named mascot. He’s widely considered to be one of the best mascots in the league, and he only very recently returned from an Achilles tendon tear at the start of the season. This is good news, because that means he might eat some cheerleaders again, as is his wont—but, more importantly, because serves to remind the rest of the NBA that our team name is about a goddamn dinosaur, and that beats the heck out of “the Pacers” or “the Heat.” You can’t have a single player be “a Heat,” after all.
So … who are we going to face in the first round of the playoffs?
We’re going to be facing the Brooklyn Nets, the team we faced and then lost to the last time we won the Atlantic Division in 2007. The Nets are a veteran team with the most expensive payroll in NBA history (over $102 million, and that’s before you count the enormous amount of luxury tax the Nets will pay to other teams in the league), but they ended up being decimated by injuries—a foot injury to All-Star centre Brook Lopez, for example, knocked him out for the rest of the season.
However, Brooklyn adjusted. They found a small-ball lineup that worked, essentially moving everybody up a position (Kevin Garnett playing centre instead of power forward, Paul Pierce playing power forward instead of small forward, etc.). Their defence went from stodgy to innovative, and they vaulted easily into the playoffs.
In fact, it is widely believed that the only reason we’re playing them in the first round is that the Nets decided to rest all of their stars—and not coincidentally lose a lot of games—so they could both avoid playing the super-physical Chicago Bulls in the first round and get a chance to play the Miami Heat in the second round. See, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are former Boston Celtics, and they absolutely hate the Miami Heat. The Nets, in fact, swept Miami when playing them this year—making them the only Eastern Conference team to do so. They want the Heat.
The problem, for them, is that they have to play the Raptors first. Our young players have largely adopted a “we’re the future, and you’re in our way” attitude toward the Nets, whom they view—not entirely unfairly—as a bunch of overpaid veterans who get by on starry-eyed referee calls. The Nets, for their part, have made it quite clear that they think the Raptors are a bunch of young punks who don’t know their place. In short: despite the fact that we’re almost an afterthought in the Nets’ overall game plan, it turns out that our two teams absolutely despise one another, which should make for an extremely entertaining series.
The other reason this series should be entertaining: the Nets and the Raptors split their season series 2-2. Each game was decided by fewer than seven points; every one of them was a hard-fought slog. We match up very well against the Nets: they aren’t as fast as the Raptors are, but they’re smarter and have tons more playoff experience. (Raptors players have played a combined total of approximately 150 playoff games. Paul Pierce alone has played 136.)
Most predictions have the Nets taking this series in six or seven games, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for a young squad making their first playoff appearance as a team. But, on the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to shove all those predictions up the predictors’ asses?
Sounds good. Is it possible to get tickets for a playoff game?
If you’re willing to spend a lot of money on Stubhub, yes. Otherwise, your best bet (as it has been in years past for Leafs games) is going down to Maple Leaf Square and watching the Raptors play on the giant outdoor screen.
Okay. Finally, before we forget: What’s this “We The North” thing?
It’s awesome is what it is:
This post is an updated version of one originally published on March 26, 2014.