Their chances look a lot better than last year.
It would be fair for Toronto sports fans who do not closely follow the Raptors to be less than optimistic about the team’s chances in this year’s NBA playoffs. After all, for two straight years, the Raptors have been defeated in the first round of the playoffs: first, a bittersweet seven-game battle against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, and then getting swept in embarrassing fashion in 2015 by the Washington Wizards. With that track record, the casual fan might understandably be cynical—the Raps are a regular-season team who fold when the going gets tough.
But, and forgive us if you’ve heard this before, this year could be different.
This is not the team that lost those two first-round playoffs series. After the sweep in 2015, Masai Ujiri radically changed the composition of the Raptors. Gone are the gunners like Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez. No longer does the team include basketball non-entities like Greg Stiemsma and Landry Fields. Instead, Ujiri went and found players to play tougher defence and an improved passing game. The result is a team radically better than its previous incarnations. The Raptors had winning records in 2014 and 2015, but only because they won a lot of games against bad teams; they took about one game in three from good teams. This year’s Raps, in comparison, win better than 60 per cent of their games against teams over .500 and have signature wins against almost every major playoff competitor in both conferences.
Ujiri’s additions have contributed to the team’s improvement. Signing Cory Joseph as the first significant Canadian player to wear a Raptors jersey might seem like a PR move, but the former San Antonio Spur is a canny defender, a cunning shooter, and a natural at running the offence. Bismack Biyombo (possessor of the absolute best name in the entire NBA) was a bargain pick-up when the Charlotte Hornets declined to resign him; Biyombo has demonstrated himself to be such a vicious defender and rebounder that we will be hard-pressed to bring him back, as he will likely command far more money in free agency than we pay him now. Ujiri’s biggest signing, DeMarre Carroll, missed most of the season with plantar fasciitis, but when he has been able to play, his nimble defence and quality passing contributed to the team’s success. Luis Scola’s defence has not been superb, but the 35-year-old power forward is a scoring threat at all ranges and gives the team a veteran presence it needs.
Norman “Mr. Serious” Powell has been a late-season revelation. After a slow start, the second-round pick Ujiri received in trade has exploded, shooting three-pointers at near-Steph-Curry rates. He’s shown himself capable of carrying the team’s offence when needed and of serving as a lockdown defender. Fellow rookie Delon Wright has seen less playing time. But late in the season, as the Raptors have taken opportunities to give Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph rest for the playoffs, Wright has shown he can contribute at an NBA level as well. And Jason Thompson—picked up late in the season when Golden State waived him—has brought valuable rebounding and a surprisingly good three-point shot.
But let us not forget our long-time players who, almost uniformly, have dramatically improved their game. Lowry lost 20 pounds over the off-season, and “Skinny Kyle Lowry” has dominated—last year he was an All-Star, but this year he has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and a likely All-NBA player. DeMar DeRozan has improved his three-point shooting, his passing, and his defense, and finally became the complete player many believed he never would be. Jonas Valanciunas is still a work in progress, but he is an excellent rebounder and scorer and improving on defence, averaging nearly a double-double this season in only 26 minutes per game. Terrence Ross started miserably, but he has rapidly progressed over the season into the reliable 3-and-D wing the team hoped he would be. And Patrick Patterson has become a lockdown defender capable of guarding multiple positions.
In short: this team is good—better than any Raptors team since the Vince Carter years, and arguably better than even those teams were. And that matters a lot. Yes, the team has not proven itself in the playoffs yet; doubt is still reasonable. But watching the Raptors this year, they have shown themselves able to hang with any team in the league—even, yes, the Golden State Warriors, whom we did not beat (very few teams did this year) but fought right until the very end in both of our games with them this year.
Our first-round opponents this year are the Indiana Pacers, in what promises to be an epic Hoosier-versus-hoser battle. Alright, it mostly likely won’t actually be that epic, because we took the season series 3-1 from the Pacers and utterly thumped them in those three games (in our last game against them, the Raptors rested Lowry, DeRozan, Scola, and Carroll, the Pacers played their starters, and at no point were they even close). The Pacers are a team built around the idea that Paul George, their star, should be playing power forward; however, George hated playing power forward, so now a team that was built to play speedy small-ball is playing a slower, hard-nosed style, except with smaller players and no starter-quality bigs.
Frank Vogel is an excellent coach, and the Pacers don’t have bad players, so they made the playoffs. But the Raptors have demonstrated repeatedly that they can contain George and that the Pacers have no real answer for Valanciunas’s post attack. Raptors in six.