TORONTO – Who knows if the Toronto Raptors can reach the NBA Finals or even the Eastern Conference finals.
But they have a better chance of going deeper this season than they did last season when they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0 in the conference semifinals and 4-2 to the Cavs in the 2016 conference finals because they are a better team.
The Raptors are a different team both in style and personnel – a free-flowing offense that is less predictable and less reliant on set plays and a deep roster that includes All-Stars, solid veterans and good young players.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff have done a great job transforming the identity of the team. Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who said after last season that the status quo wasn’t good enough, and general manager Bobby Webster quietly rebuilt the roster with savvy, under-the-radar draft selections and trades.
The Raptors, 29-13, are in second place in the Eastern Conference 3.5 games behind the Boston Celtics and 3.5 up on the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re also on pace for a franchise-record 56 or 57 victories.
Toronto is one of two teams (Golden State is the other) that ranks in top five in offensive and defensive rating. While that is no guarantee of playoff success, it suggests the Raptors are more than capable of making a deep run.
On Thursday, the Raptors walloped the Cavs 133-99, and on Saturday, they lost to the Golden State Warriors, 127-125, after trailing 81-54 at halftime.
“There are no moral victories in this league,” Casey said after falling short against the Warriors.
The Raptors now expect to beat a team like Cleveland, and they were disappointed in the Golden State loss. Toronto is no longer content just to compete against the champions.
The two games told Casey and the Raptors what they needed to confirm.
“We fight, period,” said DeMar DeRozan who scored 42 points against the Warriors and had a career-high 52 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan 1.
DeRozan’s performance has elevated him into the MVP discussion. He’s not a front-runner, but he’s part of the conversation amid the best all-around season of his career that includes the addition of a reliable three-point shot.
Guard Kyle Lowry is an All-Star candidate again this season. Forward-guard C.J. Miles, forward Serge Ibaka and center Jonas Valanciunas provide solid veteran production.
Rookie forward OG Anunoby, center Jakob Poeltl, forward Pascal Siakam, guard Fred VanVleet – all in their second seasons – and third-year guards Normal Powell and Delon Wright form a productive youth movement. Toronto’s bench is one of the best in the league with a top-five offensive and defensive rating.
And yes, those young players will face even more tests the deeper in the playoffs they go.
Toronto has increased their three-point attempts and makes. With a versatile roster, the Raptors can trot out a lineup of players that can guard multiple positions, and they aren’t locked into predictable plays on offense.
They’re also not a finished product.
“We’ve made some progression as far as how we want to play and our style of play. I’ll also say there’s a lot of areas where we can get better within what we’re doing defensively. There’s a lot of areas where we can do better offensively – get that three-point shooting percentage up.
“But you’re never satisfied as a coach.”
(h/t Yahoo Sports)