As a Raptors fan, I remember watching Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals last year as the Cleveland Cavaliers made light work of the Raptors 113-87 to progress to the Conference Finals. I remember feeling the same level of despair as I had done in previous years, not because of how far the Raptors had progressed, but how much of a struggle it was to watch them compared to the regular season. What was a rampant carnivore in the regular season had once again transformed to a shadow of itself, succumbing to greenery and the life of a herbivore.
After a postseason of promised change under the same personnel, most were skeptical but unduly so as the Toronto Raptors have transformed their offense this season. Assists, three-pointers attempted and bench points all took increased as the Raptors followed the growing league trend of pace and space. The results were quickly clear as the Raptors rose to and held onto the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
However, the real test was yet to come and the real question on everyone’s lips was still echoing, could the Raptors carry this style of play and success into the postseason?
The Toronto Raptors are lead by their two All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and both have become legitimate stars whilst their relationship on and off the court has blossomed. Historically though, both have under-performed in the playoffs, most notably being swept in the first round by the Washington Wizards in 2015. Numbers do not tell the whole story, though, as both players numbers drop slightly from the regular season but it is the style of play that is most frustrating. As soon as the going gets tough, and the defense tightens up, the Raptors resort to an isolation style of play where the ball gets passed around the three-point line until the last 5 seconds of the shot clock when DeRozan backs down his defender and shoots a fadeaway Kobe would be proud of.
This style of play has eased in the last couple of years as the Raptors have learned from their past mistakes but the skeletons still come out of the closet for the fourth quarter and crunch time late in games. Through 5 games against Washington this postseason both Lowry and DeRozan have played well and have had a big impact on the game until the last quarter where the Raptors have wavered and not closed games. Whether it was that Jonas Valanciunas was not on the floor to be a screener or the pressure of the moment in game 4, the Raptors who were tied going into the fourth quarter, could not close the game out on the road.
What has been successful in the regular season and through forty minutes of a game must continue in the final stretch for the Raptors to win.
One of the biggest surprises for the Toronto Raptors this season was the impact and utter dominance of their bench in the regular season. Lead by an undrafted Fred VanVleet, the bench had immense success with a league-high plus/minus of 3.6. The bench shared the ball, swung it around the court and played lots of fourth-quarter minutes towards the end of the regular season. They also had increased minutes as the load was eased on Lowry and DeRozan who both saw their minutes decreased.
However, what was dominant in the regular season has looked dormant during the postseason. With Fred VanVleet injured through the first 5 games, the bench has not had the same impact and has dropped a plus/minus of -3.8. What was the best bench during the regular season has become the second-worst bench behind Miami who got beaten in 5 games against the Philadelphia 76ers.
What does success look like?
Considering the Raptors are the top seed going into the postseason, the immediate expectation is to reach the NBA Finals. Previous seasons have led them to the Conference Finals but as this is the first time they have been the top seed, one would expect them to surpass that landmark.
However, any avid follower of the NBA Playoffs can tell you that the Raptors can look like a different team in the postseason. This postseason, the All-Stars have played like All-Stars but the supporting cast have looked like extras. Other starters have not performed consistently either, particularly Serge Ibaka who, after an impressive pleasing Game 1 has gone missing in the previous four games.
For the Toronto Raptors to exercise their demons and achieve the goal of reaching the NBA Finals, three things need to happen. First, Lowry and DeRozan need to perform like the All-Stars they are. So far so good. Second, the bench needs to become the beast they were in the regular season and with VanVleet’s injury looking like it will keep him out of this series, the other members need to step in as Delon Wright has done. Finally, they need to not be hesitant on the road. If they can play like they play at home on the road and keep doing what they’ve done in the regular season that gave the success they have, they can reach the NBA Finals.
(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Reuters/Brad Mills)
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