Halfway into the regular season, the contenders have emerged amidst the surprising parity the league has seen so far. The top four teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by 3.5 games. The Milwaukee Bucks are currently sitting at the top of the East with a half game lead over the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are currently 34-13 despite missing key contributors for parts of the season. Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Jonas Valančiūnas have all missed time this season. The bench hasn’t been fortunate enough to have a clean bill of health either. Injuries have plagued key bench cogs such as Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and C.J. Miles.
Even with all the injuries, the Raptors are aspiring to reach new heights the franchise has never reached: a finals appearance.
Today at Raptors Cage we’ll be looking at what the team has done to achieve the success they’ve had so far, as well as evaluating some lingering concerns the team might have to address very soon. 47 games played with 34 to go, do the Raptors have the right pieces to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to the North?
Of the Raptors’ 13 losses this season, only five are losses by ten points or more. The Raptors so far have played 42 games where they’ve had a chance to win. A loss is still a loss at the end of the day, but identity can be built from both victory and defeat. The identity the Raptors have built is an identity of resilience. This team doesn’t quit in the face of adversity.
If you can recall their big comeback wins this season in Memphis and in Toronto versus the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors have used their defence to stay in, and win games. Resilience is a quality any fan would want to see from a team with championship aspirations.
There’s no quit in the Toronto Raptors. The only circumstance where this team could quit is if they somehow acquire J.R. Smith, and he runs to the half court line in the dying seconds of a tied game, in the NBA Finals.
Defence wins Championships
Boasting the ninth-best defensive rating in the association, the Raptors have flashed their defensive potential throughout the season so far. Most notably, the Raptors have utilized their roster of lengthy defenders to switch match-ups and effectively stay on-ball.
The Raptors have also shown the ability to switch from man-to-man defence to zone defence in crucial moments of a game. This switch from man to zone defence has allowed the Raptors to change the pace of games, as the team almost routinely gets the stop they need, sprint up the court, and convert on an easy fast-break basket.
And the Raptors have been at their best when they can push the ball in transition. According to teamrankings.com, the Raptors are fourth in fast-break points per game, with 18.3. This uptick in tempo can largely be attributed to Pascal Siakam, who is generating Most Improved Player buzz this season.
Once the Raptors get a stop, Siakam is able to push the ball up the court and usually creates a good shot opportunity for the team. Siakam on the fast break has the luxury to draw the defence and kick-out to the other shooters on the court, or he can take it to the rim and finish effectively.
Man of Action
Any discussion of the Raptors success this season cannot progress without mentioning Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has been nothing short of exceptional, posting averages of 27.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and shooting over 50 percent from the field. Leonard’s play has elevated the team both offensively and defensively.
His ability to shut down the opposing teams’ best player has been a luxury the franchise has never had. Leonard most notably forced Ben Simmons to cough the ball up 11 times in a game this season. Leonard also had a no-look steal to the awe of fans and analysts alike.
Offensively, Leonard’s ability to shoot from distance has allowed opportunities for the likes of Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell to shine. Siakam and Powell have become ball-handlers within the offence, as well as finishers at the rim. Leonard has also been the Raptors’ closer this season.
Leonard went toe-to-toe with the Kevin Durant in the game versus the Warriors, in Toronto, and most recently against Bradley Beal in a double-overtime thriller. Both were wins for Toronto. Leonard is a bonafide superstar, and should definitely receive consideration for the MVP award at the seasons end.
Is it time to worry about Kyle’s shot?
If you’ve been watching Raptors basketball since the Rudy Gay trade in 2013, you know that Kyle Lowry has been the engine to the team’s success since then. The same narrative for the past six seasons was pushed: ‘the Raptors will only go as far as Kyle takes them’ and that might still be the case with the current version of the Raptors.
When Lowry shoots the ball well from distance, the Raptors become a deadly team to matchup. He is instantly added to the list of marksmen the roster features when he’s shooting well. Unfortunately Lowry hasn’t been shooting too well from the 3-point line. He’s shooting 31.3% from distance per basketball-reference.com.
If Lowry doesn’t rediscover his shot before playoff time, the Raptor offence will likely become stagnant when teams start to load up on Kawhi Leonard and double-team him. Lowry has to be the consistent second-option for this team if the Raptors have any ambition to make it out of the east, let alone win a championship. Even with Kawhi Leonard playing at an MVP level, it still does seem that the Raptors will only go as far as Lowry can.
The Raptors have been largely inconsistent from the deep this season. In the games where the Raptors are shooting from three at a high clip, those games have been dominant victories.
You could probably count the number of games where the Raptors shoot over 40 percent from deep on your hand. If the Raptors somehow caught fire from deep on a more consistent basis, they probably could run away with the first-seed in the East this season.
The Raptors are currently 14th in the league in threes made per game at 11.2, while ranking 24th in three-point percentage at 34 percent.
Players such as Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka have struggled to covert three-point attempts this season. Miles and Anunoby in particular come as a surprise to fans, as both were quite effective shooters from distance last year.
In a league that’s largely emphasizing offence, the three-ball is key to any team’s chances to winning the title this year. While the Warriors have looked somewhat vulnerable, and the Celtics currently struggling with managing a talented roster, both teams rank in the top 10 in threes made and three-point percentage.
If there’s a next level to the success the Raptors have seen so far this season, it would come from the three-point line. If the Raptors can reach their potential to shoot from distance, they could very well make it out of the east. Maybe even potentially shock the NBA in June.
Can the Raptors shock the world?
Let’s face reality. Hardly anyone outside of Toronto is giving the Raptors a shot to beat the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series. When the Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins in the offseason, people were quick to call the Warriors 2019 champs.
The Raptors defeated the Warriors in both regular season match-ups, but the Warriors were not playing at the level the entire league knows they can.
In the first game, Steph Curry was injured, Cousins was still out, and Klay Thompson failed to convert on many wide-open attempts from distance. With the Warriors being undermanned, it was a close game. Kevin Durant carried the Warriors to a narrow defeat of 131-128 in overtime.
The second game was a blowout in Oracle Arena, and the Warriors looked lost throughout the game. The final score was 113-93, with the Raptors picking up the win without Leonard.
It would take something special for the Raptors to finish the season at the top of the NBA. Think 2016 Cavaliers special. At the end of the day you could look at every statistic that leads to winning basketball, but when the spotlight is at its brightest, it’s up to the players to perform. Regardless of what stats tell about them. Regardless of what the media says about them.
To quote the great Jack Armstrong; “when your margin of error is so slim,” it comes down to whether your team can make plays when it matters the most.
After years of postseason heartbreak at the hands of Paul Pierce and LeBron James, it seems like it’s finally time for the Raptors to compete at the highest level, with the biggest prize in basketball at stake.