As Raptor fans, we’ve all heard it. When asked about the Toronto Raptors potential playoff performance this year, many NBA fans and analysts feel skeptical and are quick to bring up their playoff disappointments over the past few years. Their criticisms are somewhat valid, as the Raptors have under performed in some playoff series, most notably the first-round sweep by the Washington Wizards that happened back in the 2015 playoffs.
Many things have changed since this disappointing early exit. New pieces were acquired through trades and the draft that helped form one of the deepest benches in the league. Our stars expanded their game to include more facilitating and 3-point shooting. Masai Ujiri instituted a full culture reset that helped lead the team to it’s best ever regular season record of 59-23. Along with the most important part of it all, Paul Pierce has retired from the NBA.
Back in the 2015 playoffs, the starting lineup for the Raptors looks quite similar to the one we see today. The all-star back court of DeRozan and Lowry, and the Lithuanian Lightning Jonas Valanciunas in the centre position. However, the remaining positions were looking very different. We had Terrence Ross as our starting small forward throughout the playoffs, along with Tyler Hansbrough as starting power forward for games 1 and 2, and Amir Johnson taking his starting spot for games 3 and 4. Our bench included the likes of Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vásquez, Lou Williams, and James Johnson.
Plenty of New Faces
The Raptors have gone through several personnel changes since the previous time we met Washington in the playoffs. The only remaining members of that team are Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas, and Nogueira. Bebe was inactive throughout the 2015 playoffs. Serge Ibaka was acquired via trade back in February 2017 for Terrence Ross and a 2017 first round draft pick, and finally provided the Raptors with a capable starting power forward they have been desperate for. The 2017 draft also provided Toronto with their other new starter, OG Anunoby, who’s defensive capability allowed him to receive important assignments guarding players such as James Harden and Lebron James despite being a rookie.
The bench goes by many names. The Bench Mob, The Shadow Team, Mariana’s Bench. I believe they have been the most important factor in the Raptor’s success this season. Jakob Poeltl’s quick feet and soft hands have made him quite effective at defending the rim. Poeltl finished 15th in the league in blocks with a total of 100, 1 block more than his teammate Serge “Iblocka” who finished with 99 in 16th place. Pascal Siakam’s motor and endless supply of energy allows him to run the floor with ease. His constantly improving ball handling and play-making gives us glimpses of a possible point forward. CJ Miles will be an x-factor during this series and the rest off the playoffs. He was brought in for his sharpshooting, however his percentages tend to decline significantly in the playoffs. (.361 3P% in the regular season vs .265 3P% in the playoffs)
Our stars shining brightly
DeMar DeRozan has taken great strides to improve his game over the past few years. He moves the ball more, improving his assists per game from 3.5 in 2014-2015 to 5.2 in 2017-2018. He started shooting the 3 more often, increasing his 3PA from 1.5 in 2014-2015 to 3.6 in 2017-2018. Kyle Lowry is showing no signs of slowing down. Solid performances from Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright have allowed Dwane Casey to reduce Lowry’s minutes per game down to 32.2 compared to 37.4 last season. Even with reduced minutes, his numbers have not taken a hit. Per 36 minutes his assists per game have actually increased from 6.7 last season to 7.7 this season. The only category to take a major hit was his scoring, dropping from 21.6 PPG Per 36 in last season, compared to 18.2 this season. He had a career high 5.8 rebounds per game and led the league in charges drawn with 37.
Known Raptor killer Paul Pierce, who was partly responsible for ending both the 2014 and 2015 playoff runs for the Raptors, retired at the beginning of the 2017-2018 season. This was a huge relief to both fans and the Toronto Raptors themselves. Despite all these changes made over the years, it’s hard not to be a little nervous as a Toronto fan coming in to the playoffs. We’ve been swept multiple times, we always struggle to win game 1, but none of that matters right now. This year is a new year. This isn’t the same old Raptors team. This team is a new team, arguably the best team in Raptors history. The odds are in our favour. It’s time to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy across the border, and the first step is conquering the Wizards.