The Toronto Raptors have been the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference over the past seven years. They have finished in the top three seeds in six of those seasons, and forth in the other one. During this span, they have amassed a 374-190 record and have six division titles. No team in the Eastern Conference has been as consistent as the Raptors in this time. Of course, Raptors fans have moved on from regular season expectation to a team who aims to succeed in the playoffs.
Until Lebron James left the conference two seasons ago, the Raptors had a very different reputation. They were a team that beat up on the bad teams, and struggled against playoff caliber opponents. From 2014-2018, the Raptors won four playoff series out of nine. In the past two seasons, they have won five out of six – and lost in a game seven in the other one. The current roster is more equipped to challenge stronger opponents. They have elite defense that will allow them to hang with any team. However, their offence can be an issue in certain matchups.
The Eastern conference figures to have six teams that will be very competitive. The Milwaukee Bucks are the favourites by most, followed by a pack that includes the Raptors, the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Indiana Pacers are good too, but haven’t proven to be in that tier. The Atlanta Hawks, the Washington Wizards, and the Charlotte Hornets have improved. Until they prove anything they all should be assumed to be well below the class of the teams above them. Given this, let’s take a look at how well the Raptors matchup against the East’s elite.
This matchup has the most to base off among any on this list. We saw these teams go back and forth in a thrilling seven game series, where Boston ultimately won. Pascal Siakam struggled, Norman Powell was inconsistent, and the Raptors offence looked horrible at times. The Celtics were 3-1 versus the Raptors in the regular season as well. Despite this, the Raptors actually matchup OK versus the Celtics. Boston also had their fair share of struggles at times during this series. Defensively, the Raptors caused many headaches for the Celtics (outside of Game 1 and Game 5).
The Raptors have good options to defend all of Boston’s wing talent. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and even Kyle Lowry can do as good of a job defending players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as anyone else in the league. Fred Vanvleet can hang with Kemba Walker, and neither team has much of a post game to make a big swing. This matchup caused all sorts of problems for the Raptors offence, but that may be overblown. Siakam was clearly not himself in this series. Powell was horrible for the first 4-5 games, and Marc Gasol was a zero on offence.
This is by no means a favourable matchup for the Raptors, but this isn’t a team that they cannot beat. If the Raptors had the homecourt in that series, and Siakam played similar to his pre-bubble self, the Raptors could have easily won that series.
Another team that the Raptors met in last season’s playoffs in the Nets. Of course, this is a very different circumstance. The Raptors swept the Nets who were without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and other role players. The Raptors have pretty much owned the Nets since the 2014 Playoffs, which perfectly shows how much this team has grown. At the time of that series, the Raptors were a team of unproven players, playing against a team of veterans. The Nets have been a weak team ever since, but this year will be different.
If healthy, Durant and Irving are two of the hardest players in the league to guard. Luckily, for the Raptors, they have some guys who can keep up. Anunoby and Pascal are as good as it gets when defending a player like Durant and both Lowry and Vanvleet will be good options on Irving. The Nets will likely continue to play a fast-paced game with a heavy emphasis on three point shooting. With Nick Nurse, the Raptors play an extremely switchable defence that allows for a lot of three-point shots. Last season, we saw the Raptors do well against star level talent – forcing role players to beat them. The Nets have some good players such as Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris Levert who could be major factors.
The Raptors actually match up well versus the Nets on paper. Their ability to slow down star players, along with the Nets having a lack of wing defense to really bother an poor halfcourt offence for the Raptors, should allow for the Raptors to compete with the Nets. Of course, the star talent of the Nets will take over on some nights.
The Raptors were one game away from playing the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Stylistically, these teams are very similar. They are well-coached, play in a lot of zone defence, and play unselfish team basketball. Jimmy Butler operates similar to a larger Lowry, in terms of sacrificing personal stats to win games for his team. Bam Adebayo is an emerging star, who can play as a lead ball handler as a big. They have plenty of depth, and elite three point shooting – including players like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
In the bubble when these teams met, Nurse used Anunoby to guard Adebayo. This worked quite well for the Raptors, as OG was strong enough to stand his ground, and quick enough to bother Bam on the dribble. The Heat are at their best when Adebayo can play as a point forward to initiate their offence, so this helps the Raptors greatly. Additionally, the Heat aren’t elite defensively. When they have their best shooting lineup, players like Herro and Robinson force the heat to go zone. In a January meeting last season, the Raptors shot 6/42 (14%) from three, and lost 84-76. If the shooting cools down for the Raptors (which it does at times), the Heat can get away with this zone coverage.
Despite the Heat being the reigning conference champions, this matchup is pretty good for the Raptors. Adebayo and Butler will cause some problems for Siakam. They have a lot of three-point weapons, but if they play these players the Raptors offence will flow. The Heat were a beneficiary of the bubble, but let’s not anoint them as the best team in the conference yet.
The Milwaukee Bucks present the greatest challenges to the Raptors. This should be no surprise, as they likely do that for any team in the league. They are long, athletic, and have a lot of shooters around their star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Raptors have a lot of good wing defenders to build a wall against Giannis. Nurse developed a great scheme to slow him down during the 2019 Conference Finals that other teams emulate when playing the Bucks. They no longer have Kawhi Leonard, but Anunoby can fill a lot of that defensive void. The Raptors have an elite defence and can contain the Bucks as well as anyone.
The problem is on the other end of the court. The wing defense of Giannis, Khris Middleton, and now Jrue Holiday creates all sorts of problems for the Raptors. Kawhi was so key in that series versus the Bucks, due to his ability to get the shot he wants at any time from all over the mid-range. They do not have anyone like that anymore. Powell, Vanvleet, and Siakam will face similar problems as they do offensively with the Celtics – only to be met at the rim by Brook Lopez who is an elite rim protector. The depth for the Bucks has taken a hit this year, but they will still be an elite defensive team.
This is a matchup that would be very hard for the Raptors to win a seven game series in. They may be the only defence in the league that rivals the Raptors versatility. If there is any reason to believe that the Raptors could beat the Bucks, it would be coaching. Nurse is a much more adaptive coach than Mike Budenholzer, who has had a lack of success in the playoffs.
Last season, the Sixers team did not gel together. They had a lack of shooting, playmaking, and ball handling. They have dealt Al Horford and Josh Richardson, and added Seth Curry and Danny Green. Dwight Howard is now their backup centre. Ball handling and playmaking may still be an issue outside of Ben Simmons, but the shooting has improved. Offensively, they profile as a more modern NBA team now, and they still have good defenders. Simmons is an All-NBA wing defender, and Joel Embiid is an elite big man/team defender. The Raptors offence should be OK versus the Sixers, since they do not have a glut of perimeter and transition defenders like the Bucks and Celtics.
Gasol was a huge factor for the Raptors versus the Sixers. He was the ultimate Embiid stopper, and even limited him to zero-points in a game last season. Aron Baynes will serve as a decent replacement, but nobody can match Gasol here. The Raptors will not want to play Baynes for 40 minutes so Anunoby or Alex Len may be needed for some minutes guarding Embiid. The rest of the matchup is favourable for the Raptors as they have more two-way players. Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and the Sixers bench could be exposed more than the comparables on the Raptors rotation.
Not having Gasol to guard Embiid makes this a potential bad matchup for the Raptors. If Embiid is fully healthy he is more than capable of carrying a team to win games. If Baynes, Anunoby and Len can provide good post defence, this can be winnable for the Raptors. The shooting has improved for the Sixers, but the talent has taken major hits since the Jimmy Butler season.
What does this say about the Raptors?
The Raptors are one of the most versatile teams in the NBA and are capable of matching up against anyone. Defensively, they have long and quick wings, elite guard defence who can defend above their height, and a mad scientist coach with defensive coverage. They can shut down star players by throwing a lot of different looks at them as a team with crazy basketball IQ. Teams with good role players can expose this from time to time as those players will get plenty of looks with the Raptors schemes – particularly three-point shots.
The teams that will cause the most problems for the Raptors are teams with elite defense in the wing positions. With the Raptors half-court offence being what it is, they will struggle to score against these teams. They will be forced to go small often at the end of game, which will create problems on the defensive end such as rim protection and rebounding.
Since the Eastern Conference figures to have six teams at the top that means, unless the Raptors finish first or second, they will play one of them in the first round. Matchup’s with these teams will ultimately determine if the Raptors can win a round or two come playoff time. This is certainly a year of transition for the Raptors as they plot for next summer, but the team still will be competitive and be an extremely tough out in the playoffs for anyone.