It’s been quite some time since the Toronto Raptors have been in this position. With 28 wins already, the Raptors have found themselves in rather unfamiliar territory; territory that only the team’s most optimistic supporters may had expected them to occupy.
Coming into the season, the East was regarded as a noticeably tiered conference that had clear splits between the title contenders, the middle-of-the-road squads, and the participants of what has been coined as “Tankapalooza”. Many experts anticipated Toronto to sit somewhere between the second and third group. But that hasn’t been the case. Fast-forward to mid-February, and the distinctions have not exactly been designated to the teams originally thought to fit them. Not all teams have played at the level expected of them back in October.
Among these expectation-trashing teams are the surprising Toronto Raptors, who have literally turned their season around after making a blockbuster trade with the Sacramento Kings back in early December. It still feels sort of odd to say that the Raptors have a grip on the third seed in the Eastern Conference and may be on their way to a division title; but here we are. While some of this shocking development can be accredited to the awful play of the dysfunctional New York Knicks (20-32) and slow start for the newly-constructed Brooklyn Nets (24-27), the progress made by the Raptors has not been taken lightly around the Association.
At this point, even the team’s greatest naysayers are coming to the realization that Toronto is on pace to make its first playoff appearance since 2008. Yes, playoffs. It appears as if this is actually happening. But here’s the caveat: it just so happens that there are exactly zero players from that 2007-2008 “playoff” team still in town. So what does this mean? It means that new challenges are approaching for the current Raptor roster. Most of the players have not been in this position before.
On many fronts, it’s been a different sort of year north of the border. Since making the season-defining deal over two months ago, Toronto has gone 22-12 in a 34 game span. Terrence Ross has been given room to grow and Jonas Valanciunas has shown some signs of improvement. DeMar DeRozan was given a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and Kyle Lowry has done his best to shed his questionable reputation around the league with his stellar play. Masai Ujiri brought in a group of rotation players and Toronto has been taking care of business (for the most part) ever since. Despite this, with the NBA Trade Deadline this Thursday at 3:00PM ET, the always-working Raptors GM may not be finished this season’s tinkering of the roster.
This is among many reasons why the NBA season is often equated to a marathon, not a sprint. It isn’t over just yet. Nothing is guaranteed. So far, Dwane Casey (who is actually making a case for staying around next year) has been doing a solid job in reiterating this notion while holding his team accountable— usually likening them to the “hunter” and not the “hunted” because of the fact that they haven’t truly accomplished anything yet. While this year has unfolded like a feel-good story so far, the conclusion has not been set in stone. After all, it’s only a matter of time before Toronto’s Atlantic Division opponents turn up the heat in hopes of stealing home-court advantage for a post-season series. This is why the upstart Raptors must treat every game from here on out as an important one. That probably sounds a tad bit dramatic at this point in time, but it’s actually the truth.
It begins now. Remember the week-long stretch of the 2012-2013 season that ultimately ended up being the difference between Toronto booking a ticket to the post-season and going fishing for the summer? That stretch took place after the All-Star break too. The Raptors ended up falling to the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Milwaukee Bucks in four consecutive games before losing to the Golden State Warriors as well. This time around, the stakes are raised for Canada’s lone team, as they have a chance to not only make the playoffs, but win a series too.
As of today, the next six matchups they have are against the Wizards, Chicago Bulls, the Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Cleveland again, and then Washington once more— all Eastern Conference opponents. It’s safe to say that these games will have some playoff implications. Which game follows this stretch? None other than another battle with the Golden State Warriors. Isn’t it funny how things work out? It’s crazy how much can change in the span of a year.
If the goal is to retain the number one spot in the Atlantic, this year’s immediate post-All-Star segment of the schedule needs to unfold in a way opposite from the 2013 equivalent. It has to. If not, Toronto could find itself in fringe playoff territory yet again. If the team can push through however, not only do they retain their solid position during this quest to another division crown, but they’ll be able to distance themselves from their conference opposition; creating some much needed breathing room as they move into the spring. It’s been years since something like this could be said about the Raps; and it should be interesting to watch the players adjust to the surprising spot they’ve fallen into two thirds of the way through the 2013-2014 regular season.