Atlantic Division Champions, an NBA All-Star, home-court advantage in the playoffs, and a new franchise season record. The Toronto Raptors have completed milestones in a season where they were generally thought of as a low-ball playoff team that was good enough just to get there. However, since December 8th, where the Sacramento Kings and the Raptors pulled off a trade in order to fix on-court issues, the Raps had the best record in the Eastern Conference. In addition to the record, Toronto has been able to beat some of the best teams in the league, including a road victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, wins against the East’s number 1, Indiana Pacers, the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, along with a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks. With that being said, the playoffs are a whole new different animal, a new world, a new atmosphere; an atmosphere that the franchise hasn’t seen in 6 years. We break down the ingredients for the Raptors’ recipe for success in the post-season.
The biggest factor that’ll affect the Raptors’ success in the post-season is the experience, or lack thereof. Out of the 5 starters, three have absolutely no playoff experience: DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and Terrence Ross. Amir Johnson‘s playoff experience came in Detroit, but with rare playing time. Kyle Lowry was a back-up point guard to Rafer Alston, or Aaron Brooks in his time with Houston when they made the post-season. He has never been a starting floor general for a playoff team. With these variables to consider, the fact that the man who runs the team, along with their all-star lacking major playoff experience can create major issues when times get tough.
Composure and Focus
The Raptors, despite minimal playoff experience, have the ability to combat it by keeping their composure and their focus. Defences are tighter, offences are detailed, and the energy is bar-none. Keeping composure – not getting emotionally invested into no-calls, arguing with refs, arguing with teammates – and staying focused – “weather the storm” (stay with the game-plan if the opposition goes on runs), play under control, no hero-ball – are going to be their biggest necessities.
Feed Off The Crowd
The playoffs create a whole new atmosphere in the crowd, whether it is at home or on the road. It’s important that the Raptors use the crowd to fuel their momentum at home, especially knowing how great the ACC faithful are. On the road, however, keeping them out of the game is important, and that comes especially when the opposition creates a huge momentum swing with a great offensive/defensive play, or a run.
Get DeMar DeRozan Opportunities To Score
Every great post-season team has that all-star, and the all-star is always responsible for making the big plays offensively, or making a difference defensively. That guy for the Raptors is DeMar DeRozan. He may very well be the biggest factor, along with running-mate Kyle Lowry, for the Raptors to have success in the playoffs. Defences tighten up, and they buckle down on the key players of each team. We’ve seen that when DeMar is played physically by the opposition, he tends to fade from the pressure, sometimes literally. It’s going to be a job of two parties for their top-10 scorer to have success putting the ball in the basket.
First, it will be up to the coaching staff, Dwane Casey, and Lowry to run sets to free-up DeRozan. He’s been one of the very best in the league at curling, coming off screens, pin-downs, etc. He’s used them to near perfection. Secondly, DeRozan must be able to make the proper reads instantly, and must be able to withstand whatever defensive pressure is going to be plugged to him. Quick decisions, quick passes, and absorbing contact will play a role in whether or not he will be able to succeed in scoring the basketball. Finally, he must demand the ball. We’ve seen when times get tough offensively, or when he struggles with his shooting, he creeps or walks into the corner, hoping for a ball to come to him, or for Lowry to create an almost impossible play. What has allowed this team’s success offensively is the ball and player movement; if DeRozan is fading away from the pressure, this team will find themselves struggling to get points.
Staying with DeRozan and Lowry, these two are the most important variables offensively for the Raptors. They must avoid hero ball. It’s been illustrated at times when Lowry and DeRozan take over. Other times, it fails and the team is bailing the other out with bad possessions. Hero-ball means one-on-one, one guy holding, stopping the ball, and the other 9 players are watching, and waiting for something to happen. This is the worst way to play offensive basketball in the playoffs. Like we’ve mentioned already, ball movement, player movement, and sharing with one another is what will give the Raptors a fighting chance.
Role Players Have To Be Prepared
With Lowry and DeRozan being insanely important, the role players must be able to perform their job consistently; they must be reliable options when times get tough, when guys are keyed into, or when certain guys need rest. Amir, T-Ross, and JV have their roles to perform, but more specifically, guys like Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough, John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, and possibly Steve Novak or Landry Fields have to be prepared off of the bench. They must be able to play with confidence and consistency, and that might be the biggest asset when combating great, talented players. Whoever, and whenever Dwane Casey decides to play or throw these guys out there, being fully prepared and ready for the opportunity is a must, otherwise, they’ll be taken for granted.
Following the point of Dwane Casey and his substitutions, his ability to make adjustments, and making the right line-up calls is as important as the players being prepared to play.
He and his coaching staff have made some terrific decisions, and overall have done a great job of managing the Raptors this season. However, with the playoffs starting this weekend, the importance of changing accordingly is important, and that cannot be emphasized any more. Casey and crew must learn from their past mistakes, especially when it comes to managing players’ minutes, changing or mixing up the game-plan to the opposition, and creating the right line-ups and rotations. If we’re consistently seeing a Vasquez, DeRozan, Salmons, Novak, and Hansbrough line-up on the floor, there might be a problem.
To summarize, the Raptors must be able to play consistently to their identity, moving the ball offensively, and playing pressure defence. DeRozan and Lowry must demand the basketball, but not play hero-ball. The team must also keep their composure and focus, feed off the intensity of the crowd – road or home – and make the proper adjustments and changes according to the game.
This Saturday, the Raptors tip-off against the Brooklyn Nets, and with how the regular season match-ups went, the off-court scuffles between Ross and Andray Blatche, and the cowardly act by Jason Kidd to tank for the sixth seed creates an awesome first-round match-up, and likely the most intriguing series in the Eastern Conference.
Let’s enjoy this post-season, for it’s the first time in six years we’ll see the Raptors in this environment. It’ll be a great addition to this Cinderella season if they make the second-round, and maybe the Eastern Conference finals, but, hey, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.