When the Toronto Raptors won a championship all those years ago, they really knew what they were doing. For instance, when Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka were on the floor, the team played completely different defences, with ease. They had endless-IQ veterans, and could build the plane in the air. Genius stuff.
These Raptors were always going to be a cumulative project, and have come a long way. It feels like years since Kyle Lowry walked for Miami. Or since they played in Tampa Bay. Or since they lost to, uh, Oklahoma City. Gold Orlando. Or Detroit, though that is basically a tradition now. Were these new Raptors too good to tank? Perhaps. Did they stall out, especially against bad teams? Yes. Were they the wrong groin injury and a turf toe away from another top-10 pick? Perhaps. It could be all of those, as it turns out.
And now, with two weeks to the playoffs, the Raptors are a gas. They have 10 wins in 12 games and entered Thursday tied for fifth in the East. The other day, Toronto coach Nick Nurse was told where the Raptors sat and he said, how many games to the top? Four and a half, he was told. “Jeez,” he said, “that’s pretty close to first.”
This franchise won’t finish that high, but that’s how they think. This is not a championship team. But after two lost post-title seasons, this has been the year the Raptors redefined just what kind of franchise this is.
This was the plan, but accelerated. Lowry was a sainted figure in this town — and will be treated as such when he comes back Sunday — but was allowed to leave because, at 35 years old, he didn’t fit a two-years-down-the-road model. The remaining players would have a chance to get better in his absence, without their bulldog-patterned safety blanket. That was the idea.
So what happened? Pascal Siakam is making a run at an all-NBA spot, though positional voting may determine whether he gets a berth on the third team. He studies players like Luca Doncic and Kevin Durant, and is seeing defenses better than ever. He used to just slide and bounce and glide between spaces, instinctively. Now he analyses, anticipates, and creates. His efficiency is back, too.
Then add the improvement of Fred VanVleet — though really he is simply more entrenched as the avatar of a championship culture and mindset — and Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. You can add OG Anunoby on an experience basis, though he has had a bit of a flatline year, in terms of production per minute.
And add Scottie Barnes, who is going to eclipse all of them. The rookie voluntarily took a seat on the bench to start the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night, and the Raptors rolled a good team. But the expectation should be that the Raptors drafted a star. He and Siakam may wind up getting in one another’s way as they go. But that’s a puzzle for the future.
The Raptors are, too, even if it wasn’t supposed to come together this fast. Toronto is 24-21 against plus-.500 teams, and only Boston — a legitimate buzz-saw until center Robert Williams III went down — has been better in the East. (Miami is about the same.) Starting with that operatic triple-overtime win in Miami on Jan. 29, the Raptors are 15-5 against plus-.500 teams since. That’s a team coming together.
So what do the playoffs look like? This living forest of six-foot-nineish trees and an immovable stump is a turnover-forcing, transition-racing, offensive rebound-eating bunch, but the halfcourt stalls and the defense sometimes lets go of the rope. It is, as people keep saying, like watching a basketball experiment in real time.
But they’ll show up and try to take one of your stars away and make life miserable, if possible. The defense Nurse demands is so difficult and complex, and unlike the 2019 team, these guys don’t have it all together yet. They will. There is also a real question whether other teams will be at full strength in Toronto-based playoff games, too; the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers declined an ESPN question over vaccination status, and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving remains unvaccinated, and you can’t cross the border without one.
Still, they won’t be favoured. A first-round exit remains possible, especially with a Boston or a Milwaukee on the other side. We may still see empty crowds in Scotiabank Arena as the sixth pandemic wave races everywhere; but then, it’s only two weeks away and Ontario seems content to plug its ears and hum rather than address the pandemic anymore.
But no matter who the Raptors play they will be a pain, and no matter who they play, the Raptors will gain playoff reps playing with this style, and this group, and that’s when you will start thinking of what comes next. What happens when the shooting gets better, as Raptor shooting tends to do? What happens when Siakam has another year under his waistband, and once Barnes has seen everything and starts to do more than pick up a 15-8-4 in his sleep? What happens with an athletic center added to the mix, maybe with more Malachi Flynn to back up VanVleet, and the group has another year of learning its all-you-can-eat-wings defence?
Toronto gets to enjoy this gritty, streaking version first. The Raptors spent the first two years of a championship defense watching Kawhi Leonard leave for LA, Lowry leave for Miami, and their own team leave for life on the road. This was a rebuilding season, after last year’s Tampa mess.
But what’s clear is this is still a championship culture, and a championship franchise. They won’t contend this year; of course not. They’re not ready.
Wait a year or two, though. See what happens then.
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