Are the Raptors Quietly the Best Team in the East?
The ‘North’ is coming!
You cannot sleep on LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, but that Cavs defence has been brutal to say the least, ranking 22nd in the league in points allowed and 16th in opponent’s field goal percentage. As for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors hold the tiebreaker, beating both teams, including the Wizards on the road without their star point guard, Kyle Lowry.
No body is talking about the Raptors being any kind of a threat to the Cavs like the two teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, but what if the only Canadian franchise in professional basketball is really the best team in the entire conference?
With another solid team win in the absence of the ailing Lowry, the Raptors clinched a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive season, a club record at that. With nine games remaining, ousting the Cleveland Cavaliers or even the Boston Celtics out of first or second place may be a bit of a stretch considering the Raptors sit 3.5 and 3 games back of each team, but the Wizards are only a game ahead. Furthermore, the Raptors do not play a team with a record over .500 until the final game of the season where they travel to Cleveland and who knows who will rest on both sides for the regular season finale.
Of course the goal for most teams is to last as long as possible in the playoffs without facing the Cavaliers, that may be even more important for the Raptors as they continue to wait for the return of one Kyle Lowry, who was seen taking shots with his non-injured left hand in shootaround and in pre-game warm-ups.
But in their star guards absence, the Raptors have been working towards finding the right rotations, increasing comradery, and mainly finding ways of winning without Lowry, so when he eventually returns and works back into the line-up, the Raptors will be firing on all cylinders.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 26, 2017
Since the acquisition of both P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka the Raptors have been a completely different teams, finding different ways of beating different opponents. With Lowry in the fold, the Raptors are one of the best scoring teams in the league. With the guard missing every game since the All-Star Break, the Raptors are still in the top-10 in the league for points scored per game.
With DeMar DeRozan leading the offensive charge, the Raptors now have one of the more deeper teams in the entire association. They no longer have to push ridiculous minutes Jonas Valanciunas, forcing him to play through mis-matches. Now, with Ibaka in the fold, Patrick Patterson back and healthy, and Jakob Poeltl showing some value and good energy for 10-to-12 minute intervals each game, Valanciunas can be held out when necessary.
When DeRozan is out of the game, Norman Powell has been attacking the rim with ruthless aggression, Delon Wright has shown great promise, while even the rookie out of Wichita State Fred VanVleet has proven to be quite the spark plug. The starting point guard in Lowry’s absence has been Canadian Cory Joseph and while granted he may have some flaws, has been solid in his upgraded role.
Fact is the Raptors have depth. They no longer need to count on specific role players to reach double digits on every given night. DeMarre Carroll doesn’t need to hit four three-pointers against the Miami Heat. He can score only seven, play some fiesty defense, see 20-to-25 minutes of court time and the Raptors can still win because they have the depth to methodically take down their opposition.
Speaking of defense, that has been the category the Raptors have improved in most. It has really been an incredible transformation to say the least. In fact, there may be no better defensive unit outside the Raptors since the All-Star break when their trade deadline acquisitions came into the fold.
Allowing a league best 97.4-points since the All-Star Break, the Raptors are currently seventh in the league in points allowed per game (102.8) and eighth in opponent’s field goal percentage (45.0%). The Raptors were in the bottom half defensively until the break and have skyrocketed into the top 10 in most if not all key defensive category.
The hope of course is for Lowry to come back because the Raptors cannot compete against the league’s best without him, but this Raptor team, while ball movement may not be the greatest at times have shown that they are capable of beating anyone. They have not played the Cavs or the Warriors with their two new acquisitions, but if they eventually do, they will be ready for the fight.
And really, the Raptors beat the Chicago Bulls, without Lowry, missing Ibaka down the stretch. Maybe destiny is on the Raptors’ side?