East-Leading Raptors Looking More And More Like Finals Contenders

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Through the first month of play in the 2014-15 season, the Toronto Raptors have done their best to erase the painful memories of last spring’s heartbreaking Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul Pierce’s final second block on Kyle Lowry to deny the Raps a dream finish in their first playoff berth since 2008 haunted the team over the summer, and it is clear that some lessons have been learned.

 
 

Case in point: in just four weeks, the boys from the 416 have jumped out to a 13-2 start—a remarkable effort that has many Toronto basketball fans pinching themselves. That record includes a win over Cleveland (keeping LeBron to just 15 points), a 19-point win over Washington, a 42-point win over Milwaukee and—perhaps most impressively—a victory over the Western Conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies (complete with a 27-17 comeback in the final quarter).

Now, thanks to the sorts of individual efforts that any playoff-bound team needs from its stars and depth players alike, Toronto appears to have the makings of a franchise that can go all the way.

Kyle Lowry continues to show the dogged determination that fans in the city are magically drawn to. He’s not just a superstar on this team. He’s a superstar who is willing to get his hands dirty, and absolutely loves it. During Monday’s win over Phoenix (who were on a four-game win streak going into the encounter), the fans packing the ACC were already chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P.” Now, while it may be a little too soon to start worrying about individual awards, it’s clear where he sits in the hearts of sports fans in the city.

Jonas Valanciunas recorded 11 rebounds and a career-high 27 points in the aforementioned game against the Suns. He has held his own against some very good centres in the game in recent weeks, including Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and Larry Sanders, earning himself a moment in the NBA’s spotlight. While his game still needs refining, there is a definite improvement all around since he joined the team two years ago.

All of that is to say nothing about Lou Williams, the man that was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week—one of just six Raptors to ever earn that honour. Coming off the bench, he got 24 points in the first half against the Cavs before finishing off with 36 and four rebounds. This was following up on a previous season-high of 22 points the game before that.

While it’s easy to give recognition to key individual efforts by certain members of the team, it’s just as important to recognize the way in which Toronto battles as a team. In Wednesday night’s win over Atlanta, the Raps got a massive 52 points off the bench. In contrast, the Hawks only managed 27 from Dennis Schroeder and company. It’s a bench that’s starting to receive recognition as one of the best in the league, and of course one massive upside is the flexibility it gives coach Dwayne Casey in managing floor time for his stars like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Last season, they played 3,017 and 2,862 minutes respectively, good enough for third and 13th most minutes played in the league. For context, between the two teams that played in the 2014 Finals, only one man (LeBron) was in the top-20 for minutes played during the regular season. A well-managed bench allows your stars to rest and gives you some real step come spring.

While the Raps are getting some key input from their bench players, the other major contenders in the conference are putting the fate of their teams in the hands of players who have had their fair share of recent struggles.

In Cleveland, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving haven’t meshed with LeBron as well as the locals were hoping for when King James announced he’d be returning to his home state. The Cavs are 7-7 and currently sit in the middle of the conference. There’s speculation that General Manager David Griffin is looking to adjust the line-up via the trade market, which is never a good thing this early in the season.

Chicago, the other powerhouse team in the conference, will be praying that Derrick Rose can banish the demons in his hamstrings and calves if they want to push for a championship.

If both of these sides can get their acts together, things might become a little more competitive at the top of the conference.

The excitement amongst Raps fans through the first month of play turned to amused scoffs on Thursday as Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Results predicted that the team had a 100 per cent chance of making the playoffs, a 71 per cent chance of making the Finals and an achievable season record of 77-5. Phil Jackson and the members of the ’95-’96 Bulls, however, need not worry. Theirs is a record that is not likely to be overturned, even if these Raptors manage some sort of miracle this season.

That said, there’s not much to criticize the Raps for through the first month of the season, and that’s all you can ask for. They have beaten the teams they’ve had to beat, and more often than not, they’ve done it in convincing style.

Sure, it hasn’t been nearly long enough into the season to give serious weight to far-reaching predictions like Hollinger’s. But the way we see it, the men in red just need to continue putting on a performance consistent with how they’ve played the past few weeks and Toronto fans can allow cautious optimism to give way to real excitement. And if the Raptors manage to do it undefeated, too, maybe 77-5 isn’t quite so crazy after all.

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