February 29, 2016 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
When this regular season started, Cleveland was the favorite to win the NBA title, let alone the prohibitive favorite to represent the East. Before the first tip that counted, the Cavs were established with 1:2 odds to win the conference (according to the Westgate Vegas Superbook). The presumptive runner-up was Chicago at 11:2. Going into this past week, Cleveland's stance appears to be fully intact, if not better. The odds for the Cavs to return to the Finals is now a shade short of 1:5 (2:9, to be exact). But could a challenger finally be emerging?
Although they were the favorites to claim their third straight Atlantic Division crown, Toronto was a mere afterthought when discussing the organization's first trip to the ultimate championship round. At 15:1, the Raptors were muddled in a group of teams (Miami, Indiana, Washington) sitting behind the conference's top trio (Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta). However, this team appeared to be set on changing opinions early. A 5-0 start showed promise, but momentum sputtered quickly. By New Years' Eve, the league's only Canadian franchise was a solid 20-13. The turn of the calendar, though, they've hit another gear. An eleven-game winning streak was the centerpiece in their 19-5 stretch since 2015 became 2016...
... until this past Friday night, that is. Behind 43 points from point guard Kyle Lowry, Toronto staged a double-digit comeback to squeak past the favored Cavaliers. This victory meant more than pulling the Raptors to within two games of Cleveland (this held despite the team's loss in Detroit on Sunday). It also solidified a 2-1 season series win for them, with both notches coming at home. Now, everyone knows that Toronto holding home-court advantage in a series against Cleveland shouldn't be as significant at this point (we'd expect the Cavs to figure out how to win over the border by May). Getting that kind of victory — in that kind of way and over that kind of favorite — is a huge confidence boost.
So, could the Raptors (now hovering around a 7:1 second favorite in the East) be the contender to crash Cleveland's stroll to another Finals appearance? There's a lot to appreciate about the collection of talent on this squad. They're led by an All-Star backcourt. Point guard Kyle Lowry was voted in as a starter, while shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was selected as a reserve for the Eastern team. After Sunday's matchup, Toronto sported the sixth-best margin of victory in the league (+4.5 ppg). The offensive efficiency of this team is fifth among NBA squads (106.6). Their defense also sported high marks as the 5th-stingiest in the Association (97.9 papg). And while taking a number of threes that stood around the league average, the Raptors were hitting them at a clip only two teams could best (36.8%).
There are also some items that create pause in getting completely behind this team. Even with the high efficiency numbers, the Raptors are merely average when it comes to putting points of the scoreboard (13th at 102.3 ppg). They're sub-standard in the rebounding department (tied for 17th at 43.0 rpg), which could be an issue against a myriad of potential postseason opponents (Chicago or Detroit in the first round; Boston in the second round; then, of course, Cleveland). And, despite having a favorable record against most of the conference's playoff contenders, Toronto's had their troubles with Chicago. The Bulls are 3-0 against the Raptors this season (the last installment of the regular season happens March 14th at the Air Canada Centre). What would you figure that these two might meet up to being their respective postseason runs?
One thing's for certain. Even if the Bulls are standing in the Raptors' way, at least it won't be Paul Pierce.
That leads me into the two items that will intrigue me about this squad going into the Playoffs. Over the past two years, no man has been as big of the thorn in the world of Toronto sports as "The Truth." Pierce has been a key leader (and not necessarily a star player) on the opponents that have ended the Raptors' respective seasons (Brooklyn in 2014 & Washington in 2015). That won't be a problem this season, as Pierce has taken his "it factor" commentary to Los Angeles. But, who knows? Maybe Toronto GM Masai Ujiri can find another source of inspiration to cuss out during the pre-Playoff prep rally.
The other question mark for this squad is the status of DeMarre Carroll. The veteran power forward has been out of action since January 3rd (arthroscopic knee surgery). Ujiri recently said that there was no timetable for Carroll's return, but he's expected to get back in the thick of things before the end of the regular season. Here's the crux of the matter. Carroll went north of the border as a free agent, having been convincing enough as a big piece of last season's Hawks squad that sported the East's best record. However, in the wake of Carroll's absence, Toronto has gone 18-5 (including the aforementioned 11-game win streak). Overall, the Raptors are 25-10 in games that Carroll never took part in. So, is he the missing piece to a prolonged postseason run, or is this a "Blake Griffin East" situation?
The last three seasons have shown the NBA a renaissance of hoops in Southern Canada. The Raptors organization appears to be building to bigger and better things than just being that anomaly on the league's American roadmap. If they can figure out their recent playoff issues, they'll provide Cleveland with a worthy opponent and us fans with a possibly fantastic series to anticipate.