The magic is just recovering from Dwight Howard. Cleveland has crashed twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but it took a historic season from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick exit in the first round. History is not sweet for NBA teams losing superstars. It took New Orleans years to get out of Chris Paul’s business. The magic is just recovering from Dwight Howard. Cleveland has crashed twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but it took a historic season from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick exit in the first round.
Toronto won’t be first-round fodder for anyone, and really…Comment did it happen? Leonard was an All-Star, one of the top five talents, the reigning MVP of the Finals. And after beating the Magic, Toronto’s winning percentage (0.731) is the best in franchise history.
There is no voodoo to Raptors success, no secret sauce. Look for one and you come across a series of blank stares and collective shrugs, as if you are the fools to think they shouldn’t be here.
“We do not spend any energy to have this” sporting speech “, Marc Gasol told me. “It’s a good bar speech. We understand that the media has to do this. We know we are not easy to beat. We believe in ourselves. We have a lot of tools, a lot of great players and, to me, the best coaching staff in the NBA.
Indeed. The Raptors are good because they have Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player and 2019 playoff star, who has taken his game to another level. There are traces of Leonard in Siakam, embers of a season of education that remain. His teammates describe Siakam as a workaholic, driven to be tall, empowered by head coach Nick Nurse to be the playmaker few saw when Siakam was an undersized center in New State. -Mexico. Siakam built on a groundbreaking third season, becoming a more willing three-point shooter.
They’re good because of fourth-year goaltender Fred VanVleet enjoying a breakout season of his own. Defense is the key to Toronto’s success and VanVleet has become an integral part of it. Once somewhat of a liability, VanVleet leads the NBA in deflections and ranks in the top five for thefts. In the Raptors locker room, everyone knows that if you don’t fight back, you don’t play.
“You look bad when you’re not playing defense,” VanVleet said. “You stick out like a sore thumb… you don’t want to be that guy.” “
The Raptors are good because of Kyle Lowry, the mainstay, Mr. Raptor, arguably the greatest player in franchise history and the tone giver for this group. A competitive fire still burns inside Lowry, the same flame that pushed him past the North Philadelphia blacktops to Villanova, NBA, to a possible NBA Championship. Up 16 points against Orlando, Lowry barks at Evan Fournier on the free throw line. Up to double digits in the dying minutes, Lowry battles Nikola Vucevic on the offensive glass.
Before the season, Nurse met Lowry. We need more scoring, Said the nurse. Lowry agreed. “It was a short meeting,” the nurse said AND. Lowry responded by increasing his average by six points, raising his percentage from three points to 36% this season.
Ujiri saw this talent, this coaching staff and any idea of demolishing the team was fleeting at best. For months, the Raptors were peppered with commercial calls, with rivals looking to see if Gasol, Serge Ibaka, or even Lowry were available. Ujiri didn’t bite. First-round picks are valuable, sure, but the Raptors believe they can find talent nowhere. Siakam and OG Anunoby were picked up at the end of the first round, Norman Powell in the second while VanVleet and rising rookie Terence Davis were undrafted free agents. The active projects, argued Ujiri, were not worth shattering that core.
Months later, Toronto is firmly established as the number 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and, really – are we sure someone can beat them? The Raptors crushed the Lakers, outlasted the Heat and lost 10 points to Orlando. LeBron James himself has declared them real contenders. Milwaukee will enter the playoffs as a conference favorite, but the Raptors have already beaten the Bucks and have the size to go with them. Siakam and VanVleet will need to come forward and pull off shots in bigger roles, but they have a Championship run to build on.
“We are a team with no excuse,” Gasol said. “I don’t need someone to tell me to believe in something. You go out there and compete and you can beat anybody. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have a lot of parts. I don’t need someone to tell me ‘you can win it’. It’s really tough, and it’s a different year, obviously, but every night we can be one of the good teams.
Here is Toronto, incredibly, incredibly determined to defend their title from the start, armed with the staff and the confidence now to do so. The four-month hiatus healed lingering injuries, giving the nurse the deepest and most talented roster he has had all season.
Minutes after beating Orlando, Ibaka emerged from the makeshift Raptors locker room, walking up the stairs to the weight room, eager to squeeze 15 minutes on the only available treadmill before the last bus. Behind him, Stanley Johnson, eager to do the same.
“You played 25 minutes, Serge,” Johnson said. “Let me start.”
“Five minutes,” Ibaka replied, before disappearing down the stairs.
For Ibaka, for Toronto, the work has only just begun.