Led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors could make a splash in the East.
The Raptors are pretty good all of a sudden. They’re not “fire your head coach with the best record in the conference good,” but they are turning some heads. Kyle Lowry has stepped it up: he’s shooting more threes at a higher percentage with his total scoring up from 17.8 to 20.7 points per game, and he’s getting to the stripe more and making a higher percentage of his freebies.
DeMar DeRozan may have taken an even bigger jump than Lowry this season. He’s averaging a career high 23.2 points per game, a career high 4.1 assists per game, and a career high 8.1 free throw attempts per game. He is living in the lane, like pitching a tent and bringing a sleeping bag, with a league leading 11.9 drives per game. The DeRozan recipe is simple: dribble through guys, elevate over them, and rattle home three-footers as they foul you out of necessity.
It helps that the exciting Toronto backcourt has one of the most fun color announcers in Jack Armstrong, “HELLOO!”
The improvement of Toronto’s star backcourt is not the only thing that makes this team a force to be reckoned with. They also quietly made some great moves this offseason to get deeper and better defensively. Interestingly enough, the Raptors actually have the exact same record at this point as they did last year: 29-15. This belies their improvement. Last year, they coasted through a dreadful Eastern Conference, didn’t play a lick of defense, and then got swept by Paul Pierce‘s “I called game,” five-seed Wizards, who weren’t even that good.
This year, they’ve jumped from 23rd to 10th in defensive rating, mostly due to their acquisition of the two stalwarts Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. These two guys come off the bench, but they’re still two of Toronto’s better players. In fact, Toronto’s two best lineups by plus/minus both have Joseph and Biyombo in them.
Cory Joseph is one of those ball-hawking, tenacious guards who is glued to his guy for 94 feet. It’s surprising when he lets his man go to the huddle unimpeded for timeouts. Biyombo, who has some serious and sometimes comical stone hands on offense, is a monster patrolling the paint defensively. He is one of the best rim protectors in the league, and Raptors GM Masai Ujiri grabbed him for two years at just $5.7 million.
These two signings didn’t just make the Raptors better defensively; it also made them deeper. When starting center Jonas Valanciunas missed 17 games with a hand injury, Biyombo was able to fill in adequately, allowing the Raptors to go 11-6. When they’re fully healthy, the Raptors now sport a solid bench that comes in with energy and plays with chemistry, a key ingredient to a successful team. On Sunday, they destroyed a Clippers bench that was much heralded this offseason, flipping a 12-point deficit into a 12-point lead. Joseph and Biyombo had +/- marks of +33 and +24 respectively.
There seems to be space in the east for Toronto as well. At this point, it’s not insane to imagine the Raptors giving the Cavs some trouble in the Eastern Conference Finals. First, they’d have to get there. Let’s give them the second seed, just because they’re sitting comfortably there now and no other team has shown any reason why they should be expected to catch up.
There are a myriad of teams they could see in the first round, but the only one that could pose any true trouble would be a Miami team that has underperformed in the regular season due to injury and age, but could get healthy at the right time to be one of those dangerous seven-seeds. It doesn’t take the biggest imagination to see a fully healthy Bosh and Wade tandem knocking off a top-seed in the playoffs, but a lot has to go wrong for Toronto for that to happen. Giving the Raptors the benefit of the doubt (and just for argument’s sake), let’s slide them into the next round.
Chicago or Atlanta might bother them a little more in the second round, but it’s nothing that Toronto’s home court shouldn’t be able to stave off. Chicago just has too much uncertainty in the frontcourt. Are they going to continue to rely on Bobby Portis? Can Doug McDermott play enough defense to stay on the court? Is Derrick Rose ever going to not be bad again?
The Atlanta Hawks are a little scarier. They still have their core from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals team, minus DeMarre Carroll, who was nabbed by, guess who, the Raptors. Millsap and Horford are as potent as ever, but Korver has suffered from severe regression, an understandable setback after his monster season. The Hawks, however, aren’t without their flaws. Tiago Splitter hasn’t gelled quite as well as they may have hoped, averaging a paltry 0.69 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls, one of the worst marks in the NBA.
This podcast also points out two other major issues with the Hawks this season. Jeff Teague has struggled, and the entire Hawks team has been dreadful on the boards, second worst in the league. Teague’s shooting is down to 38% in January; he’s only playing 28.4 minutes per game; and his shot chart is really ugly, especially in the paint. He’s not even closing games at this point, as backup point guard Dennis Schröder has taken on that role. It’s really hard to see him keeping up with Lowry in a series.
So now it’s the Eastern Conference Finals, and it’s LeBron James, and it’s unlikely. But it’s not impossible. Lowry and DeRozan are really good players smack in the middle of their primes, and they’re giving elite teams fits. This year, the Raptors have beaten the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the Clippers twice, and the Spurs. They took the Warriors to the final buzzer in Oracle, and as for the Cavs, they’ve split the series, each team winning at home. They can beat anyone.
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