3 reasons the Raptors will finally overcome their demons and make the Finals
These aren’t the same old Raptors.
No one was more glad to see LeBron James flee the Eastern Conference for the sunny climate of California than the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors had famously and brutally been tormented out of the playoffs by James’ Cavaliers in each of the prior three seasons, leading to Dwane Casey’s dismissal despite winning the Coach of the Year award and, eventually, the blockbuster Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade.
One could argue James’ free agent decision on July 2 — after the Casey move and before the Leonard trade — was the single biggest summer factor in the Raptors’ short-term outlook. Had Toronto not made the other two big moves, they’d quite possibly be in the exact position they are now, gearing up for a shot at making the NBA Finals with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry leading the way.
Instead, no one really seems to know what to make of Toronto’s chances in a James-less East playoff picture. There are some compelling reasons to believe they will reign supreme and make the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.
Here are those reasons.
1. It’s time for Kawhi Leonard to be unleashed.
Leonard is having a phenomenal season, putting up MVP-level production and impact when he plays. What’s keeping him out of the actual MVP conversation is a combination of the supreme excellence of the top two contenders (Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden) and the load management Toronto has been pursuing with Leonard, who missed most of last season with a mysterious quad injury.
Leonard has sat about 20 games to rest and stay healthy. He won’t be sitting in the playoffs. He should be playing more than 34 minutes per game when needed as well, and every minute Leonard — a top-three two-way player, and probably the best isolation defender in the NBA — is on the floor, that’s a huge boon for the Raptors.
This guy has a Finals MVP and has slowed James at that stage twice. He might not be the best player in the East right now because of Giannis’ development, but he is an absolute huge problem for opponents on every possession.
2. Toronto knows how to win in the playoffs (except against James).
The Raptors haven’t been able to make it out of the East. That’s true. But Toronto (with Lowry and Serge Ibaka) has won four playoff series in the last three years. The Bucks, by contrast, have yet to win a single playoff series in the Antetokounmpo era. They will certainly win a series this year. But experience does matter.
The Celtics (especially Al Horford and Kyrie Irving) have good playoff experience, though it’s worth noting that Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward have little more postseason run than, say, Pascal Siakam. The Sixers’ young star duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have played in two playoff series (the second of which didn’t go terribly well for them last year), though Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick have had some long runs. The Pacers’ top players in Victor Oladipo’s absence are young and relatively inexperienced. The veterans have been there, but none have anything like Leonard, Green, and Gasol’s track record.
This formulation of the Raptors is brand new. But taken together, they have the most playoff experience among the East contenders.
3. The Raptors have a clear pecking order and get along.
There are have been no real hints of internal dissension in Toronto, despite the roster upheaval and the dismissal of a popular head coach last summer. Lowry came off as grumpy about the way DeRozan was traded, but that seemed more focused on the front office than new teammates. He’s since had the epitome of a Good Teammate Season, with a career high in assists.
The Raptors get along, and they seem to know who should be getting the ball at any given moment. Leonard is the star, Pascal Siakam and Lowry are the second options, Ibaka or Gasol provide pressure relief, and Green is the designated sniper. Fred VanVleet is the clear back-up to Lowry, and the other bench players fit in where they can. The roster makes sense.
Not all of the East contenders can say that.