No need for panic: it's not a wrap for the Raptors heading into playoffs
We can all agree that the NBA season is a long one, correct? This is obviously not to excuse any lapse of quality play from good teams, but it’s certainly understandable.
That being said, teams either get hot or have a shaky finish as they stumble into the playoffs, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the momentum will carry into the post-season. Lord knows we’ve seen teams fizzle out quickly (which is why the banged up Warriors can’t really be snuffed out as title favourites).
As far as the Toronto Raptors are concerned, they’re in a position they’ve never been in before, so it’s difficult to gauge whether or not the outside world should have faith in them having a deep run and being the first non-LeBron Eastern Conference team to reach the NBA Finals since 2010. Not only does that speaks to the dominance of LeBron, but also that parity in the East sucks and we’re in dire need for some change. Warriors-Cavs part 4 would be historic for storyline purposes, but it’s like watching a Patriots-Giants Superbowl again (no thank you).
After enjoying an amazing run of winning 20 of 22 games since late January, the month of March wasn't pleasant for the Raptors, as they prepare for a daunting finish to the regular season. They’ve lost four of their last seven, including an ejection-fest against OKC, and a thriller in Cleveland on the end of a back-to-back. In both games they surrendered 132 points, uncharacteristic of a top-5 ranked defense in the Association. With having given up 110+ points to 7 of their last 8 opponents, and stagnant play against lesser teams, critics are finding it uneasy to believe the Raptors will be fresh enough to make a run in the playoffs.
But I don’t believe there's much cause for concern. The reason being three key components: the Coach, the all-Star back court, and the bench.
Getting fresh legs is important, but the chemistry has been on point with the reset of the culture in Toronto for this season. A few bad games doesn’t suddenly dissolve all of that. But one thing that Toronto teams can’t seem to overcome is the pressure of high expectations. With the exception of Toronto FC winning the MLS Cup last year, the city has seen its fair share of disappointment. Look no further than 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays, who were in prime win-now situations and reached the ALCS both years, but squandered both opportunities and have watched their window for success close on them since.
The Raptors team who went to the East Finals in 2016 did win 56 games, but there weren’t any aspirations for titles. Getting out of the first round wasn’t something they’d done since 2001. The franchise was just happy to be where they were, and overachieved against weaker teams. Let’s be real, no one but the Cavs were getting out of the East and everyone knew it.
This is the first year in franchise history that the Raptors are seriously being looked at as contenders, and the fact that some American analysts are respecting that is quite something to believe. If the Raptors don’t get to at least the Conference Finals, it’s a failed season, and there’s no way around that. Those expectations weren’t set at the beginning of the season because no one knew how the team would respond to the “culture reset” that president Masai Ujiri wanted. No one knew that the bench full of unproven role players would happen to be the best in the NBA. No one knew that DeMar DeRozan’s playmaking ability would ascend over the course of the season, and certainly, no one expected the Raptors to hold steady at the top of the East for as long as they have, with a legitimate chance to clinch it. These expectations were grown through the quality of play, and since winning is what the team and fans have been accustomed to this season, it’s way beyond being happy to be in the playoffs; it’s about changing the narrative and adding some much needed hardware.
There’s no reason to panic. As much as the team has been scrutinized for past failures, this season has turned over a new leaf and there are too many players on the team and staff in the building who are hungry enough to go after it and take what they want. It's pretty much the Finals or Bust, and that’s the right attitude for success one would want from their teams. Obviously we don’t know how far they’ll go, but the hope is that they don’t revive the miseries of old.
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