The Raptors Road To The Finals May Be Easier Than Ever
One thing we know about this year’s NBA playoffs is that they probably have big implications on what Kawhi Leonard’s future looks like. The fact that U.S media are covering something regarding the Raptors is cool but, when the main topic is the skepticism surrounding this upcoming offseason people tend to forget about this upcoming postseason. Despite being one of the best Eastern Conference teams for the past six years, they’ve become somewhat of a laughing stock in the league due to their yearly playoff meltdowns. Something makes this team different than those of years past and it, along with other factors make this team destined for some sort of success even if it is just this one run. The Lowry, DeRozan era was undoubtedly the franchise’s most successful to date but the defining feature of those years (especially the end) is a guy named Lebron James. And that’s where this starts.
A New King Has to Be Crowned
No one is happier than the Raptors that LeBron made his way West California this offseason to join Magic, Kobe and Kareem in that coveted Lakers Legends club. The past three seasons, the Raptors were tasked with going through LeBron’s Cavaliers at some point, getting swept twice (2017 & 2018) and taking them to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. Without the pressure of LeBron looming over their heads, the Raptors confidence going into these playoffs should be higher than ever on that reasoning alone.
Experience, Experience, Experience
Going into these playoffs the Raptors are well equipped in terms of the “been there, done that” scale. In fact, more than ever before. They added two NBA Champs to the starting lineup in Kawhi (Finals MVP) and Danny Green to a team that’s already very used to playoff basketball. The five starters (Gasol as C) have a total of 320 playoff games played going into this postseason. Three guys have been to finals (four if you include Pat McCaw) and two others have been to the Conference Finals which is more than most teams other than the Celtics who made it to the ECF. Experience plays into every series and against teams like the Magic, Sixers (probable second-round opponent) and either the Bucks or Celtics (probable ECF matchups) they hold the advantage.
Aside from the recent appendectomy OG Anonouby received, the Raptors are at full strength and will be (knock on wood) for the entirety of the playoffs. With OG’s play this season, he had fallen down to about the nine or tenth man which wouldn’t impact the series a whole lot anyway. Obviously not great news coming from the Raptors but it won’t sway any of these matchups one way or another. As for the other top-four Eastern Conference teams, there’s not as much luck.
Philadephia 76ers, Joel Embiid, missed 12 of the last 24 games of the season due to a knee injury and today (April 12) came out and said the soreness is getting worse. The 76er’s are much worse on both offence and defence without the All-Star big man having 9.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the court. As a second-round matchup for the Raptors, wear and tear might pose problems for this young team.
The Milwaukee Bucks had two major injuries to Nikola Mirotic and Malcom Brogdon late in the season. They’re both supposed to be back by the time the Raptors would end up playing them but reintroducing them into the lineup might give the Bucks some issues that would give the Raptors an edge in the series.
Boston’s Marcus Smart went down with an oblique injury late this season that will sideline him until the end of the second round. Smart isn’t considered a make or break player in terms of his talent but when it comes to passion and heart that’s where he outranks most NBA players. The issues surrounding the Celtics all year have been chemistry and heart, which was the one thing Smart offered. Like the bucks, they’ll be looking to reinstate their rotations with the addition of Smart and the Raptors aren’t the team you want to be managing your roster against.
The other top three teams in the East are all facing some sort of injury issues while the Raptors have managed Kawhi and Lowry’s load well to keep them healthy for a deep playoff run. This rendition of the team from up North look poised for a full playoff with their top three guys being as healthy as possible. The Sixers and Bucks can’t say the same and the Celtics heart was taken.
Easy Schedule (Relatively Speaking)
The first round for the Raptors will be relatively easy as they face the seventh seed Orlando Magic. The Magic went 42-40 this regular season but come into the playoffs winning their last four games and 8 of 10. They haven’t been a good road team going 17-24 which opens up a probable early 2-0 lead for the Raptors. A sweep is most definitely in play for this series but a good game from ex-Raptor, Terrence Ross can steal the Magic a game, maybe two.
We don’t know exactly who we’ll be playing in the second but it’s either the Sixers or Nets. The obvious pick to me in the series is the Sixers but the possibility of not having Embiid is worrisome for Philly. Let’s say we do match up against the Nets, it’s basically the same case I have for the series against the Magic. The Raptors are just a much better team. Brooklyn can get hot from beyond the arc but that will get them through a game or two, not an entire seven-game series.
In terms of Philadelphia, the Raptors have had their number all season long going 3-1 in the season series. These two haven’t been matched up post-trade deadline so that might not be a good representation of these two teams anymore. Since the February deadline, the Raptors after adding Marc Gasol, have the fourth-best net rating in the league (7) and the 76ers, after adding Tobias Harris, have the 12th (1.6). The Sixers probably have the better starting five but it’s pretty damn close. Regardless, the Raptors will have the best player in that series in Kawhi Leonard, especially if the rumours about Embiid’s knee are true.
ROUND 3 (ECF):
Barring a meltdown from either team, the ECF will either see the Bucks or Celtics. The Milwaukee Bucks are the favourite to come out of the East with good reason, as they were the only team in the NBA to win 60 games and own the best net rating in the NBA. They have the probable MVP running both their offence (fourth best) and their defence (best). However, since the trade deadline acquisition of Marc Gasol, the Raptors have a better net rating and better defence than the Bucks by a hair. The Raptors will be able to overpower the Bucks on the offensive end as there will be four or five legitimate options to score on the court at any given moment. The Bucks took the season series but that’s nothing to worry about as a Raptors fan, we know the regular season means nothing when playoff time comes.
The Celtics are the toughest matchup to me in the playoffs. They’re the only team as deep as the Raptors and have a bit more top-level talent when they’re clicking on all cylinders. The first two rounds might be exactly what the Celtics need to get back into the swing of things and become that 60+ win team everyone (except Raptors fans) was hoping for. Before the season, my regular season goal for the Raps was to get home-court advantage over Boston in the playoffs because it will make it that much easier to win a game seven if needed. Like I’ve said, the Raptors are great at home so a do or die win in Toronto is almost expected. This series will more than likely go the wire and having that extra little advantage might make a huge difference in how the series ends.
Getting to the NBA Finals is by no means an easy task. Nobody cares about what you did in the regular season and everyone thinks they have a chance to win it all. This Raptors team, however, has seemed to peak at the right time giving fans and the team a great deal of optimism. I’ve been knocking on all sorts of wood throughout my time writing this, but the Raptors look better than ever with the added benefit of not having to see, hear or feel the King’s wrath at any point. What’s the likelihood of the Raptors making the Finals for the first time in franchise history? To me, it’s more likely that they do than not.