Things got a tad interesting in the Raptors 108–90 loss to the Pacers last night. While the game itself was a rollercoaster — Toronto built up a 19-point lead in the 1st-half only to lose by 18 thanks to a disastrous 3rd and 4th quarter. The contest itself will be remembered for what happened in the dying seconds. With the game over (spare a few ticks on the clock) Lance Stephenson decided to do this:

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed the NBA. Lance has a track record of involving himself in “interesting” situations that I won’t get into, because this is less about him and more about an ongoing shift in the mentality of the Raptors. It needs to be noted that since Charles Oakley left the team 16 years ago, they have a history of well….not being intimidating. There was one point where coach Sam Mitchell was the toughest guy on the team:

To summarize: A rookie Al Horford decks TJ Ford (the smallest guy on the team with a history of neck/spinal injuries) and not one teammate came to his defence. That incident basically summed up a decade of Raptors basketball. Soft.

While Toronto has occasionally gravitated towards a more physical, defence-first approach in the Dwane Casey era, they still hadn’t come across as a team others in the league feared:

  • The Nets willingly lost games down the stretch of the 2014 season to face the Raptors in the playoffs, to then beat them.
  • In 2015, a 37-year old Paul Pierce said Toronto lacked “the it-factor” before their 1st-round series with the Wizards. Washington went on to sweep Toronto.

Even with last year’s playoff run where Toronto finally earned a bit of respect, there was a hint of fugazi-ness about it. The Raps had to scrape by two inferior teams in 14 ugly games, only to lose the ECF to a Cavaliers team that never really took them seriously. Cleveland’s 4 wins were by an average of 28.5 points per game, a laughable margin for such a late stage of the season. The Raptors deserve a ton of credit for winning twice against the eventual NBA champions, but the bottom line is they were never a threat to win that series.

From a win-loss perspective, the 2016–2017 season started successfully: Toronto went 28–13 in the first half of the year, doing so with a league leading offence(113.8 ORTG) and a defence that left a lot to be desired (18th-best, 105.7 DRTG) Eventually their defensive frailty became too much to overcome: Over the next 16 games Toronto went 5–11 with a defensive rating that slipped even further to 106.7. While that rating may have been middle of the pack in the league, probe deeper into who Toronto played and it becomes a whole lot worse. Philly, Phoenix, Orlando x2, Minnesota, Detroit and New Orleans to name a few. If you can’t stop those teams, you’ll have no prayer of containing Mike James, let alone Lebron James come April. Masai Ujiri knew this team needed a change.

Enter Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker.

Since their arrivals, the results have been glorious for the defence from a statistical standpoint. The Raps have posted a 102.7 DRTG, 4th best in the league, a rapid improvement in just over a month.

More than that though, PJ and Serge have proven to be dudes you want on your side come playoff time. We’ve all seen Serge ain’t scared to throw down:

The fight seemed a bit out of character for Ibaka, who generally appears to mild mannered. Even still, he wasn’t about to let Lopez take a shot at him without answering back.

However, it’s Tucker who has become the full-out enforcer. He rallied the troops around Serge’s ejection in the Bulls game to help them comeback and win. He wasn’t shy to call out Demar Derozan for playing shitty defence in a win over Detroit last month, and he isn’t scared to let Lance know his bullshit won’t fly against this Raptors squad. Tucker’s career path hasn’t been straight forward, spending 4 years in Europe to playing in obscurity in Phoenix since 2012. Not the most naturally skilled, he’s the kind of guy that needs to play with grit to have a place in the league, and he’s relishing the opportunity to play meaningful NBA games for the first time at the age of 31. He has become emblematic of the way Toronto has played since his acquisition.

No one knows how the playoffs will unfold, but with a team that’s playing elite defence, getting its best player back (Lowry) and willing to mix it up with anyone, I’d be willing to bet Toronto is a team no one is wanting to play.

Unless it’s the Bulls. PLEASE, NOT THE BULLS!!

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