The Toronto Raptors May Be The NBA’s Best Hope To Take Down The Warriors
Raise your hand if you’re tired of seeing the Golden State Warriors play LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Well lucky for us, one half of that equation isn’t even in the playoffs. But in the deadly Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors continue their drive towards their 4th rings in 5 years.
After years of being mocked as “choke artists,” the Toronto Raptors have really turned over a new leaf this season. With the trade for Kawhi Leonard and a much improved supporting cast, the Raptors are a true title contender. Still, fans are simply dismissing them in favor of the Milwaukee Bucks. I guess production really does speaks louder than anything else.
Injuries Took Their Toll
With the blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard, expectations for the Toronto Raptors remained high. Still, with a new coach and personnel, nobody expected Toronto to get off to the 12–1 torrid start they did. The Raptors claimed the no. 1 seed to begin the season and showed everyone they weren’t to be taken lightly.
From there onwards, the Raptors continued their strong play finishing the season 58–24, 2nd in the East. A fantastic mark considering Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and even Jonas Valanciunas (when he was on the roster) missed significant time this season.
Without that no. 1 seed, the Raptors didn’t get the respect of NBA fans, but frankly, they don’t care. After years of seeing their Finals hopes diminish with injuries to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors were more focused on being healthy than grabbing the no. 1 seed. A smart strategy considering the injury history of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
The Impact of Nick Nurse
Despite winning coach of the year, Dwayne Casey was fired after last season’s 4–0 sweep. The Raptors playoffs woes lingered year after year and everyone knew Casey was just about finished. The Raptors opted to promote assistant coach Nick Nurse to head coach, and Nurse has done a fantastic job in that role.
Like Dwayne Casey, Nurse has shown a great knack for player development. We see the huge bump in production from Pascal Siakam this year. But even when he was an assistant, he did a fantastic job developing Valanaciunas’ three-point shot. Nurse has got the best out of a lot of players this year.
More than anything, Nurse has done a fantastic job being a head coach. Integrating Leonard into this offense, getting guys into roles they’ll excel in, setting up a defensive system that boasts this team’s strengths, he’s done it all. Nurse has been a perfect fit as Toronto’s head man, as he will continue for a long time.
Star Power Is Key
You know your team is pretty good when Kyle Lowry is your 4th best player. We’re in the era of super teams where star power is at a premium. Kawhi Leonard is a superstar and Kyle Lowry’s ability is well documented, but nobody expected these sort of contributions from Pascal Siakam. A much-improved ball handler, Siakam can act as the point forward for this team. He’s an adept scorer, passer, rebounder, and absolutely lockdown defender.
With the trade for Marc Gasol, this team is primed for a championship run. Playing in Memphis people forget, but Gasol remains one of the best centers in the NBA. He’s a perfect fit for this offense. He can spread the floor as a shooter, he’s an elite defender, and you can run the offense through him. If all else fails, hit him in the post and let him work.
A Complete Roster
The Raptors have the star power to compete with anyone, but you always need solid role players to win championships. This Toronto team is littered with that. Starting 2 man Danny Green is one of the very best 3-and-D players in the NBA. OG Anunoby is of the same mold. Fred VanVleet gives you 11.0 PPG and 4.8 APG off the bench. Norman Powell is having a career season shooting 40.0% from three.
Nurse has built an outstanding big man rotation. With Siakam and Gasol starting it off, reliable veteran Serge Ibaka can come in and play either big man spot. Having a resurgent season under Nurse, Ibaka comes in gives you the ability to score, with no drop off on the defensive side.
The Clamps On Defense
Fueling their early season success was the gaudy defense. From the moment Nick Nurse took over, you could see the difference in how the Raptors played defense. Toronto plays excellent help defense, they switch seamlessly, communicate, all the marks of a top tier defense.
A strong defensive system is only half the equation, you need individual defenders who can get the job done. Kawhi remains the best perimeter defender in the league. Green, Siakam, and Gasol are some of the best defenders in the NBA. Even Kyle Lowry is very underrated on that side of the ball.
The Raptors play defense as one unit, it’s a beauty to watch honestly. Toronto ranks top 5 in defensive efficiency this year. There’s a case to be made they would be even higher if not for the injuries to key players.
Alpha Dog Kawhi Leonard
Regular season numbers are awesome, but the thing that separates the good from the elite is the ability to step it up in the playoffs. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, there’s a reason these sort of guys are so highly coveted.
While he doesn’t desire the spotlight, Kawhi Leonard comes in and dominates in the playoffs. Not just on offense, Kawhi locks players down on defense as well. In the past Toronto has been one of the best in the regular season, but never had that guy who could step in up in the playoffs. Well, now they do.
Kawhi missed 22 games, a significant chunk of the season, but the Raptors were keeping him out in an effort to keep him healthy. Now in the postseason, everyone is seeing the value of having someone like Kawhi on your roster. Leonard has shattered the competition with 31.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 57.7 FG%, and 46.5 3PT%. Kawhi is a bonafide star. The best players kick it up a notch in the playoffs, Leonard does exactly that.
Can They Take Down Golden State?
Top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, Toronto is one of the very best teams in the NBA. They continue to be overlooked by the Milwaukee Bucks, but this is a team with all the tools to win an NBA championship.
The Raptors have the formula to win. Lockdown defense, multiple scoring options, and strong role players. The added bonus this year has been the improved the 3 point shooting. Toronto shoots 36.6% from beyond the arc, 6th in the NBA. With the outstanding floor spacing, the Raptors’ stars get the opportunity to score with ease.
NBA fans are finally starting to realize how good this Toronto team, but still everyone says “Milwaukee will run the east.” The Bucks are an elite team no doubt about it, but it’s time to respect “the North.” The Raptors have assembled an elite team without paying any big name free agents. They have this sort of hard-nosed attitude to them, all that matters is winning.
The Raptors will match up very well with the Warriors. On defense, they have versatile personnel who can switch everything to make life difficult for the Warriors. But above all, you’re not beating Golden State if you can’t score. The Raptors can surely do that. They can play team ball and get high-efficiency shots, or they’ll hand it to one of their go-to guys to get a basket. Toronto has been overlooked year after year, but they don’t care, all that matters is dethroning those Warriors.
All statistics courtesy of sports-reference.com