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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Why the Toronto Raptors are a dark horse in the East

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Before the 2017-18 NBA season even started, analysts and fans alike were already chalking up another Cleveland-Golden State Finals. And for good reason: the two teams have squared off in the big dance three seasons in a row. Clearly, there was a departure from parity in professional basketball.

This past offseason was one of the craziest in recent memory. Chris Paul signed with the Rockets, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George joined the reigning MVP Russel Westbrook in Oklahoma City and the Celtics made two blockbuster moves: shipping Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving and signing Gordon Hayward after a career year. In order to beat a super team, you have to become one.

Even after all of these moves were made, TNT’s Charles Barkley publicly said it’s inevitable that Golden State and Cleveland would duel again for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Can the NBA really be that cut and dry?

This season is just about at its halfway mark, and it looks like the aggressive offseason moves have paid off. Irving’s hot hand has led the Celtics (30-10) to the No. 1 spot in the east, even without the injured Hayward, and the Rockets (26-9) are narrowly behind Golden State (29-8) in the West. Thomas has yet to suit up for them due to a nagging hip injury and Cleveland (24-12) is currently third in the East only because of LeBron James’ ageless, MVP-caliber play.

With all these storylines, it’s no surprise that the Toronto Raptors have slipped under the radar. So far this season, the Raptors have quietly nabbed the No. 2 spot in the East with a 24-10 record. The Raptors boast the NBA’s third-best net rating (a team’s point differential per 100 possessions) at 7.3, trailing only the Rockets (7.4) and Warriors (9.1). Additionally, the Raptors do a great job of hustling, causing 15.7 deflections per game, along with 5.8 blocks and 8.8 steals per game. They’re a top-five team in all of those stats, showing they have a high motor on the defensive end of the floor.

Despite this, talking heads aren’t giving the Raptors the attention they deserve. Instead, the focus has been on how hot the Celtics are — especially during their 16-game win streak that ended in late November — and LeBron’s crazy numbers: 27.8 points, 9.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game. Combine the Raptor’s offensive efficiency with their scrappy defensive mentality, and you’ve got a team that very well may give both Boston and Cleveland trouble in the playoffs. Toronto’s strengths would be magnified if either Boston or Cleveland overlooks them, as they dream of playing each other in the conference finals.

Now, Toronto hasn’t had much playoff success recently. In each of the past two seasons, Cleveland has knocked out the Raptors. They swept them in 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals and beat them 4-1 in the conference finals the year before.

These recent playoff defeats will only serve as fuel to motivate Toronto’s stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. It’s obvious these two are the key to the Raptor’s success, but late first-rounder OG Anunoby out of Indiana has been a pleasant surprise for the team. Anunoby tore his ACL last January, yet still made his season debut in October. By mid-November, the slashing Anunoby cracked the starting lineup and has been a big contributor ever since. He’s even garnered comparisons to Kawhi Leonard: a stout defender who can force his way to the basket on the other end of the floor.

Serge Ibaka has also contributed to the Raptor’s success. The team acquired him via a trade last February, and his main contributions have come through rebounds and blocks. The Raptors look promising thus far this season, and if they keep it up, the playoffs won’t be a cake walk for Cleveland. All this premature talk of a fourth straight Cavaliers-Warriors finals ought to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when you consider the deadly midrange game DeRozan has.

Anyway, it’s not even halfway through the season yet, and Hayward and Thomas haven’t played a full game. Still, come playoff time, don’t sleep on the Raptors.

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