With the Cleveland Cavaliers fading and the Washington Wizards languishing, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as the most serious challengers to the Celtics among the East’s veteran squads. Only a game and a half behind Boston, and five games ahead of Cleveland, the Raptors are somehow not being recognized as the threat they are.
“Maybe it’s because we’re in Canada and we still don’t get the respect that we deserve,” said center Jakob Poeltl after the Raptors beat the Hawks in Atlanta Wednesday. “At the end of the day, for us, we’ve got to focus on ourselves. The big goal is finish first in the East and then win the East, go to the Finals.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey said he was extremely disappointed that none of Toronto’s young players — including Poeltl, rookie small forward OG Anunoby, second-year power forward Pascal Siakam and second-year point guard Fred VanVleet — were selected to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star.
“I’m totally shocked and upset about that,” Casey told Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports. “It blows my mind that our young guys weren’t selected. The assistants vote on the young guys and I’m shocked that they didn’t have enough respect for our young guys and what they do and what they bring to our team.”
While Casey stood up for his guys, the players themselves were mostly focused on the task at hand of making a run in the East and collecting accolades later.
“I’m looking at, we’re here not for All-Star,” said center Jonas Valanciunas after the win in Atlanta. “It’s good. It pleases everybody and gives extra motivation. But we’re here for [the] bigger picture. We’re here for winning the championship.”
VanVleet went off on the Hawks for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals after learning that he had been left out.
“Obviously I got a lot of texts,” said VanVleet. “Family and friends were pretty disappointed. I’m not a guy that needs any motivation, but if that was a little bit before the game, so be it. It would have been a nice accomplishment, kind of a nod of respect. But it didn’t happen and we’ve got bigger things to focus on.”
While VanVleet shrugged off the snub of himself, he was more passionate about the fact that his young teammates were left out, especially Anunoby.
“I wasn’t expecting to play in it because I don’t get those types of accolades anyway,” said VanVleet. “But for OG to be a starter on one of the best teams in the NBA, Pascal and Jakob to not be on the World team, and then to look at the list and see some of the guys that are on there, it’s just disappointing that none of our guys got that nod of respect.”
While he was quick to stick up for his teammates, VanVleet echoed Poeltl and Valanciunas in focusing on the task of competing for the top seed in the East.
“We see that we’re close and we know that if we take care of business, we put ourselves in a position to have the number one seed,” said VanVleet. “So that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ll get enough accolades at the end of the day if we reach our ultimate goal.”
The Raptors weren’t totally left out of the All-Star festivities, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were both selected by captain Stephen Curry. Lowry had stated that he didn’t want to play against DeRozan in the All-Star game, and Curry made it happen.
But for the Raptors, the focus remains on seeing how good this team can be by the end of the season. Asked for his projection, Valanciunas said we’ll have to check back.
“We’re going to talk July when I get back from the holidays, and then we’ll talk how good we were,” said Valanciunas.
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