Raptors Poised for Historic Run

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The Toronto Raptors could soon find themselves in uncharted territory. They’ve never been the top seed in the East, and the 2015-16 campaign represented their only trip to the conference finals. Those achievements don’t comprise much of a resume for a franchise that joined the league in 1995.

Prior to the recurring post-season appearances that began in 2013-14, the Raptors had advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once (in 2000-01). Their rosters have featured perennial all-stars like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, but the Raptors were unable to cobble together a supporting cast capable of defeating juggernauts like the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls during their tenure.

The latest iteration has been constructed for playoff longevity. Backcourt stalwarts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were joined by defensive maven Serge Ibaka for last season’s playoff run, and his aggressive style has been balanced by the steadiness of seven-foot center Jonas Valanciunas.

Toronto’s presence among the league leaders in team statistics wouldn’t be possible without its depth. As of this writing, Toronto is third in scoring at 122.4 points per contest, which includes significant contributions from C.J. Miles (10.3 average in only 18.9 minutes per game) followed by backup guards Fred VanVleet (8.7 PPG) and Delon Wright (8.2 PPG).

The Raptors are second in blocks per game (6.0), but Serge Ibaka (who is known for excelling in that category) actually trails teammate Jakob Poeltl (1.3 vs. 1.2 on average) despite playing an extra nine minutes per game. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have drained 879 treys (third-best) without contributions of the aforementioned VanVleet, Wright and (surprisingly) Ibaka to complement Lowry’s impressive total of 218 (tied for third as well).

With their squad firing on all cylinders, their primary Eastern Conference foes seem inferior by comparison these days. The Boston Celtics, who emerged as early favorites, are now tasked with completing the stretch run without both Kyrie Irving (out 3-6 weeks following left knee surgery) and Gordon Hayward; the Philadelphia Sixers are intriguing, but still probably a year or two away from becoming a legitimate threat (Toronto has won three of four meetings); and the Washington Wizards have been unable to keep pace without point guard John Wall.

That leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs for the past two seasons. The Cavs’ prowess has been diluted by the Kyrie Irving trade, injuries to Kevin Love (who is being evaluated for a concussion) and the need to reinvent their roster on the fly at the trade deadline. Their team defense is bottom-four in points allowed, opponents’ field goal percentage and in creating turnovers.

But statistical inadequacies can be overcome with LeBron James on the roster. He is capable of willing a team to the NBA Finals on his own. James continues to fill the stat sheet on a nightly basis and he still plays like he has a chip on his shoulder. For all intents and purposes, he is the greatest obstacle in the Raptors’ next-level quest.

For the Raptors, small forward has been their Achilles’ heel this season. Rookie O.G. Anunoby leads the team with 54 starts, in which he averaged a paltry 20.7 minutes and 5.7 points per game. His defensive rating of 102.7 isn’t terrible, but he appears to be functioning as a placeholder while he continues to develop on the job. Backup Norman Powell (105.8 defensive rating) doesn’t offer much resistance and his numbers have regressed in general versus the prior season.

Given the glaring mismatch in a man-to-man scenario, Toronto will need to provide help-side defense (as the Miami HEAT did on Tuesday night) with their shot-blocking specialists and force James to pass out of double teams. Unfortunately for the Raptors, James’ 9.7 assists per game this season are well above his career 7.2 average and he is on pace for an all-time high in that category. Still, it’s probably in their best interest to force the supporting cast to beat them in what will likely be high-scoring contests.

Although the teams split their two meetings (with one remaining), the more recent matchup occurred post-trade deadline, so that seems indicative of how they will perform against one another going forward. LeBron has averaged 30.5 points against the Raptors so far, which exceeds his overall 27.5 PPG by more than 10 percent.

As mentioned previously, the Raptors are on pace to enjoy home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are currently 30-7 at the Air Canada Centre, which has been far better than the Cavs’ 19-18 road record to date. The opportunity to capitalize upon this disparity in the postseason will be paramount.

Predicting the Raptors’ chances against the elite teams from the Western Conference is arguably pointless until they show the ability to advance beyond their own bracket. Hearing “O Canada” before an NBA Finals game would be an accomplishment in and of itself, though.