The Toronto Raptors have gotten on a nice run, winning 10 of their last 13 games and moving up to third place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. We’ll take a closer look at the Raptors and ask a question with a double meaning—can this team reach the second round of the playoffs, and what’s more can they be a legitimate second round team?—i.e., not just one tat cashes in because the rules require that two teams join the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers in the semi-finals of the awful Eastern Conference.
Toronto is a deep team, with eight players making substantive contributions, and they have good floor balance. DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay each score 20-plus points per game, and give the Raptors offensive explosiveness on the wing. Kyle Lowry not only provides scoring at point guard, but is the team’s best three-point shooter. Terrence Ross is another guard who can come off the bench and hit the trey.
The Raptors, with all this perimeter strength, have the ability to go small and spread the floor. But they can also produce on the interior. Amir Johnson is a respectable scorer at power forward and a pretty good rebounder. Jonas Valanciunas, the 21-year-old Lithuanian center is also scoring in double figures and grabbing eight boards per game. Patrick Patterson provides rebounding help off the bench.
It’s also worth noting that all of these players are young, with no one older than 27 years old. Come playoff time, that will be a hindrance, as we’ve all learned that the NBA postseason is a time for veterans. But for a team trying to work its way up the standings against mediocre competition, the value of young, fresh legs is going to be an asset for Toronto.
The areas fresh legs matter most is defense, and it’s on this end of the floor that the Raptors are making it happen. They rank sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Toronto is also just above average in rebounding, although they are better at going to the offensive glass (8th in offensive rebounding versus 15th in defense). If the Raptors can start cleaning up the defensive boards with the same proficiency, their numbers on D will look even sharper.
Toronto’s recent 10-3 run has been even more impressive than it looks on the surface. The only losses were road defeats at Miami, Indiana and San Antonio. The Raptor also won on the road at Oklahoma City and beat Indiana at home. What’s more, they tacked on five wins against teams that are either currently in the Eastern Conference’s top eight or came against Brooklyn and New York, the talented teams on the outside looking in, but starting to play better.
Those five victories—twice against the Knicks, along with Brooklyn, Detroit and Washington—show both the strength and weaknesses of the Raptors. They do a consistent job rebounding the ball, and have the right combination of offensive balance, while still having a clear go-to player, as DeRozan carried the load in three of the games.
The schedule for the rest of January is not all that imposing, so now is the time for Toronto to keep playing well and consolidate its position at the #3 spot in the Eastern Conference.
To answer our question at the top, I don’t have any problem with saying Toronto can be a top four team in the Eastern Conference all year and win a first-round series, even if the youth is a bit of a concern in the playoffs. The second part of that question—can such success be about more than just having the luck of the draw on the bad side of the NBA—is tougher.
Toronto would still be in ninth in the Western Conference, and that’s even allowing for the Western teams beating up on each other. If the league was more equally distributed, the Raptors still have the horses to be a legitimate playoff team, but probably not much more.
But for a franchise that hasn’t been in the postseason since 2008, and not seen the second round since the days of Vince Carter back in 2001, this constitutes really good progress. And given the youth of the team, the best is still to come.