The Raptors historically don’t have much to boast about in the playoff department. They have only been able to claw to the Conference Finals a single time in their 23-year history and only nine total Raptors teams have made it past April. A conference semis appearance is all they have to show for the Vince Carter era and with the current DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry era faring just as poorly in terms of playoff success, watching the Raptors soar to the first seed in the East this season feels like watching a young child attempt to ride a bike without training wheels for the third time in his life and merely preparing for him to crash into a tree.
The Raptors have impressed mightily up to this point, with some pretty convincing wins over the Rockets and Cavaliers under their belts, and the numbers back this up. They are the only team in the league to rank top five in both points: scoring and in defensive rating. After adopting a much more adept three-point game and DeRozan-Lowry duo firing on all cylinders, the Raptors are on pace for their franchise’s all-time best record.
However, their general history of flaming failure gives this season a very Icarus-like feel to it. The past two seasons both ended in 50 win campaigns and both ended at the hands of the Cavaliers, who, despite their rocky tumbles, still have LeBron James and after loading up on assets at the trade deadline, still have their scopes aimed right at Toronto. Not to mention the Celtics have made a return to form thanks to the efforts of Kyrie Irving and a stellar draft record in years past.
Though both the Cavaliers and Celtics haven’t looked invincible all season long, especially considering the Dwane Casey and company sit at a 2-1 combined record against them, the Raptors’ brilliance still seems fleeting because of their traditional playoff failures. And with the Celtics starting to steady the ship with a 6-1 record in the last seven and other teams like the Pacers and Sixers starting to find their stride, a normal Raptors’ team wouldn’t have it in them to crawl out of the East.
However, this is not your grandparents’ Raptors team.
In the past few seasons, the Raptors play was very reliant on the production of DeRozan and Lowry. Last season, Lowry and DeRozan had a higher combined usage rating (59.2) than the Warriors’ MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (57.9). While stars are designed to be banked on for the majority of a team’s success, the Raptors duo combined 46.9 PER should not be leaned on more than the Warrior’s combined 52.2 PER.
To keep pounding their hard-nosed hero ball mindset last season, the Raptors placed dead last in the league in assist numbers with a measly 18.5 assists per game. This evidently put a ton of pressure on DeRozan and Lowry and when they couldn’t deliver like the superstars the Raptors required them to be, the team falls apart. In last season’s playoffs, Lowry went down with an injury after only two games and DeRozan only mustered up 20 points per game against the Cavaliers, who effectively swept them.
Yet this season has been a different story in both mindset and method. The assist numbers have exploded over last season’s totals as they average 5.4 more assists per game. Coupled with the lessened usages of DeRozan and Lowry and deeper spread of the wealth (going from seven players above a 15 usage rating to nine players), there’s a good reason why they have a clamp on the first seed in the East.
This is also why the Raptors may actually be for real this season. They customarily collapsed in the playoffs because two All-Star level players cannot carry a team like an entire team can. Especially when either Lowry or DeRozan get into a rut, the Raptors simply never had the gas to make up for the loss. In the regular season, they could coast just fine against average teams by being carried by DeRozan. But come playoff time where the game slows down and success hinges on team basketball over hero ball, the Raptors’ talent faded.
But now they have finally adopted a team-first style. Finally lessened the load on DeRozan and Lowry with the quiet consistency of Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka. And the record shows. They more than likely will break their franchise wins record and have truly built themselves for a deep run in the playoffs. In the regular season, they now steamroll teams and can hold their own against some of the top teams in the league.
And the longer the Cavs can’t figure themselves out, the more likely only the streaky Celtics stand in their way. A tough but winnable matchup as both teams have split the season series up to this point. Despite their reputations, the Raptors have completely shifted their mindsets this year and because of it, Toronto may ultimately enjoy Finals basketball for the first time in their history.