The Toronto Raptors have the best record in the Eastern Conference and in a few months they may have to change their team slogan from “We The North” to “We The Whole Package.” People put too much stock into regular season records going into the playoffs, but the Raptors seem constructed to compete with, and defeat, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. The NBA postseason is all about individual matchups and the Raptors matchup favourably with every team In the East.
Toronto has eleven players averaging over 16 minutes per game, but we know that teams cut down their rotations during the playoffs so it will be important to look at the eight or nine players most likely to garner big minutes come playoff time. Dwane Casey is an excellent basketball coach: he’s old-school, but not too old-school to adapt to the modern run-and-gun NBA. He also knows that the number of possessions per game decreases in the playoffs. The Raptors are ready.
DeMar averaging more than five assists a game
DeMar DeRozan has rounded out his game completely over the past two seasons. He’s grown up and even become a spokesperson for millions of people suffering with depression. He’s not Carmelo on defense. And that’s a good thing. He has worked very hard to improve his defensive positioning and his hustle on that end of the floor. He is putting up 24 points per game and he understands now that he does not need to dominate the ball to do it. He is focused on winning and he’s capable of taking and making the big shot in a playoff game. DeMar is averaging more than five assists a game for the first time in his career. He understands the flow of the offense and he trusts that he’ll get his touches within that flow.
Kyle Lowry is a professional point guard. He is without a doubt the floor leader. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s effective shooting the three and taking it to the hole. His basketball IQ is higher than Russell Westbrook’s. Lowry is averaging over five rebounds a game as a six-foot point guard. He hustles. He’s a leader by example as well as by action. He’s capable of putting up 30 on any given night. Kyle has been around this team for a long time and he knows what Dwane Casey wants. He knows when to push the pace and when to set up in the half-court.
Jonas Valančiūnas an effective screener both on and off the ball
Jonas Valančiūnas is a seven-footer who is shooting over 47% from 3-point land! He’s shooting 57% overall! He’s a big-body, an effective screener both on and off the ball and he’s very skilled around the basket. He’s an efficient passer out of the high-post. He is the best center of the top three teams in the East. Jonas is only playing 22 minutes per game and that should keep him healthy for a long playoff run. Defensively, he understands that he can stay with his man, play good post defense and box out. He doesn’t have to leave his man too early to block shots because that’s Serge Ibaka’s job.
Speaking of Ibaka, the guy has the athletic ability to roam on defense and the leaping ability to block and alter seven-to-ten shots per game. Offensively, Serge is taking almost four 3’s per game and shooting almost 50% from the field. He can guard everyone from small-forwards to centers. He’s got tons of playoff experience. Ibaka and Valančiūnas are very physically intimidating to opponents, and new Raptor OG Anunoby is another example of physical intimidation as a wing defender with length who doesn’t need the ball to be effective.
The bench is a formidable unit lead by Fred VanVleet, another true point guard who can also hit threes. Pascal Siakam is very athletic and can guard multiple positions. Jakob Poeltl is a very skilled backup center with good hands and a good touch around the basket. C.J. Miles is a scorer. He’s averaging double figures in 18.5 minutes per game and can drain the three, but only puts up eight shots per game. He is comfortable being a role-player and that was not always true. Although Miles has played on several different teams, the Raptors are the best fit for him because he doesn’t need to do too much.
Raptors vs Cavs and Celtics
The playoff matchups against the Cavs and the Celtics are intriguing, but I give the Raptors the edge against either team. If they play Boston, Kyrie Irving presents a problem for Lowry with his quickness, but the Raptors help and recover well enough to contain Kyrie. Valančiūnas and the Toronto big-man rotation presents a clear advantage over Al Horford and Aron Baynes. DeRozan means real problems for the Celtics defense and Ibaka should be able to do his thing against an undersized Jayson Tatum. Furthermore, the Raptors shoot 80% from the line as a team and that counts for a lot during the physical playoffs.
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The Cavs are still in disarray, but they will be a tough out in the playoffs. LeBron James can win a playoff series predominantly by himself, but the Raptors have four live bodies that can show him different looks defensively. DeRozan can guard him for fifteen-to-twenty minutes per game with his quickness. Ibaka can give him fits on switches and can muscle him straight up for ten-to-fifteen minutes. We will also see Pascal Siakam on LeBron duty and Siakam has got the size and quickness to do a serviceable job. LeBron may also see the athletic and increasingly heady Anunoby on occasion.
There will be surprises in the playoffs, that’s what makes the NBA great. If you have watched the Raptors at home, it is no surprise that their crowd is a real advantage and it is significant that they may have home-court throughout the Eastern Playoffs. The Raptors will likely see Boston and Cleveland in the Eastern Semifinals and the Eastern Finals and they should prevail.
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