I’ve said it. The Raptors will make it out alive of an Eastern Conference consisting of Kyrie Irving‘s Celtics and yes, one can say that they are still contenders, LeBron James‘ Cavaliers. But for some reason, even though they are the number one seed, they are still slept on by many basketball fans. May it be because of their home court location in Canada; or they just have not been the flashiest of teams since Vince Carter defied the laws of gravity in Air Canada Centre, we just don’t know. And to be honest, you can’t blame the people who think that Irving will lead the Celtics past the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In past years, Toronto’s back court duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry‘s production levels in the playoffs have dipped compared to their regular season performance. For example, last year’s playoff run that ended in a sweep vs. the aforementioned Cavaliers, Lowry only averaged 15.8 points per game in a season where he averaged 22 PPG; meanwhile, DeRozan averaged 22.4 PPG, and in the regular season he had just set his career high with 27 points per game. This playoff run also included two awful games by DeRozan where he shot 0-8 from the field against Milwaukee in a 104-77 loss, and he also went 2-11 against the Cavs in a 103-125 loss. It’s easy to think that this string of playoff underachievement will continue, but this time around, it’s believed they are one of the strongest teams in the association at the moment, and last night’s win against the one-seeded Houston Rockets of the West maybe has just given us a preview of why they will make it all the way. Here are the 2 reasons why:
1. The Raptors Bench Has Been Proficient The Whole Season
Every great championship squad had, of course, a great starting 5 but also consisted of good role players that were solid contributors off the bench. Think Robert Horry, who hit so many clutch shots for so many teams, or Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc showing up in big moments alongside Jordan, Pippen, and Grant, en route to a three-peat for the Bulls in the late 90’s. At the end of the day, having great depth is very necessary for every championship contender, and the Raptors possess a combination a good, if not a great group of role players, meanwhile also having youth on their side, which is being dubbed as the Bench Mob.
Who Are They?
Fred Vanvleet, a backup point guard whom 2 years ago, found himself being a raw, undrafted rookie, has now come into his own, hitting big shots all season including this one against the Pistons a couple of days ago to clinch the Raptors’ playoff spot. Before getting hurt, small forward O.G. Anunoby, who started the season coming off the bench, even cracked his way into the starting lineup to become a consistent starter. Center Jakob Poeltl is starting to become the answer to be the heir apparent if and when the Raptors decide to part ways with Jonas Valanciunas, with his shot-blocking prowess and high basketball IQ. Small forward C.J. Miles was brought in this past summer to provide court spacing and some three-ball shooting, and boy, he has. Pascal Siakam, a Cameroonian power forward, is an energetic player with good ball-handling skills and can start fast-breaks too. Lastly, point guard Delon Wright has provided the team length at the guard position, complementing 6-foot tall Kyle Lowry, and can also play as a combo guard who’s great with cutting off passing lanes.
Now, as a unit, according to NBA.com advanced stats, when Siakam, Poeltl, Vanvleet, and Wright are on the court together, they outscored opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions, which places third in the league this season. At first is the Minnesota quartet of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones, who outscored them by 1.5 points. Want to know who is second place? The Raptors bench again, with veteran C.J. Miles taking Siakam’s place, in which the average 25.7 points together. In fact, of all NBA five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this season, and the Raptors bench unit (Siakam, Poeltl, Vanvleet, Wright, Miles) is first in the league, outscoring opponents by an average of 32.8 points per 100 possessions, 4.6 points better than the next team. These advanced stats only prove how dominant the Bench Mob has been this season.
2. The Sheer Greatness of DeMar DeRozan This Year
To put it simply, DeMar DeRozan has been an absolute superstar for the Raptors this season, despite what has conspired off the court. This year, he’s been through the highs and lows of an NBA star’s lifestyle, including a 52-point outing against the Milwaukee Bucks on New Year’s Day; and recently opening up about his struggles with mental health. And through it all, he is having a great year, being selected as an All-Star and he will most likely make an All-NBA team. Hell, he’s even been in the MVP conversation too.
Why Could He Be MVP
Throughout the season, DeRozan has been one of the only five players to average at least 23 points, five assists, and four rebounds while possessing a 45% field goal percentage or higher. And in the offseason, the mid-range expert added a new component to his game; the three-ball. His three-point percentage has climbed from a paltry 26.6% to a respectable 32.1% this year, and he now shoots nearly two treys more, compared to last season. Thanks to his contributions, the Raptors have now won 14 out of the last 15 games. He has also proven to come up big when the lights shine the brightest, as in an and-one dunk in the waning seconds of regulation versus the Pistons (he eventually provided the game-winning assist), sealing the game with clutch free throws in his aforementioned 52-point outburst, and a go-ahead basket with 26 ticks to go in OT against the Nets. Alongside Kyle Lowry, they have formed a dynamic backcourt duo down in Toronto this season. Overall, he has been one of the best shooting guards this year, and one can strongly believe that he will be the one leading the Raptors to the NBA Finals.
All in all, fans of the Raptors have reasons to be excited. They are the number one seed in a weak Eastern Conference when there is really one true contender, and they have great depth to come through for them in the playoffs. They also have one of the league’s most underrated stars in DeMar DeRozan. And adding on, they also have one huge advantage; their home court. They own the best home record in the association, sitting at a comfortable 28-5. Of course, the doubters will still debate as to whether or not they will beat out their inner conference foes. The most important question of all is; will DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry show up in these playoffs and end years of underachievement down in Toronto?
Time will tell. But for now, Drake can keep guaranteeing victories all the way to the end of the season (We NEED that new album NOW!)