The Toronto Raptors have the unfortunate reputation of underperforming in the playoffs. Warranted or unwarranted, this year will be different. Promise.
Toronto Raptors and the playoffs— what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
Ask any Raptors fan and they’ll say ‘underachievement.’ Ask someone on the outside looking in and they’ll say ‘disappointment’; if they’re particularly harsh or Paul Pierce, ‘softer than paper mache.’
However you choose to splice the situation, there’s no denying, despite the team’s incremental improvement year-over-year (culminating with the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals), the Raptors generally unravel under pressure. They become extremely predictable, losing their cohesive regular season identity.
Understandably, fans want things to be different but deep inside, feel that bad things will always happen, no matter what. It is part of the Toronto sports psychosis— good things don’t happen here because they can’t. We’re going to fail, it’s inevitable.
So what makes this year any different? Despite our deep-seated nihilism, there is reason to believe. Let’s examine what came before and what we have now.
Exercising past demons
Scotiabank Arena (I will never get used to this) was and continues to be deafening and sold out, night after night. If Toronto Raptors’ results were measured by the passion of their fans, they’d have won the NBA championship many times over by now.
The problems lay elsewhere. Offensively, the team’s identity was rooted in isolation (with efforts to introduce more ball movement). On defense, our schemes were littered with liabilities. Compound this with mental weakness, no true superstar and a lack of in-game adjustments, playoff opponents could prepare for the Toronto Raptors and exploit them at their leisure.
Welcoming new faces
That was before. The 2018-19 Raptors are a different animal. While there are many returning faces, such as Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, Masai Ujiri has infused the team with proven, playoff-tested warriors.
In Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri has the elusive superstar with championship pedigree. As he’s shown throughout the season, Leonard is someone the team can turn to in pressure moments and create good opportunities.
In his compatriot, Danny Green, the Raptors have a deadly sharpshooter with superior defensive instincts and steady leadership. Like Leonard, Green knows what it takes to win when it matters most.
And most recently, in Marc Gasol, the team has a savvy veteran with a plethora of playoff experience. As we’re starting to see, he fits seamlessly into the team concept, elevating the play of those around him.
What about the old guard? Serge Ibaka has enjoyed a renaissance season with his new teammates and has hopefully put his dismal playoff performance behind him.
Lowry is similarly benefiting playing alongside this new talent. With less on his shoulders, he has settled into a more complementary playmaking role, without sacrificing his shooting, heart or hustle.
Embracing new ideas
The Raptors of yesteryear were stagnant, lacking imagination and designed to operate in a singular, limiting way. Despite efforts throughout last season to reinvent themselves and clear out these bad tendencies, come playoffs, they reemerged and the team collapsed.
This season, the team has the personnel and the willingness to play different styles under rookie head coach, Nick Nurse.
An example of this experimentation has been their usage of the 1-2-2 zone defense. At various points throughout this season, the Raptors have switched between man-to-man and zone defense, flustering opponents and creating difficult shots.
Nurse recognizes the importance of these combinations. When they work, like it did last week against the Celtics, the Raptors are difficult to stop. Even when it doesn’t work (see Sunday’s game), the effort still counts; if you’re going to fail, the regular season is the time to do it.
Development of Pascal Siakam
Last season, the Raptors had a lot of young talent that came together to form the famed Bench Mob. While the Raptors’ bench hasn’t been as impressive this year, one residual member of that group is shining brightly— Pascal Siakam.
Siakam’s progression this season has been meteoric, as he continues to put up new career highs and bombard opponents with his trademark energy. Averaging 16.3 points, 7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, he is making a strong case as the league’s most improved player.
In a playoff series, Siakam’s energy and versatility will be invaluable. The postseason is a chess match; he brings that wildcard element that opponents cannot fully plan against.
Don’t stop believing
The 2019 Toronto Raptors are legitimate title contenders and the playoffs will show their evolution. Despite their history, things are different this time around.
Obviously, to most Toronto fans this will seem like hearsay; they’ve experienced too much heartbreak to ever fully believe otherwise.
However, the turbulence (slumps and injuries) this team has experienced this season will only bring them together. As long as the Raptors enter the playoffs on a consistent high, the championship is their limit.