For the Toronto Raptors to go deep into the playoffs and make it to the 2019 NBA Finals, the team needs to focus and commit to each and every possession with sustained intensity. So far, the results look promising.
We’re a few weeks into what’s been an exciting and intense NBA Playoffs, especially for the Toronto Raptors.
As tradition dictates every spring, the Toronto Raptors lost Game 1 to the Orlando Magic. Kyle Lowry failed to score and panic ensued. It was a moment to reinforce that deep-seated Toronto sports nihilism.
The mood lightened considerably, as the Raptors bounced back with a dominant performance, scoring at will and playing suffocating defense.
Game 3 was a sterner test, with the Raptors in a dog fight on the road against the Magic and Kawhi Leonard had an anemic performance but against all the odds, Raptors pulled out a win.
The closeout games were considerably less dramatic, as the team essentially took care of business to win the series.
What’s been the difference between the wins and losses in the regular season and now in the playoffs?
For the Toronto Raptors to meet expectations and reach their first NBA Finals, the team needs to be consistently focused on offense, defense and supporting their superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
Free-flowing offensive execution
When they’re at their best, everyone on the Toronto Raptors is fully engaged on offense. The ball is zooming around and catching the opposition out of position (no pun intended). Since trading for Marc Gasol, the team has also been shooting the three at an excellent clip (41.5 percent per game since the All-Star break).
As ‘experts at the transition game,’ the team is fully capable of pushing the pace and getting easy scores. This is made easy when you have a dynamic player such as Pascal Siakam, the Raptors’ breakout playoff performer and most consistent threat in the first round.
Siakam embodies that sustained intensity that the Raptors need to be successful this postseason. He initiates the offense, hits open three-point shots, cuts and displays silky spin moves in the post. Siakam brings it every possession— the guy never seems to run out of energy.
Likewise, the Raptors collectively need to bring it on offense for a full 48 minutes.
When the team becomes lackadaisical, predictable on offense and reverts to bad habits, they only help the opposition.
Relentless defensive energy
Throughout the regular season and especially in the closeout win against the Magic, the Raptors have shown the ability to lock down on the defensive end. When engaged, they’re practically impenetrable.
This should not be surprising, as the team is full of uber-athletic, rangy athletes who can switch and two former Defensive Players of the Year with excellent communication skills.
In Game 1 against the Magic, this was missing; the team was lethargic. There wasn’t urgency or sustained intensity, as the opposition stole the win on the final possession.
Receiving their wakeup call, the Raptors locked down for the rest of the series, not allowing any easy looks. The Raptors (specifically Marc Gasol) made things hellish for Nikola Vucevic, an All-Star during the regular season, but a non-factor in this series.
One interesting statistic according to Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, after being torched by D. J. Augustin in Game 1, the Raptors shut down the Magic's pick-and-roll game with brute force. After that loss, Toronto yielded a measly 0.71 points per direct pick— best in the playoff field.
Now going into their series against the Philadelphia 76ers, a considerably more talented group, and even beyond, the Toronto Raptors need to continue to be ruthless.
after being torched by D. J. Augustin in Game 1, the Raptors shut down the Magic's pick-and-roll game with brute force. After that loss, Toronto yielded a measly 0.71 points per direct pick—best in the playoff field.
Feed off Kawhi’s composure
As Raptors’ fans have seen, Kawhi Leonard is a pretty good basketball player. Outside of one flu-ridden game against the Magic, Leonard has been automatic; his box score underscores his sheer dominance.
However, Leonard’s most important contribution to the team is his unflappable composure; even when things go astray (i.e. foul trouble), he doesn’t let his emotions get the better of him.
Together with Marc Gasol, the two fill a father figure role on the team, setting an example for the younger, less experienced players.
This is in contrast with recent years where Raptor teams have had the tendency to get overly emotional and implode when things go astray (i.e. think the Cleveland series last year against LeBron James).
Though as great as Kawhi Leonard is, the onus is on the rest of the team to continue to feed off his composure and play with sustained intensity throughout these playoffs. Everyone needs to do their part.
Conclusion: Breaking bad habits
To this point, the Raptors have looked like juggernauts, playing with an unfamiliar force and intensity. They actually seem confident.
Obviously, this is new territory for Raptors fans. After so many years of disappointment, they’re always waiting on that next letdown. As the saying goes, bad habits are hard to break.
Based on the results so far, it seems they have.
For the Raptors to avoid a relapse and live up to their potential, that intensity must be there, every single night. Without it, you underestimate the opponent. This is how underdogs win games against more talented squads (see the Clippers versus Warriors series).
With the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks on the horizon, we will see if things have truly changed. Fingers crossed.