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Will the Raptors rule the East again?

By in Sports & Health

Describing the 2018-19 To­ronto Raptors’ season as any­thing but magical would be a disservice to the team’s excep­tional campaign.

After spending a number of seasons flourishing in the regular season, yet disappoint­ing in the post-season, the Raptors finally broke through the barrier last season. They prevailed at the end of a tax­ing post-season, defeating the Golden State Warriors in six games to capture the fran­chise’s first title.

Much of this success was attributed to superstar Kawhi Leonard, and rightfully so. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists in the playoffs. In addition to his strong offence, he played stifling defence on opposing stars Jimmy Butler and Gi­annis Antetokounmpo.

However, it seems that the rest of the team’s importance may have been underrated by sports media and fans alike. Leonard’s departure to the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency this past summer had writers and fans predicting the team would slide in the stand­ings as low as the ninth seed.

Even Caesar’s Palace in Ve­gas projected their wins at 45, a figure typically expected of a sixth or seventh seeded team. Though the Raptors were ex­pected to perform poorly, they have been undeterred by the outside noise and exceeded expectations greatly.

Siakam soars

Pascal Siakam has been on one of the most accelerated trajectories in terms of play­er development. He spent his rookie season as a bench play­er, averaging just 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.7 minutes of game play. In his sophomore season, he was still regarded as a raw player with potential, in spite of averaging 20.6 minutes of play with 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Most of Siakam’s growth was in the 2018-19 season, as he averaged 16.9 points as well as 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 as­sists per game. He flourished in a more prominent role as the team’s third option behind Leonard and Kyle Lowry, in­cluding an outstanding NBA Finals Game 1 where his scor­ing set the tone for the series.

Siakam earned most im­proved player honours, but no one foresaw him making even more progress in the current season. With Kawhi’s departure, the ball was placed in Siakam’s court, and he has more than delivered.

Stepping seamlessly into the new role, he is now the top scorer for the team and has ad­opted Leonard’s business-like approach to the game for himself. Siakam’s rapid devel­opment and calm demeanor under pressure helps the Rap­tors remain a top team in the league.

Hidden gems

Two players have emerged as surprising contributors to the Raptors’ success this sea­son: undrafted rookie Terence Davis and sophomore Chris Boucher.

After not being picked in the 2019 NBA draft in either round, Davis opted to become an unrestricted free agent. A 22-point outing with the Den­ver Nuggets in summer league secured him a two-year con­tract with the Raptors, and he has not looked back since.

Davis provides the team with a steady spark off the bench, scoring about eight points per game while being one of the best three-point shooters on the team.

Boucher’s potential, espe­cially on the defensive side, was clear when he was named Most Valuable Player and De­fensive Player of the Year with the Raptors’ G-league affiliate, the 905 Raptors in the 2018-19 season.

With a 6’9” frame, Bouch­er bothers players on defense and wreaks havoc in the paint. This was on full display in No­vember, when he posted three blocks and two steals along with 15 points to stop a hot Lakers team. With Boucher, the Raptors employ another pesky defender who will be crucial during the playoffs.

Consistency on both ends

The Raptors are among the top five teams in the league for net rating, meaning that they have one of the highest point differentials. They score a high number of points while preventing the opposing team from scoring simultaneously.

Guard Fred VanVleet is one of the main reasons for this offensive production because he provides the team with just under 18 points while also dishing out around 6.5 assists per game. As a steady three-point threat and reliable play­maker, he ensures that the team never falls into a slump on offence. He is also a prov­en performer in the playoffs.

The birth of his son fa­mously broke him out of a shooting slump last play­offs. He scored an efficient 13 points in a pivotal Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. This scorching stretch continued into the finals, where his shot making was decisive down the stretch of a tight Game 6 that ended with a title for the Raptors.

The Raptors have had a staunch defense all season long, with much of the cred­it belonging to OG Anunoby. He is Toronto’s most versatile defender, able to guard both quick perimeter players and strong forwards. This switch­ability will be essential in the playoffs as opposing teams will have trouble neutralizing his defensive presence.

Anunoby’s value only in­creases when considering his offensive production, consid­ering he can shoot the three pointer well and provides the team with around 11 points per night. He is a true two-way presence who will terror­ize opposing teams with his defense during the playoffs.

Innovative coaching

Nick Nurse’s coaching prowess is another factor in the Raptors’ recent success. After firing coach Dwane Casey due to a lack of postseason success, the team hired Nurse and the decision paid off wonderfully.

Nurse won the champion­ship in his first season as head coach, a feat accomplished by only eight other coaches in NBA history. However, the credit for the title was spread evenly to coaches and play­ers. Leonard’s departure was seen as a way to truly test Nurse’s expertise as a coach, and Nurse has proven the skeptics wrong.

Nurse’s philosophy on of­fence involves ball movement and participation from all five positions. With six play­ers averaging over 10 points per game, it has proven to be quite effective.

With a multitude of scor­ing options, the team never has to rely heavily on a sin­gle player, such as Siakam, to carry the scoring load. This also leads to unpredictability with opposing teams unable to game plan by keying in on one player and hoping to shut down the offence.

Nurse’s unorthodox de­fensive schemes garner him praise across the league. The Raptors boast a top three de­fence in the league, largely due to meticulous planning for each game. They employ a variety of schemes, includ­ing full-court presses, zone defenses and double teams against superstars.

In their first meeting with the Lakers this season, they held LeBron James to just 13 points on 33 per cent shoot­ing from the field — both figures well below his sea­son averages. Similarly, they held Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard to just two successful field goals and completely shut down Phila­delphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid to zero points.

Their unique defence dis­rupts the offensive stars, limiting their output. Due to their tremendous defense, the Raptors have a chance to win every game, whether their shots are falling or not.

Looking ahead

The Raptors are currently a top seed in the Eastern Con­ference, and clinched a play­off berth with a victory over the Golden State Warriors on March 5. Viewed as under­dogs at the start of the season, the Raptors have something to prove in the playoffs. With most of the champion­ship squad returning from last season, the team has an abundance of playoff expe­rience, an intangible quality that can play a big role during the post-season.

The Raptors defense will be key to their playoff hopes, as Nurse will have to continue inventing new and creative defensive schemes to slow down potential playoff op­ponents, including Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokoun­mpo and Joel Embiid.

However, the biggest ques­tion for the Raptors lies in their ability to close games. When defenses tighten in the playoffs, it is often superstars scoring during isolation plays that leads to victory.

Last season, Leonard was the closer and could be counted on to score in the clutch. This quality was per­fectly encapsulated by his epic buzzer beater to win the series against the 76ers. This season, the Raptors have no such player. Siakam has im­proved greatly, but whether he can provide a similar scor­ing punch remains to be seen.

Defying expectations has been the Raptors’ forte this season, and fans across Can­ada hope they can do so one more time. No matter the outcome, Jurassic Park will be roaring come April.

Uday Chhina

Graphic: Shawna Langer | Graphics Editor

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