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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Graphic: Shawna Langer | Graphics Editor