The Toronto Raptors are looking to solidify their standing as the third best team in the Eastern conference as we move beyond the All-Star break. That said, being the third best team in the East is a lot like being the middle child, it’s easy to ignore.
With the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers so far ahead of the field, the Raptors are clearly a beneficiary of an all-time low when it comes to the conference breakdowns. If you look at the standings in the West, you can see that the 9th seeded Memphis Grizzlies have a better record than the Raptors.
Contrast that with the East, and you see four teams that are currently slated to make the playoffs with sub .500 records. This, which has been noted by many analysts, gives the Toronto Raptors a strange sense of accomplishment. As it is, the team will easily make the playoffs, and will likely host a first round match-up.
The driving force behind this team has been Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They have both elevated their game, and are the only reason the Raptors find themselves in this unbelievable position as the 2nd half of the season gets into full swing.
GM Masai Ujiri is the man behind the curtain, and his track record thus far is pretty stellar. With the departures of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, Ujiri has in effect created another Denver Nuggets, as he jettisoned Carmelo Anthony when he was at the helm of the Nuggets.
However, Ujiri also is smart enough to know that the team is nowhere near good enough to consider itself a true contender for the championship.
In that vein, the tires have been routinely kicked on a Lowry trade, but the sense now is that the Raptors will keep him for an inevitable playoff run, with the hope that they can pull off the upset, in knocking off either the Pacers or Heat in the conference semi-finals.
This represents the summit of what this Toronto Raptors team is capable of, and it should be understood that a first round defeat would be a huge disappointment given their relative strength over the teams below them in the standings.
Of course, if you look at the teams below them, you see quite a few scary teams that will give them a run for their money. The Brooklyn Nets are seemingly on the right track, after a disastrous start in Jason Kidd‘s first season as a head coach. That said, the Nets have a roster full of experienced veterans, and even without their star center Brook Lopez, seem to have a look of a gritty playoff team.
The Chicago Bulls are another team that causes concern, as they feature a top-tier defensive coach in Tom Thibodeau, and an at-times dominating center in Joakim Noah. The combination of these two things, as well as the knowledge that Thibodeau routinely gets the team to play above the sum of their parts would make me wary of a first round match-up. (Thankfully, this possibility seems unlikely with the Bulls in fourth place)
The reason for that, ultimately, is the uneven play of the Toronto Raptors big men, most notably Jonas Valanciunas, who set the NBA on fire with his breakout performance at the summer league.
During the season though, he has had more bad games than good, although that can easily be attributed to a bad situation early in the season which saw DeRozan and Gay shoot upwards of 40 times in a game. Not exactly a prime foundation for a developing big man to grow.
On the flip side, the arrival of the Sacramento Four has given the Raptors an undeniable edge, as they have brought veteran leadership and toughness, which will only become more apparent as we get closer to the playoffs.
One factor heavily in the Raptors favour is the relative weakness of their remaining schedule. With marquee wins on the road over the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder (their first home loss of the season) the Raptors have shown that they can indeed compete with top contenders. Throw in a victory over the Indiana Pacers at home early in January, you can begin to see just how talented this team is.
Of course, a good team must beat bad teams with regularity, and the Toronto Raptors have just that opportunity over their next six games. All six games are coming against Eastern conference opponents, with two games each against the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as games against the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.
This short stretch of games will be very important in deciding who the Raptors are and where they will be going. All six games are winnable, and only the Bulls match-up might prove to be difficult. As well, the Cavs are beginning to turn things around, but that team is as dysfunctional as any in the league.
The Toronto Raptors are currently 28-24 on the season. They kick off the six game stretch when they visit the Wizards tomorrow night.
Tags: Toronto Raptors