Toronto Raptors roll into All-Star break first in the East

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 05: DeMar DeRozan /

The Toronto Raptors hit the All-Star break with the best record this far into any season in franchise history, but can they close out the season strong?

Lately, the Toronto Raptors have been taking care of business. Winners of seven in a row, after their decimation of the Chicago Bulls, it seems like the All-Star break is a little unwelcome. They’re one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

And, for the most part, the Raps are winning by huge margins, while losing by minuscule ones. Accordingly, this has pushed their net rating all the way up to 8.1 on the season, putting them in some elite company.

The Raps sit in the top three league-wide in net rating, slightly behind the Houston Rockets, who are second with a net rating of 8.6. Of course, Golden State owns the top spot with a 10.

Comparatively, the Boston Celtics sit far back at fourth with a 3.5 net rating. That’s how much better the Raptors have been.

And now, finally, the standings are starting to reflect that disparity. Toronto has climbed two games ahead of Boston, with only 25 games left, two in hand.

All things considered, it’s going to be a wild end to the regular season. Who takes first place in the East will likely come down to a few games. For the Raptors, playoff positioning will be everything, so expect Dwane Casey and his crew to be gunning for it the whole way.

How they got here, and where they go from here

Not many pundits predicted Toronto would be where they are right now; ESPN even went as far as to project them at about a 43-win total.

Obviously, nobody could predict what the Raptors’ “bench mob” has been doing on a nightly basis. Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are tied for fourth in the NBA for net rating as a five-man unit. That’s at 172 minutes played together, so not exactly a tiny sample size.

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Beyond what the bench has been doing, Casey must be given credit. The offence he has been able to implement is a huge difference-maker.

Assists are up to an average of 23.5 per game, putting them in the top-10 in the league currently. For a team that was highly reliant on isolation basketball, it’s a big turnaround.

Not to mention, the play of Jonas Valanciunas has made the centre position very interesting. He’s becoming adept from certain spots behind the 3-point line, shooting an icy 48.8% on 41 attempts.

Come playoff time, the Raptors will need to shorten their bench, and strong play from Valanciunas along with the other starters will be imperative.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are playing better, but are still a bit of a question mark. Boston is slowly fading, albeit still dangerous. The Toronto Raptors may finally be emerging as a true contender to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Casey just has to keep this well-oiled machine running.

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What do you think? Do the Raptors have what it takes to finish off the season in first place? Could they beat Cleveland or Boston in a seven-game series? Let us know in the comments below!