If history is any indicator, the Toronto Raptors would have likely kicked off their NBA Playoffs today or tomorrow with a noon game, as the NBA sees their original playoff start date come and go.
This weekend would have been the start of the NBA playoffs, and the defending champions would have hit the floor with an entire country behind them.
We are now five weeks into the new normal of social distancing, so it’s heartwarming to remember how we used to pack the streets in droves, shoulder to shoulder, by the thousands to watch the Toronto Raptors on a big screen. The 2019 championship run proved scenes like this were not only limited to Toronto, as they sprung up across the country.
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The Raptors were relatively locked into the second spot this season, and at the very least the third, if the Boston Celtics could have caught them down the stretch. The Milwaukee Bucks were probably secure in the one seed with a seven-game lead with 18 to go, especially the way Giannis Antetokounmpo was playing. In any case, a second or third spot meant the Raptors would not meet the Bucks until the Conference final, in what would be a rematch of the previous Eastern Conference final that was dominated by a hobbled Kawhi Leonard.
Which brings us to the burning question that will haunt Raptors fans if the 2019-20 season is unable to finish – were the critics right to count the Toronto Raptors out because they no longer had Leonard?
There are many layers to this argument, and like most good conundrums, there are solid, fair points on both sides.
First, and most obviously – any team that loses an NBA Finals MVP is not as strong as they would be with him. That’s a given, and isn’t really worth arguing.
Leonard led the team in scoring in four of the six NBA finals games, and five of the six conference finals games last season. The Raptors only got that far because he made an absolute all-time “OH MY GOD HE DIDN’T, DID HE?” shot in game seven of the previous round, which still remains a must-see moment anytime it pops up along your twitter feed.
Leonard was a huge part of the Raptors winning the NBA title, and finally getting over the hump. Any argument to the contrary is frankly disingenuous. The 2019 championship does not happen without him.
…But that was last year.
This season, a Kawhi-less Raptors team was undoubtedly a top-five NBA team. Usually, the Eastern Conference lags behind in terms of wins when you compare them to the West counterpart. Not this year. The Raptors would be the two seed, no matter what conference they played in, and were actually closer to the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers at the time of the stoppage than they were the Bucks.
The test would have come in the second round– the Raptors would have likely handled the Brooklyn Nets with ease. Kyrie Irving was injured and they had just made a coaching change; they themselves have seen 2019-20 as a tune-up for when Kevin Durant comes back next season.
In that second round, the Raptors would have faced the Celtics or the 76ers, and the true test would have begun. Both those teams are lower than the Raptors in the standings, but as the DeMar DeRozan-era Raptors would attest to, regular season win totals mean very little come playoff time, especially when the margin is a mere handful of games.
Make no mistake, this would have been a formidable test, and is the measuring stick that would have shown us what the Kawhi-less Raptors could expect with this younger core for the foreseeable future. A conference finals appearance is something the previous era of the team only achieved once; to do it in the first year of this “new” era would have been a remarkable achievement.
And as the old adage goes…once you get there, who knows? When you are one of the final four teams, anything can happen. An injury here, a lights-out shooting performance there, and the Raptors could have been playing for another title, and looking to pull a Blue Jays, with back to back wins.
That would have shut everyone up who thought the Raptors were only serious contenders for a single year, when they had a superstar making a brief pit stop.
That would have earned the team even more respect.
But if the season never returns, it’s something we’ll never know.
Do you think the Toronto Raptors would have been able to make it to the NBA Finals in their first season without Leonard? Let us know in the comments below.