Don’t sleep on the Raptors… again

As the NBA race to the playoff restarts in Orlando, the oddsmakers have placed the Toronto Raptors as the fifth-best team to win this season’s championship. That’s low considering they’re the defending champions.

In a season filled with big games from superstar duos in Los Angeles, Houston, and Boston, Toronto’s team play has flown under the radar once again. For starters, their 48-18 second-place ranking in the Eastern Conference has been overshadowed by an all-time season by the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve also had to go through a melee of injuries throughout that’s kept their roster from being intact all season long. But the Raptors persevered. They withstood all those hurdles to still remain serious challengers for the NBA title.

Even with all their success, they’re still not in the conversation for a team who could win in all in the restart. That’s a mistake by fans, media and the rest of the league.

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The Champs have reloaded

Yes, the Toronto Raptors lost key pieces of their championship roster in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Coach Nick Nurse has found a way however, to fill the gap those two left by distributing minutes to the Raptors’ young talent. They picked up players from their loaded G-League team and because of the rise of Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, and O.G. Anunoby they have more depth this season. That could be a key factor during this restart.

Even with the loss of defensive anchors like Leonard and Green, the Raptors are still second in the league in Defensive Rating at 104.7 and fourth in the league for Net Rating at +6.4. That’s not bad for a team who lost their Finals MVP and starting shooting guard.

They remain in the top of the standings because Nick Nurse has engineered a team defense which has focused on giving up threes to big men an put an emphasis on guarding the paint. This has led to the Raptors having the second-lowest points in the paint allowed and allowing the least points per game at 106.5.

Notorious for the “wall” concept on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Playoffs last year, they have employed the tactic again on teams with excellent forwards like Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Anthony Davis. They utilize the skillsets of their role players so well to switch quickly, force drivers baseline ,and give up long-threes instead. The likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and Patrick McCaw have been partly responsible for the team’s excellent defense while their starters were out. Overall, Coach Nurse’s ability to adjust to his personnel game on game and tweak his defensive scheme mid-game is very impressive for a second-year coach.

Even if they’re not the same team from last year, they still have the same core, a great coach, and a more experienced supporting cast which could give them more championship mettle this season.

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Injuries derailed their run to the top

Arguably the biggest factor as to why they are second place in the standings is because the starters have missed a combined total of 83 games with various injuries throughout the season. Losing your starters for many teams with that amount of games could turn ugly for a team and their record, but the Raptors have remained steady.

Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol were supposed to be out for the final stretch until a timely pause in the season happened. Kyle Lowry was left to carry the scoring at times when Fred Van Fleet and Norman Powell went down with injuries. Overall though, their second unit has stepped up tremendously when their starters were out to hold their own in the Eastern Conference. The bench points of the Raptors are middle-of-the-pack, but that is because they have had to fill in for their starters in most games. If the points of the players that stepped in for injured starters were counted, they should have one of the best bench production numbers in the NBA.

A great example of the exemplary coaching and grit this team has is their franchise-best 30 point comeback versus the Dallas Mavericks.

With Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka as the only true starters active during that game, their bench cam alive and sparked a 29-6 run in the fourth quarter to somehow get the win. Nick Nurse used a full-court trap to force easy turnovers and get fast points while Boucher poured in 21 points to pad the team’s production. Basically, the B Team of the Raptors defeated the Playoff-bound Mavericks team. Incredible win by a team missing nearly half their rotation players.

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They handled the pause and restart well

The Toronto Raptors have been relatively quiet while the season was on pause, but they’ve done well to stay in shape during the quarantine. No one in their team tested positive for the coronavirus thus allowing them to open their practice facility and fly into Orlando earlier than many NBA teams. They also have a complete and healthy roster in the bubble, a feat that they haven’t done since January 18. Because of that they look ready for the Playoffs.

The defending champions have been in Orlando since June 23 (a full three weeks before heading to Disney World) to shake off rust and rebuild chemistry. This has paid dividends for the franchise as they have started the NBA restart 2-0 with a blowout win over the LA Lakers and a close victory against the Miami Heat. Amidst all the injuries and uncertainties surrounding the team this season, they are poised for another deep Playoff run, and even a solid title defense.

Things are quiet in the North once again. But that’s how they like it. They want their gritty defense and cohesive team play to do the talking. Just like last season’s championship run.