The most consistent team in the Eastern Conference for much of this exhausting season has been the Toronto Raptors. No firing of the coach, like the Cavs. No losing a star to another blood clot, like the Heat. No tough road losses, like the Celtics. They Raptors were 7 games over .500 at the end of December. They were 17 games over .500 at the end of January. They were 20 games over .500 at the end of February. And 26 games over .500 at the end of March. They won 67% of their games before the All-Star break and 68% after the All-Star break. They have won the season series against every playoff team in the conference, losing just once to everyone but the Atlanta Hawks, who they swept.
Toronto, as they prepare for the playoffs, enter the second season with a mixed resume of great, average and what? They are 4th in the league in 3- point shooting. They are next to last in assists. (Far be it for me to say when you are near the Lakers and 76ers in anything, that is a red flag). The Raptors are a good defensive team, keeping their opponents from scoring 100 points a game. But thirteen teams score more points than the Raptors do, who only drop 102.7. In a fast paced NBA, the Raptors move the ball at an annoyingly slow pace, ranking them 29th.
The Raptors have had a historic season for the franchise and the number two seed is a lofty penthouse suite from which to slay their opponents. Their home court advantage is pretty scary. Rarely do they lose at the Air Canada Centre. They score more points at home because they get more free throws and turn the ball over less. It has resulted in 30 home wins, a record they can break on Friday against the Pacers.
Everything is set up for the Raptors to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Except, the Raptors themselves and their history.
The Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan duo has been abysmal in the playoffs. Last year was an epic collapse. In their first round loss to the Wizards, Kyle Lowry had a PER of 8.1, a damn what happened to you drop from his regular season PER of 19.3. Yes, he was matched up against John Wall whose quickness causes problems for every guard he matches up with but Lowry looked tentative and peculiar, like he had this mental block he couldn’t erase. He just looked different but then shooting 31% will mess up your head. Lowry shot 21% from three, not 33% which was his regular season output. He averaged 5 assists. It was an all around awful Lowry display on a big stage when it mattered most.
DeRozan was a little better but not much. DeRozan can always count on his iso game to rescue him as he makes contact and gets to the line like a bee stuck in honey. His PER was 15.7 against the Wizards. He shot 40%. He led the team in assists and scoring but he wasn’t the dominant scorer you need in the playoffs. He had a very regular season game the entire series.
Collectively, Lowry and DeRozan were responsible for what happened. The blame falls on them. The Raptors thrive when their two best players are ballin’ and there is nothing earth shattering about that observation. The Raptors are a team built in the image of their guards and so the questions about last year never let up. It is fair.
It is also fair to assume something about the future based on the past, considering the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. There is no DeRozan/Lowry capital to take to the bank and invest. All we know is them losing in the first round. So, the pressure is on to rewrite everything we know.
The pressure is on Masai Ujiri too. The Raptors have to show well in this playoff run, in this special season. DeRozan can leave for a ridiculous max contract somewhere else and nothing makes that easier to do than tanking in the post season. Ujiri has to convince DeRozan to take a little less dough and stay put so next year when Lowry’s contract comes up he can convince him to take a little less dough and stay put. But it all depends on how this playoff run works its way out. If the Raptors get to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors are relevant the next 3-4 years. If they lose before then because Lowry and DeRozan don’t hold up their end of the bargain, the vultures will swarm the carcass and wonder: are the Raptors only built for the regular season? It will be a failure for Ujiri too.
The accomplishments of Lowry and DeRozan in the next two months will make the Raptors or it will shatter them into pieces that resemble glass. In 10 days, it starts. Amnesia about last year. Being prepared for this year. Getting to the Conference Finals by any means necessary.
photo via llananba