They made it. The Raptors have suffered so many injuries leading up to the halfway point in the season that it wouldn’t be surprising if the squad had drifted into nothingness already. But surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the team currently sits third atop the Eastern Conference standings. Here’s how the Raptors have remained relevant and their biggest priority going into the second half of the season.
Defensive Culture Still Calling Card
When the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard last year, they were adding a two-time defensive player to an already defensively savvy lineup. Unsurprisingly, it was a recipe for success at the end of the floor most NBA teams don’t know exist. Last year, the Raptors were 9th in the league in opponents points per game and had the 5th highest defensive rating. This year without Kawhi, they’re ranked 5th in opponents point per game and have the 2nd highest defensive rating. Turns out, Kawhi was the defensive weak link. In before someone takes that seriously, that was indeed an attempt at humour.
The Raptors’ improvement on the defensive end of the court from last year, especially in the face of injuries to key defenders, is a testament to the team’s culture. The Raptors defence always shows up, even if their offence doesn’t. OG Anunoby who returned this season after missing last year’s playoffs due to injury, as well as new additions like Terence Davis and Chris Boucher have only added to that defensive mindset. And now that the team is fully healthy, the Raptors can experiment as much as they want, switching between different zone defences and straight-up man-to-man.
I remember when TNT’s Kenny Smith once said he and the 90’s Houston Rockets were more afraid of the San Antonio Spurs than the Utah Jazz during their playoff runs. He said what scared them was that despite the star power in Utah, the Spurs could shut the Rockets down. The Raptors are instilling that same fear in their opponent’s hearts. The Raptors can shut teams down and will look to maintain that defence-first mindset going into the second half of the season.
Raptors Player Development Unparalleled
Reason number two for the Raptors incredible stability in the standings is a result of one of, if not the best player development system in the entire league. Frankly speaking, the Raptors are starting to remind me of the Spurs from this past decade. Except instead of players like Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph, the Raptors have got Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher.
There are few better examples of player development in the NBA than Fred VanVleet. The Raptors picked him up in 2016 when no one else wanted him. He averaged 3 points in his first season with the team, playing 37 games and averaging 8 minutes per game. Not to mention that during his first two years with the team, he constantly hopped back and forth between the main roster and the Raptors G-League team, Raptors 905. But his time spent training within the Raptors organization paid off as he signed as a free agent with the team in 2018. Fast forward to today and now he’s averaging 18 points per game with 7 assists and 2 steals. He’s playing so well that he’s got fans questioning if the team could move on from Lowry early. His performance has been crucial for the Raptors as he’s one of the better ball handlers on the team and he’s also a quality offensive threat, particularly form the 3-pt line where he’s shooting almost 40%.
Davis is very much like VanVleet in that regard, but just earlier in his development. Davis is averaging 7 points and 3 assists as a rookie. He’s shown sparks of brilliance as a first-year player dropping 23 points in two separate games this season. Davis has been a welcomed addition for a team that had been struggling for a while with the losses of key playmakers.
And how about Chris Boucher? To be fair, I don’t see the same potential in Boucher as I see in the two mentioned previously. But with Gasol and Siakam out for a while, Boucher added a defensive presence inside-the-paint that the Raptors were desperately lacking.
These guys are just the first few that come to mind. There’s also Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson, Powell and others who’ve made significant improvements in their game under the Raptors franchise banner. Player development has become the name of the game for the Raptors and it’s another thing keeping them up near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Home-court should be the priority going forward
Priority number one for the Raptors going forward is securing a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference to maintain home-court advantage in the playoffs. It’s safe to say the Milwaukee Bucks and possibly the soon to be two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo are a little out of reach for the Raptors. On the other hand, the Raptors are sitting only 1 game behind the Miami Heat who currently occupy the second spot. The Raptors have already suffered two losses at the hands of the Heat but with a fully healthy squad for the remainder of the season (fingers crossed), they should be able to contest the Heat quite easily.
For the Raptors, home court is so important, not only because Toronto has one of the best home crowds in the NBA but also because of what home court could do for their opponents. The Bucks are currently 21-2 at home. The Miami Heat are an even more impressive 20-1 at home, with the remaining 12 of their losses coming on the road. Even the Celtics who are currently sitting in the 4th spot are 18-5 at home and almost a .500 team on the road. Long story short, this is not necessarily about the Raptors wanting home-court advantage for themselves. It’s more so about not giving it to these other teams. Let’s just do a hypothetical. A 7 game series with four games in Miami seems rough for the Raptors. But a 7 game series in Toronto, taking into account the Heat’s under .500 record away from home all of sudden seems quite doable.
The Raptors must get a top-two spot in the Eastern Conference if they have plans on being the team no one wants to go up against in the playoffs. Otherwise, the Raptors’ chances of making any significant noise in the playoffs this year are slim to none.
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