Last night’s game against the Boston Celtics was a nail-biter. With their playoff hopes in the balance, the Toronto Raptors were down four with only a few minutes to go. As a long-time fan, the memories of them choking in the clutch over the course of the last six years made it hard for me to think that we could pull this off, but this year’s Raptors squad isn’t the one that wallowed at the bottom of the NBA. As they’ve done all year, they gave it their all to squeak out a tough win to secure their first playoff berth since 2008.
There was a lot riding on this game, but not really. With over 10 games to go in the season and the Raptors’ magic number down to just 1, clinching a spot in the playoffs was basically inevitable at this point. But for a franchise whose history is largely defined by mediocrity (or worse), the fact that the team got to this point in the first place is remarkable.
This team didn’t even start out as being all that good. After beginning the season with a 6-12 record, Raptors GM Masai Ujiru unloaded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for four role players; three of whom have expiring contracts. It was widely seen as the Raptors first step towards taking for hot prospect Andrew Wiggins, but then something magical happened.
Without Rudy in the lineup, Demar stepped up. Lowry stepped up. Terrence Ross moved into the starting lineup and stepped up. Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas continues to develop. On top of that, those role players who weren’t meant to do much of anything have provided the Raps with some badly needed depth off the bench. Since that trade, everything has come up Raptors, who have become one of the best teams in the NBA.
Having followed the team throughout the season, there have been no shortage of high points for the squad. Demar has played beyond what anyone has expected of him to earn the distinction of NBA All-Star. Kyle Lowry has been a phenomenal leader for the team and arguably was the biggest All-Star snub. Terrence Ross tied the all-time Raptors single game scoring record with a magical 51-point night. He also destroyed Kenneth Faried in what I would consider to be the dunk of the year. More important than all of that is the fact that they’ve developed a chemistry with each other that hasn’t been there for a long time. It’s clear to see that these guys like to play together while winning most of the games they play. No matter how the rest of this year plays out, it has to be considered a success based on where this team was projected to go back in November when we were supposedly ready to tank for Wiggins.
With that said, this playoff berth is only the first step, with more challenges immediately ahead. As of writing, they cling to a one game lead on the Chicago Bulls for the third seed in East and a 2.5 game lead on the Brooklyn Nets for the Atlantic Division title. It is in the Raptors best interest to stay ahead of both of these teams to secure an ideal playoff position and their second-ever Atlantic Division crown. Then, hopefully they can win in the first round, something that the team has only done once in the last 19 years. The likelihood of the Raptors getting past the second round against the likes of Miami or Indiana is more or less a pipe dream, but one that may not be impossible, either. The Raptors have beaten Indiana in the regular season while having pushed Miami to the limit the last two times they played them. Not only that, but both of those teams have been in a bit of a slump.
Beyond that, what off-season moves do you make? Or not make? Odds are Kyle Lowry will be paid handsomely to return to the team. Some of the bench guys will probably be moved in hopes of getting better bench personnel. Personally, I think the biggest asset the Raptors could get is time. Time for their players to grow together to become an even more cohesive unit that can withstand high-pressure situations. For now though, let’s celebrate the first of what hopefully will be many future milestones for this up-and-coming NBA squad.
P.S. – Considering the type of season that the Raptors have had and the fact that Drake is the Global Ambassador of the Toronto Raptors, I thought this would be a fitting end to this post.