• Greg Alcala

Will Toronto Be Able to Carry Over Their Regular Season Success?

*Photo via USA Today

At season's end, the Toronto Raptors remained exactly what they have been in the Eastern Conference for the last three years. Darn Good. Canada’s pride in professional basketball finished the 2015-16 season, 56-26, 1st in the Atlantic Division, and 2nd in the Eastern Conference joining none other than the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat as the cream of the crop.

As the 2nd seed, the Raptors drew the 7th seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round and you can guess who are the favorites. According to the writers at ESPN, the majority picks the Raptors to win the series either in six or seven games while one, Ethan Sherwood Strauss opposed the mob, picking the Pacers in six. When I look at this series, I see an even matchup even though I think the Raptors have the edge.

They have one of the best backcourts in the league boasting a pair of All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, who both led the team in scoring with a combined 44.7 ppg average. They added the versatile DeMarre Carroll in the offseason to enhance their defense and do all the little things. They also boast a supporting cast featuring Cory Joseph (fa signee), Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo and Jason Thompson.

This season, that impressive bench was ranked 6th overall by hoopstats.com, averaging 30.6 ppg, 16.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists. So you have two All-Stars at the top to lean on to when things get tight, which is a luxury in this league and something to be valued, especially when they are self-made All-Stars. You have a bench that’s good enough and has the experience to hold down the fort and keep the game intact while the starters are resting.

*Photo via USA Today

Another thing you can say about the Raptors is that, yeah….they have that good ol’ experience. And they also have stability at the top. As I mentioned above, the Raptors have been a fixture in the playoffs the last couple of seasons, losing in the first round in back-to-back years of the 2014 and 2015 NBA playoffs.

In 2014 they faced a loaded Brooklyn Nets team, the “glory days,” for Brooklyn, if that’s even fitting, when a healthier Deron Williams was still relevant, Joe Johnson, Andray Blatche and a pair of future Hall-of-Famers in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. On Toronto, the cast, then, featured guys like Amir Johnson, who now plays for the Boston Celtics, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Landry Fields and Steve Novak. With two evenly matched teams, this series went to a winners take all game seven where the Raptors, at home, down by one, 104-103 saw Lowry’s game winner blocked by Pierce as time expired.

The year after; same result. Well not exactly. The Raptors loss to the Wizards but got swept in the process, which is definitely not what they had in mind. It was total domination.

For two straight years the Raptors have endured the pain of losing in the first round of the playoffs and I think that a 3rd times a charm. Although the Pacers are a formidable opponent, sporting a finally healthy and rejuvenated Paul George and co. I’d put my money on the Raptors pulling this one out in six and here’s why.

*Photo via Macablog

Through those back-to-back early playoff exits and beyond, Raptors head coach Dwyane Casey has been there. He’s the complete opposite of Austin Powers’ dad. Casey has seen the down years of this Raptors franchise and has guided it to become another one of those top tier Eastern Conference powers.

Every year under Casey the Raptors improved their win total, going from 23 wins in 2012, to 56 wins and the Atlantic division crown, this year. With the success, Casey is making history. He took the Raptors back to the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2014.

He’s the first coach to win 50+ games in Raptors franchise history. And he also broke the Raptors franchise record for wins, 157 (previously held by Sam Mitchell) in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks back in November.

"I'm happy for him," said DeRozan following the win. "He's a players' coach. He's one of those guys that always keeps you in a positive mindset. When you go out there and play for him, you can't do nothing but play hard for him because you understand he's going to have your back through good and bad."

It’s safe to say that the Raptors like Casey and that is key. They are inspired by him. They play for him.

Couple that up with the most recent history of early playoff exits in addition to a team that has never made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and I think you have enough motivation for a deep playoff run. Getting over the hump might just be the toughest obstacle to overcome in sports. Michael Jordan going through Detroit before he finally got the opportunity to play for a championship. LeBron James losing to the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks before he finally beat the Oklahoma City Thunder for his first chip.

As far as the Raptors are concerned, were just talking about getting past the first round. Nevertheless, I think for the Raptors, it’s going to come down to matchups.

*Photo via USA Today

They have the talent. They have the coach. They have the All-Stars but at the core I think it’s just going to come down to player matchup.

Can and will Lowry beat a Kemba Walker? Or a Goran Dragic in the next round? Or even what it could come down to in a Kyrie Irving?

And that’s just one position. What about LeBron James? I mean I know DeMarre Carroll has had some success annoying him in the past, but this is a man on a mission.

So can the Raptors carry over their regular season success? Of course. History says they have the incentive to do so. But how long will it last? And another thing: How bad do they want it? I guess we just have to keep watching.

#GregAlcala #NBA #Raptors #NBAPlayoffs