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You Can’t Just Run Through the Six: Why the Toronto Raptors Are True Contenders

You can't just run through the Six: Why the Toronto Raptors are true contenders

The NBA’s return to action is headlined by dramatic storylines like the star-studded battle for Los Angeles, the rise of Giannis, the brutal rock fight for seeding in the West, and the ascension of young stars like Zion Williamson. But amidst all the marquee matchups, superstar players, and big storylines, a very, very good basketball team has slipped through the cracks.

The defending champion Toronto Raptors spent most of the regular season quietly plugging away, winning games with a brutally effective, thoroughly unspectacular brand of ball. The NBA’s quiet storm made a loud statement with an opening win over the Lakers, and followed it up with a gutty performance against a frisky Miami squad.

Make no mistake: the Raptors are every bit in the title conversation. Until proven otherwise, the East still runs through the North.

Defense: Trying to do better than good enough

It starts on the defensive end for head coach Nick Nurse’s squad. The Lakers rolled into Saturday’s contest full of swagger and confidence; LeBron and Co. were fresh off a huge win against the rival Clippers. The Raptors, like an NBA Killmonger, methodically and brutally ground the Lakers down with a stifling performance.

After dominating the Clippers depleted frontcourt, Anthony Davis couldn’t get it going against Toronto’s sea of arms. AD shot a paltry 28.6 percent from the field for the game. While LeBron was able to get his statistically, the so-called Washed King had four turnovers and finished the game a -20 overall. The Raptors scheme worked to perfection, flying out to a quick 10-0 lead that they were never in real danger of giving up.

Of particular note, the Raptors did a great job forcing the Lakers star’s into either giving up the ball or taking shots that they didn’t want to take. Take this beautiful sequence from the Raptors early run:

VanVleet and Gasol are perfectly in sync cutting off the initial curl and drive from Caldwell-Pope. The ball swings to LeBron on the wing, but he’s immediately met by OG Anunouby’s pterodactyl arms. That second of hesitation allows Gasol and FVV time to set up in the lane so they can shut off the LeBron drive. LeBron kicks to KCP and Lowry hedges out - he knows KCP is looking for an extra pass to Danny Green in the corner and immediately retreats, forcing KCP to put the ball on the floor. KCP kicks to LeBron, now covered by Siakam, who lurches toward LBJ, forcing him to consider his options. Siakam has the size to follow the ball, chasing Anthony Davis off the three-point line and forces AD to settle for a rushed, contested long 2 with the shot clock winding down. Gasol cleans up the board and the Raptors are off to the races. Magnificent.

This is for defense what the Golden State Warriors are for offense. It requires a specific personnel and elite communication. The Raptors have both.

Fred VanVleet is looking to get paid this offseason, and a big selling point for him is that he is a relentless irritant on the perimeter. VanVleet is super strong despite his small frame, allowing him to power through screens and stay glued to his assignment's hip. Try to post him up and he does his best Marcus Smart impression, using a blend of savvy, strength, and active hands to force bigger, stronger players into tough shots.

Kyle Lowry was special in last years’ playoffs, bringing pure grit and toughness, careening off of bodies, sacrificing his body to draw charges, and swiping at opposing ball handlers, and shows no signs of slowing down.

On the wing and down low, Pascal Siakam is a frightening blend of speed and length, shooting over him is a brutal proposition but he is also fast enough to recover for drives. OG Anunoby has blossomed in a starting role. His blend of size and mobility is the cherry on top for one of the NBA’s elite defensive units.

Marc Gasol is not as fast as he used to be, but he is still terrific at sealing off angles and calling out opposing plays as well as being a very large man. Serge Ibaka is every bit the shot-blocking menace he was in OKC.

Not to be outdone, the Raptors bench is stocked with speedy, athletic young guys like Norm Powell, Terrence Davis, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Toronto is relentlessly well-equipped, such that the above play isn’t a highlight so much as a constant.

Offense: Gotta make that jump

Defense is the reason that the Raptors are in the championship conversation, but offense will determine whether they go all the way or not. While they don’t have Kawhi Leonard’s isolation brilliance to rely on this time around, there’s plenty to be optimistic about for Raptors fans.

For starters, Siakam has become a true superstar on both ends of the floor. While he isn’t likely to light it up in the scoring column, Spicy P makes up for this with smart passing and activity on the glass. Instead of exploding for 45, the Cameroon native can muster 20 points, a handful of assists, and 8-10 rebounds in his sleep.

Siakam is the metronome for this Raptors offense, and if they get production from their other starters he can keep them in just about any game.

The Raptors spunky backcourt has been scorching hot to open the Bubble. Kyle Lowry is having one of his best seasons as a scorer at the ripe age of 34. Against the Lakers he got to the free-throw line 15 times for 12 points while shooting five of nine from beyond the arc, including the dagger over Kyle Kuzma’s extended hand to put the game out of reach.

Not to be outdone, VanVleet went off against Miami to the tune of 36 points with four assists and five rebounds. Like his backcourt mentor Lowry, VanVleet was relentless getting to the free throw line. Outside of the beard in Houston, few play the free throw game better than these two, and their production from the line and from deep will be critical for a Raptors offense that can very much so get bogged down during traditional half-court sets.

The Raptors thrive in the fast break, and Miami was successful in forcing Toronto out of the open court. The Heat forced 21 turnovers, and made the Raptors look disjointed at times, going cold from deep and missing numerous shots down the stretch.

Toronto prevailed through defense and production at the line, but they will need to figure out how to increase their success in half-court sets when games get tight in the playoffs.

One reason to think this will turn around however, comes from the quiet improvement of OG Anunoby as an offensive threat. OG is a tough finisher around the rim and has been hitting the long ball at a career-best 39 percent clip. Toronto will need his floor spacing in closing lineups. If OG can develop his ball handling, look out, with him and Siakam in the fold Toronto will be a threat in the east for a long time.

Back to Back?

The Raptors have exceeded expectations all year, and the bubble appears to be no exception. With apologies to my beloved Celtics, as it stands right now, Toronto is the most likely challenger to presumed east favorite Milwaukee. But can they really go all the way and pull off among the most unlikely repeats in NBA history?

The Raps are 0-2 against the Bucks this season. The aforementioned Celtics have been a tricky matchup for them up to this point. And while they vanquished the Lakers on Saturday, a seven game series with time to adjust and study is a different story.

Ironically, perhaps the hardest challenge to a Raptors repeat is the very player that brought them to this point in the first place. Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers beat the Raps handily both times the teams met this season.

It’s fair to say the Raptors still have more to prove, but let’s be clear on something: this team has the talent to do it. In addition, Toronto is led by my pick for Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, who will no doubt have a chip on his shoulder after missing out on a share of the award by one vote. Regardless of whether they can pull it off, Masai Ujiri, a real GM who moves best in silence, has set this team up well to be a threat in the east for a long time.

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