The Benchwarmer Report: We The North: Raptors Show Their Mettle

Elizabeth Salsberg - 3B Nanotechnology
Posted on: May 21, 2016

Basketball fans new and old, the North side finally has a great basketball team with everything to show for it. In a season of ups, downs, injuries, record setting, and exhilarating playoff basketball, the Toronto Raptors have shown they have what it takes to be a true contender in the NBA. Here we stand, in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Raptors history.

The second-seeded Raptors squared off with the Cleveland Cavaliers [LeBron James et. al.]  for Games 3 and 4 this weekend at the Air Canada Centre. Despite being down two games to none in their best-of-seven series, fans flocked to Jurassic Park to cheer on Canada’s team. Indeed, what a run it has been—and yes, there is more excitement to come. The Raptors are quite capable of re-energizing at home and stealing a game or two away from the playoff-dominant Cavs.

LeBron et. al have swept both of their previous two series en route to their meeting with the Raptors. Detroit gave them as close to a contest as it’s come in games one and two of the first round, but ever since it’s been all smooth sailing. If there was any doubt that this is the best Cleveland’s done supporting their superstar, it’s definitely gone. They are unstoppably fast on the transition game; if they can’t drive to the hole they make three pointers… all the while staying out of foul trouble and playing stifling defense at the other end. With LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving out on the floor they have not lost the lead dating back to the 2015 playoffs.

While this does not bode well for the Raptors’ chances, there is a silver lining: the Raptors managed to take 2 of 3 regular-season games against the Cavs (both at the ACC). If the all-star duo of Lowry and DeRozan can light it up offensively, the Raptors have a good chance of heading back to Cleveland with at least one game in hand.

However, the absence of starting centre Jonas Valanciunas is a severe body blow to the Raptors offense. The 23-year-old big man has been huge, averaging a double-double in all 2016 playoff games in which he has appeared. His absence is really hurting the Raptors because their three-point shooting and perimeter play offensively has been poor. Though Bismack Biyombo has been great filling in, he simply does not have soft enough hands beneath basket, nor the ability to shoot free throws particularly well. As a result, teams haven’t had a problem fouling him hard under the rim to make sure he can’t get an easy put-back. Nevertheless, Biyombo’s incredible efforts defensively entitle him to a substantial raise at the end of the season.

Speaking of big men, power forward Patrick Patterson has been sensational these playoffs. Despite not making anywhere close to his usual quota of three-pointers this year, he has done two nice things: first, he has been a force defensively, moving his feet and even boxing out the other team’s bigs (a phrase seemingly unknown to the Raptors for well… ever). Second, he has set good screens and has not hesitated to drive to the bucket to get an easy two points. He has done all this despite suddenly moving into a starting role after coming off the bench as a reserve all season long.

Did I already say something about defense? Well, I’m going to talk about it again. Most of the Raptors playoff games in the first two rounds had each team scoring less than 100 points. This is a sign of good defense from both teams. During the regular season, the Raptors only lost a mere fraction of games when they held the opposing team to 100 points or fewer.

Toronto’s successes and failures these playoffs are easily explained by their ability (or lack thereof) to play 48 minutes of shut-down defense. Back in the first round, they faced the Paul George Indiana Pacers. It took the Raptors seven games to knock off the seventh seed. Why? Because they simply could not contain Indiana’s offense on a consistent basis. If George wasn’t killing us offensively (thank JYD 2.0, aka DeMarre Carroll for quality D here,) the rest of Indiana was. Yet when George came off the court, the Raptors were easily able to reclaim or extend leads. Toronto certainly improved as the series wore on. That being said, they did not assert themselves early and did not step on Indiana’s soft underbelly when it was exposed. Instead, they would let them back into it, giving up 10 point+ leads towards the end of the game, making their lives unnecessarily difficult.

With the so-called “first-round curse” finally shaken off, it was time to face the Miami Heat. Duane Wade et. al. certainly gave us a run for our money, as it once again, took seven games to finally go through. How did we finally win it? Defense and timely offense. Cory Joseph, spectacular throughout the playoffs, along with DeMarre Carroll handled Wade nicely towards the end of the series. Heat point guard Goran Dragic became the main issue thereafter. But again, solid defense down low in the paint forced the Heat to take bad jumpers and a lot of threes. They also made a lot of those threes—Raptors’ perimeter defense has been and continues to be a real drag—yet the Raptors cleaned up the garbage on the rebounding side of things well enough to advance.

Defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding… they allow you to shoot 30% in a quarter while maintaining a lead. Head coach Dwane Casey has emphasized it all year, and in the playoffs, we are finally seeing some real, concrete results.

Though it is unlikely that the Raptors will get past the stacked Cavs, there is much to be proud of. Coach Casey is the only coach in the last five years to boast an improved regular season win-loss record. With GM Masai Ujiri adding the right pieces in the form of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph (free-agent signings 2015,) along with shrewd pickups in Bismack Biyombo and second round draft choice Norman Powell, these Raptors are the best yet. And the best is yet to come.