The Air Canada Centre and ‘Jurassic Park’ have begun to fill on a regular basis indicating a start to the National Basketball Association season, and another chance for The Toronto Raptors to be part of the playoff championship.
The 21-year organization that became the best NBA team to represent Canada is finally looking like, at the very least, they could push through to the second round of the playoffs. There is no doubt, based on their last month from the 2014-15 season, that one of their biggest challenges will be their ability to maintain their play once they reach the post-season.
The Raptors’ playoff appearance last season, when they lost in a four-game sweep against the Washington Wizards during the first round, crushed fans standing outside Maple Leaf Square, as well as any other T.O. supporters. Throughout most of the regular season, the Raptors played exceptionally, beating dominant teams like the Cavaliers, Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder. Yet, going 3-1 against the powerhouse Atlanta Hawks had no impact on their post-season play in April. Even after taking the Atlantic Division title with a 49-33 record, the fourth-seeded Raptors took loss after loss of at least a seven-point deficit each game.
Last season’s playoffs hardly lasted long enough to properly assess what may have gone wrong, though there must be reasons for the difference in play across a few months. During the post-season, Demar DeRozan averaged 20 points per game consistent with his regular season statistics. However, Kyle Lowry’s 17.8 points per game was lowered to 12.8 points in four games. Individual player statistics do hold their significance but the chemistry of the entire team will always be the main feature of a championship team. The once energetic team from the beginning of the season demonstrated slow defense and looked unfamiliar to each other’s play.
This year, like many others before, the Raptors have stormed out of the gate, taking the first five of nine games. Their 10th game commences tonight at 7:30, but the Raptors’ history book deems any good start of the season as irrelevant. The last few years have been a bright fresh start from an organization accustomed to losing multiple all-star players.
The organization has only made it as far the second round once, in 2001, with players such as Vince Carter, Charles Oakley, Antonio Davis and Morris Peterson. Though the team’s playoff history is less than promising, this year’s roster has shown the chemistry and passion that many former champions showed during past regular seasons. Even with the loss of Sixth Man of the Year Louis Williams, and Amir Johnson, the Raptors maintained a solid roster with the addition of Luis Scola, Cory Joseph and Toronto native Anthony Bennett.
The starting line-up looks efficient all-around, but it could easily change with players like Scola and Patrick Patterson on the bench. Starting point guard, Kyle Lowry was voted in as an all-star starter for the first time last year and the group surrounding him has complimented each other’s talents and energy on the court to make the Raptors one of the most dominant teams in the Eastern Conference. While the 10-year vet averaged 18 points and seven assists, his fellow guard DeRozan averaged 20 points, four rebounds and three assists despite missing more than 15 games in the regular season. Not much has changed between both stars, Lowry averaging 19 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds and DeRozan averaging 21 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. As well, starting center Jonas Valanciunas continues to contribute, raising his stats to 14 points and 10 rebounds thus far so on paper the team deserves its current +.500 record.
However, in the last month of last year’s regular season, the Raptors demonstrated some of their worst basketball all year. After beginning the season with dominance over the Eastern Conference, they moved down to the third best team in the east with a 49-33 record. Although they still led the Atlantic division, the club only won two of their last 12 games. Eight of those matches were against clubs above .500, and with less than a month left until the post-season began, Dwayne Casey voiced his concern about the Raptors’ focus, taking steps back with their chemistry. In fact, even the head coach had to remark on the team’s much-needed energy similar to the beginning of the season.
The Raptors used their youth and athleticism to propel them to a higher level of play throughout the last few seasons. Whether it was their post offense in Valanciunas, their solid defense or perimeter offense that consistently spreads out the opponent, ‘The North’ team has grown into a formidable force in the Eastern Conference. Without a doubt the team’s various player options can lead the Raptors to another strong regular season, though the x-factor that will guarantee their success appears to be consistency.