After a 110-103 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, the Toronto Raptors are over .500 for the first time all season. Feel free to release the “never underestimate the heart of a champion” tweets in your drafts.
Toronto has wins over Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee (twice) this month. Those would be the top three teams in the East. Nick Nurse finally moved Aron Baynes to the bench this week in favour of a smaller starting five and the Raptors might finally be ready to start this strange Tampa Bay season.
It’s time to answer the most important question in basketball (runner-up questions: Can we please stop showing the Anthony Edwards dunk and how will we remember Chris Finch’s 31-game run as assistant coach?) at the moment: are the Raptors back?
The 2-8 start
The Raptors are 14-7 since their early season stumble. This 21-game pace would put them at around 55 wins over the course of a full 82-game season. So, basically, the Raptors we’ve come to know since they traded Rudy Gay.
The two most glaring losses since the 2-8 start were “home” defeats at (the cursed) Amalie Arena to Sacramento and Minnesota. Toronto didn’t climb back to .500 on the strength of an easier schedule, and to be honest, they’re playing 72 road games this season so the entire schedule is hard. They’ve beaten a lot of legitimate competition.
So, how to explain the 2-8 start?
With hindsight, I would like to propose a few reasons. One, the quick turnaround from the bubble and the lack of an extended training camp and preseason for Nurse to sort out his rotation. Two, the general adjustment of relocating to Tampa Bay. Three, getting used to (the cursed) Amalie Arena where the Raptors seem to struggle to get themselves going versus when they play at empty arenas on the road. So, let’s chalk it up to those things and never talk about the 2-8 start again.
The starting lineup problem has been solved
I’m not breaking any news here by saying Baynes has underperformed this season, both to his own expectations and the unfair expectations of replacing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
It’s hard to string together a series of wins when you have a glaring problem in the starting five and not much in the form of reinforcements off the bench. Nurse seems to have finally committed to starting a small-ball five. Baynes has looked incrementally better off the bench, and figuring out your bench depth is an easier problem to solve than your starting five.
The Raptors don’t have a perfect roster (who does), but they’ve addressed their biggest problem.
They’re still undefeated without Kyle Lowry
I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting the Raptors are a better team without Kyle Lowry, but the fact they still haven’t lost a game without their starting point guard this season does say something about the rest of the team.
Fred VanVleet is making another leap this season and should be in the conversation for All-Defensive Team (which honestly rewards impact on winning games more than an All-Star nod would) — the soon-to-be 27-year-old has improved so much as the point guard of the team especially in Lowry's absence.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 19, 2021
Norman Powell is back to scoring 20 points per game, which shouldn’t be taken for granted on a Raptors team that has the occasional five-minute offensive drought. Pascal Siakam is up to 22.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and over a block and steal per game in February while being a game-changer on the defensive end. OG Anunoby, when healthy, is continuing to improve as a two-way player. Throw in Chris Boucher’s sneaky Sixth Man of the Year candidate campaign and they’re your Raptors again, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Eastern Conference is perfect for your optimism
The Raptors are four games out of first place in the East but also two games from falling out of the play-in tournament altogether. This is your 2021 Eastern Conference standings, where every team is a three-game winning streak from entertaining hopes of being a top-four seed but also a three-game losing streak from looking up the play-in tournament rules.
The Raptors have six games left before the All-Star break: a rematch with Philadelphia, a road game in Miami, a three-game homestand against Houston, Chicago and Detroit before wrapping up on the road against Boston. It’s not inconceivable they would go 4-2 during this stretch, which would put them at 20-17 at the break.
Considering the way this season started, that would put them in great position to get to just about where we expected them in the standings at the start of the season.
So, are the Raptors back?
At the start of the season, we expected the Raptors to basically be another version of what they were last year: a team that generally took care of business against the average-to-bad teams and gave themselves a fighting chance against the really good teams.
Even going back to after they started 2-6 and then lost two games at the buzzer to Portland and Golden State, they’ve pretty much been about where our preseason expectations would have landed them. They still face a tougher challenge than a normal season being away from their actual home for the entire year, and depending on how the second half schedule looks, those “third game in four nights” losses could cut into their climb up the standings. But yes, in conclusion, the Raptors are back.
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