Last season, Kawhi Leonard delivered on his promise and led the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in team history. Less than a month later, he was headed to Los Angeles to team up with Paul George, thanks to a deal he himself partially orchestrated to help get George out from under his contract with the Thunder. It was an unprecedented move from a superstar who’s just coming into full possession of his powers, both on and off the court.
For the Raptors and their fans, it leaves behind a bittersweet scenario, but if you’ve been around the NBA long enough, you know just how quickly things change and how little room there is for sentimentality. So rather than dwell on the past, the championship squad that, Kawhi notwithstanding, remained largely intact embarked on their title defense this season and, before the pandemic, had surprised just about everyone in the process.
Toronto marches into the Orlando bubble with a firm grip on the No. 2 seed in the East and in full confidence of their collective ability to get the job done when they need to. Whether they possess all the tools to accomplish that goal is a more complicated question.
Saturday, August 1 — 8:30 PM — vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Monday, August 3 — 8:00 PM — vs. Miami Heat
Wednesday, August 5 — 8:00 PM — vs. Orlando Magic
Friday, August 7 — 9:00 PM — vs. Boston Celtics
Sunday, August 9 — 2:00 PM — vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Monday, August 10 — 6:30 PM — vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Wednesday, August 12 — 6:30 PM — vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Friday, August 14 — TBD — vs. Denver Nuggets
1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18 (6.5)
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21 (9.5)
4. Miami Heat: 41-24 (12.0)
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26 (14.0)
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26 (14.0)
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-34 (22.5)
8. Orlando Magic: 30-35 (23.0)
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40 (28.5)
On the one hand, the fact of Kawhi’s departure has kept the Raptors from losing their edge. They haven’t fallen prey to the apathy or complacency that sometimes afflicts reigning champions, and that’s partly because they still have that chip on their shoulder after almost immediately re-assuming their underdog status. They want to prove that their title win wasn’t an aberration, or a case of good fortune smiling down at the right time just as a dynasty was crumbling all around them or the produce of a one-and-done savior.
Having battled injuries all season prior to the shutdown, the Raptors enter the bubble with a relatively-healthy roster, including a noticeably-slender Marc Gasol, who’d missed a significant chunk with a leg injury. All told, a conference finals appearance is certainly in the cards, depending on how things pan out, and anything is possible from there.
The Raptors have a relatively comfortable three-game advantage for the No. 2 seed, but their regular-season slate is a gauntlet through some serious contenders (see above). They’d much prefer to meet the Nets or Magic in the opening round instead of, say, slipping to third and risking a rematch against a Sixers team that is eager to avenge that Game 7 bounce that sent them reeling.
It’s surprising to get this far in any discussion about the Raptors without mentioning Kyle Lowry, who is the heart and soul of this team — even if Pascal Siakam has emerged as its new shining star. Before the shutdown, Lowry was averaging more than 19 points, seven assists, and four rebounds per game on better than 35 percent shooting from three, impressive numbers for the 34-year-old point guard in his 14th NBA season and enough to earn him a well-deserved sixth All-Star nod.
Prior to a year ago, Lowry had under-performed in the postseason compared to his regular season production, and with his age combined with the absence of Kawhi Leonard to buoy his play and alleviate so much of the pressure, will we see some regression? Or, will the confidence he’s gained from finally winning a title prop him up and prove, once and for all, he’s capable of leading a true contender?
Biggest On Court Question(s)
Will Marc Gasol’s new svelte figure be a help or hindrance in slowing down Giannis the way he did last year in a hypothetical East Finals rematch? Can Pascal Siakam prove that he has yet another leap in him and fully embody his role as a Kawhi-light replacement in a deep postseason run? Can they maintain that second-best defense in the NBA when things tip back off in Orlando? Can they all stay healthy for the next couple months? Toronto has plenty of questions, but it must be noted that so far this season they’ve had all the right answers.