Dwane Casey challenged his team to respond to the best season in franchise history by producing an encore, setting the city of Toronto up for another 50-win season and deep playoff run.
The Raptors took care of the first part, overcoming all sorts of adversity to post a second straight 50-win season, earning home-court advantage in their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks and positioning themselves as one of the teams capable of challenging Cleveland for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
DeMar DeRozan posted a career-best season, while his All-Star backcourt 'mate Kyle Lowry missed 18 games after the All-Star break after undergoing wrist surgery. The Raptors upgraded the roster at the trade deadline, adding power forwards Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to a rotation that was already stout everywhere else.
Posting back-to-back 50-win seasons proves that Masai Ujiri's masterplan for the franchise is more than just a vision, it's a tangible plan that can be validated by the Raptors taking care of the second part of Casey's challenge.
The playoff path this time around is stocked with different challenges, first up a Bucks team that is as long and athletic as any in the league, led by All-Star wunderkind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton.
The Bucks were dealt a setback of their own this season, losing Jabari Parker to yet another knee injury during what was shaping up as a true breakout season for the young power forward. But Middleton's return from offseason knee surgery the same game Parker went down, helped save the season for Jason Kidd's team.
The Bucks believe in their bright future and have the young talent to back it up, but the Raptors believe their time is right now, starting with this first hurdle.
3 quick questions and answers
- Who guards the Greek Freak? In a season filled with jaw-dropping statistical performances all around, Antetokounmpo put together an otherworldly run of his own. The 22-year-old Antetokounmpo finished the regular season ranked in the top 20 in the league in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, becoming the first player to do it for an entire seasons. Only two, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett, have finished in the top 25 in all those categories for an entire season. As deep and versatile as the Raptors are, they don't have anyone that matches up well against the most dynamic player in the league not named (LeBron) James.
- Can the Raptors fast track their chemistry experiment? The Raptors had barely a handful of games at the end of the regular season to work on the chemistry between their top two players, DeRozan and Lowry, and their two biggest in-season acquisitions, Ibaka and Tucker. Lowry's wrist injury robbed them of the previous time Casey would have preferred to work out any issues that might have come up. So they'll have to fast track that process in this series and hope that they can overcome the inevitable hiccups that will arise.
- The Bucks look like the future, are the Raptors ready to challenge Cleveland now? Just making the playoff field is a victory for a Bucks team in seek of redemption after falling short of that goal last season. They know they are still on the path to being a regular contender. The Raptors, however, have been building to this point for years, grinding their way through the muck in the Eastern Conference to reveal themselves as a legitimate challenger to Cleveland. Boston and Washington consider themselves challengers to the Cavaliers as well, but the Raptors have already been there, having played the champs six games deep into the conference finals last season.
The number to know
13.0 -- The Raptors were the best fourth-quarter team in the league this season, outscoring their opponents by 13.0 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes of regulation. They had the league's second best fourth-quarter offense and fourth best fourth-quarter defense. Toronto has long been a slow-starting team, but they led the league with 20 wins in games they trailed by 10 or more points. In the fourth quarter, Dwane Casey would play one of the league's best benches, with P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph ranking second, third and fourth (behind Kyle Lowry) in fourth quarter minutes per game. The Raptors outscored the Bucks in the fourth quarter in three of their four meetings this season, and the fourth quarter was even in the fourth meeting. If the Bucks are going have a chance in this series, they'll need to take advantage of the Raptors earlier in games.
Making the pick
The Raptors have the playoff DNA that suggests they're built for a deep playoff run. They have star power, experience, depth and a coach who has learned how to navigate this terrain in recent seasons. DeRozan and Lowry went through the fire during last season's run to the conference finals and they have reinforcements this time around. They're prepared for this challenge in ways that the Bucks, even with all of their young talent and a budding superstar in Antetokounmpo, simply are not. At least not right now. Raptors in 6.
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