The team that sits atop the Eastern Conference at the moment, the one with a strong Coach of the Year candidate, a pair of All-Stars, a batch of bubbling young players, a savvy team president and therefore plenty of reasons to feel good about itself, must inevitably answer one question:
Are the Toronto Raptors indeed the best team in the East?
“Well,” said coach Dwane Casey, “the record says we are,” before his voice trailed off.
Kyle Lowry? “We’re just going to keep doing what we do and not worry about anybody else.”
DeMar DeRozan: “We’ll see.”
If they sound a bit evasive, it’s not totally due to modesty. Some of it’s due to LeBron James. After all, the Raptors most likely must plow through the superstar who has the East on ownership — seven straight conference titles — before they can visualize a trip to the NBA Finals, a place they’ve never been as a franchise. LeBron ended the last two Raptors seasons, sweeping them out of the semifinals last May.
We’re not there yet. We haven’t arrived. But we’ve done it the traditional way. A lot of guys around the league are partnering up, adding superstars, superstars and superstars. We’ve developed players, starting with DeMar.”
Raptors coach Dwayne Casey
That said, Toronto is showing the stuff that’s needed to buy the right to dream. This is a better team on both ends of the floor and the flaws of the past have been significantly reduced. To date, the Raptors are on pace to win nearly 60 games. Gaining home-court advantage — and the hyped atmosphere at Air Canada Centre — throughout the East playoffs would be a boost for a team with the best home record in the league.
DeRozan is evolving his game to become a more unpredictable offensive threat and Toronto boasts a rotation that’s suddenly deeper and more reliable. Those are the two fresh factors the Raptors can use as proof that they’re bringing something extra and will strengthen their case as, at the very least, LeBron’s biggest threat.
“It’s not like we’ve gone outside and got a superstar free agent,” Casey said. “We’ve done it organically by growing our young players and the rewarding part was people questioning what we were trying to do. We’re not there yet. We haven’t arrived. But we’ve done it the traditional way. A lot of guys around the league are partnering up, adding superstars, superstars and superstars. We’ve developed players, starting with DeMar.”
This is mostly true, with the single exception being the 2017 trade that brought in Serge Ibaka, a much-needed third source on offense. Otherwise, the Raptors are indeed a team that found improvement from within, and that’s a credit to Casey and his coaching staff for growing the crop.
DeRozan is now a full-blown star who should get a sprinkling of Kia MVP votes. The game’s master of the mid-range shot, he took only 16 3-pointers as a rookie. He’s at 202 attempts this season, evidence of a growing confidence with his range. He’s a more willing passer who is on pace to rack up a career high in total assists.
Lowry is technically an outsider after stops with the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets, but he became an All-Star after arriving in Toronto in the summer of 2012. The flow between he and DeRozan is smooth and secure and it’s hard to find a backcourt with better harmony.
“Not only are they close, but their families are close,” Casey said. “One reason they’ve grown close is because of the struggles we had early. They’ve bonded very well together. When Kyle first got to Toronto, they weren’t that close, but they’ve since spent a lot of time during summers and it shows up on the court.”
All the failures, the times we’ve been down … they’ve brought us closer together. And now that it’s coming together for us, we’re playing for something bigger.”
– DeMar DeRozan
Then there’s the support help, which is young and expanding in all of the right directions. Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are all pushing for minutes and doing something with the playing time they get. Wright and Siakam especially are long and limber, bringing the athleticism that works well on defense and on the break. VanVleet is proving more than capable of giving Lowry a breather and is shooting 41.7 percent from deep. Second-year center Poeltl is coming into his own as well.
“Those guys have been great, just what we needed,” Lowry said.
Offseason addition C.J. Miles is contributing as well, with 10.2 ppg in 18.4 mpg while fortifying the Raptors’ improved 3-point shooting (Toronto is seventh in 3-pointers made after ranking 21st in 2016-17).
Toronto is a top-five team offensively and defensively and very deliberate with the ball, committing the third-lowest turnovers, proof that they’re much wiser and therefore ready-made for a deep playoff run.
“We just need to work on finishing games better, making sure we stick with what we do,” Lowry said. “We feel very confident in what we do.”
The true measuring stick, of course, is Cleveland, except the Raptors aren’t sure whether the Cavs’ midseason makeover is good or bad for Toronto. Regardless, with all due respect to the Celtics and anyone else who creeps into the conversation between now and April, the Cavs and LeBron are standing in everyone’s way.
Some teams are just cursed by bad timing. How many championship dreamers (the Knicks, Heat, etc.) were victimized by Michael Jordan’s prime? The Raptors are good enough to play in The Finals, but the hardest part is getting there (for once). They still wear the scars given by LeBron and they’re not trying to hide them.
“We’re tougher because of what we’ve been through,” DeRozan said. “All the failures, the times we’ve been down … they’ve brought us closer together. And now that it’s coming together for us, we’re playing for something bigger. As long as we fight for that, that’s all that matters.”
Casey said he thought the Cavs prior to the trade were still the East favorite and admits they might’ve gotten better.
“They’re younger, quicker,” he said. “There’s a freshness about them right now. I didn’t think they were broke before this. As long as you have LeBron as your leader, you always have a chance to be good.”
The Raptors have won nine of their last 10 and with a decent finish could pull away from the pack. Toronto has two games remaining with the Cavs to get a better sense of what it is up against. The second and final meeting is in April, which is when teams are usually resting players and dialing down until the postseason. Therefore, it’s possible that the Raptors won’t know much about the new Cavs when and if they meet in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Raptors can keep learning about themselves and seeing if the balance they’ve struck away from the Lowry/DeRozen backcourt has staying power.
“It’s an honor for our organization, what [Raptors chairman] Larry Tanenbaum and [GM] Masai [Ujiri] started,” Casey said. “That vision is fun to see grow. I think our young core is coming along. People have doubted us in the past and even now, and I’ve should’ve been fired five, six times already. But all the time, we’ve been growing and are still growing.
“I’m not satisfied. I’m not saying we’re done and that this is our ceiling. We can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to stay the hunter and also understand how to play while being the hunted. The great thing is we’re not a finished product. We have to get battle tested and get ready for the playoffs.”
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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