Reaching the conference finals is never a bad thing in the NBA, and earning a spot in pro basketball’s final four for the first time often marks a turning point in franchise history and the beginning of longstanding status as a perennial playoff contender.
Although the Toronto Raptors’ appearance in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals was the franchise’s first, Dwane Casey’s crew was already thought of as playoff regulars before falling two wins short of a trip to last season’s NBA Finals despite their inexperience. But that series against the Cleveland Cavaliers was the culmination of three seasons of hard work and heartbreak, and with the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Atlanta Hawks all positioned to make some serious second-half noise, Toronto’s dream season isn’t likely to repeat itself anytime soon.
Entering the all-star break, the 33-24 Raptors have lost 11 of their last 16 games overall while registering only three victories in their first eight games of February. Unfortunately for residents of Raptor-land, relatively recent losses to sub-500 teams such as the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, and Orlando Magic [twice] have painted a terrifying picture of this team’s prospects, and Lowry’s now-infamous comments concerning Toronto’s troubles following a 102-101 loss to the Pistons on February 12th rattled Raptor nation.
“Keeping the same situations over and over, and not being successful, something’s got to give, something’s got to change,” said a concerned Lowry.
But when pressed for specifics about what exactly needs changing, the Raptors’ rock-solid point guard reverted to his usually-reserved self.
“I have an idea, but I’m going to keep my mouth shut, keep it very professional.”
While last season was definitely Lowry’s breakout campaign, he’s currently averaging career-highs in both points per game [22.8 ppg] and three-point percentage [41.7]. And in one of the league’s strangest statistical coincidences, he’s also averaging the exact same 4.7 rebounds per game that he’s averaged in each of the last four seasons. Obviously, Lowry isn’t the problem.
Following last season’s 56-win finish, the Raptors were rightfully pegged as the biggest threat to those living in the land of LeBron. Scorer-extradonaire DeMar DeRozan was re-signed to a new five-year deal in July. Lowry had a year remaining on his contract, and the off-season addition of forward Jared Sulinger was supposed to give the Raptors some much-needed bulk in the low-post and another big man with relatively decent range.
Although DeRozan has been among the league’s leading scorers all season by averaging a career-high 27.3 points a night, he’s doing it by launching a career-high 21.2 shots per game. Defensively, DeRozan has become an almost laughable liability, and his desire to become Kobe Bryant’s clone often forces Toronto away from its offense and prevents his team from putting together a full 48-minute effort on that end of the floor.
Maybe the first two games of Toronto’s regular season schedule told us everything we need to know about these Raptors. On October 26th, DeRozan led Toronto to a 109-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons with 40 points in the season-opener, and center Jonas Valanciunas finished with a career-high 32 points to make them the first duo in NBA history to have 40 and 30-point games on opening night. All was well in Raptor-land, and the future seemed limitless.
But two days later the Raptors met reality, losing 94-91 at home to the Cavs in a game in which Toronto shot just 39 percent from the field and a useless 25 percent from behind the arc. DeRozan extended his hot start with a 32-point performance, but the Raptors missed five shots in the final minute of regulation, and although the final score reflected a closely contested battle, Toronto was clearly over-matched and never controlled the game.
As one of the conference’s top teams, the Raptors are supposed to beat a sub-par opponent like the 27-30 Pistons. But much like last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto simply couldn’t catch Cleveland despite having several last-minute opportunities to alter the game’s outcome, and so far, that’s a fairly accurate description of the Raptors’ season.
Prior to the all-star break, general manager Masai Ujiri showed Lowry that he was listening and dealt Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round draft pick to the Magic for forward Serge Ibaka. Along with his abilities as a rebounder and shot-blocker, Ibaka also brings playoff experience to Toronto, and with Sullinger still struggling to regain form following a foot injury, Ibaka’s arrival comes at the right time.
But ultimately, it won’t be enough to propel Toronto past Cleveland, and unless Ibaka’s arrival somehow sparks the change that Lowry referred to, Boston, Washington, and Atlanta will cause the Raptors plenty of headaches. In other words, the Raptors have nowhere to go but down after last season’s success. But as any fan of the New York Knicks would say, things could be much worse.