On Sunday, the Raptors put the cap on a 50-win season by battling a tough Grizzlies team looking to secure their spot as the top play in seed. The Raptors followed it up the next night by letting the bench run wild on a Giannis-less Bucks team. Nick Nurse and co have officially sealed the deal on the Raptors as title contenders with their play shown down in Florida. Putting a lock on the second seed in the East has them in a place the media would not have dared to believe only a year ago. Through great defence and "next man up" mentality, this team looks to be attempting to repeat the magic from last year's championship run.
When Covid-19 put the sports world on hold in March, the Raptors sat 46 - 18 on a 4-game win streak, enjoying a healthy roster for one of the few times this season. With two shining all-stars and one of the deepest teams in the league, the Raps proved they belonged in the conversation as a threat in the East. Norman Powell put up some of the best numbers of his career, averaging 31.3 points per game in the last three road wins before the shutdown. With deserving player of the week honours, he was finally thriving as a healthy version of the threat fans always knew he could be. Against the Bucks on Monday night, he once again stepped up with 21 points and a confident 4 of 5 on knockdown 3 pointers.
Fred VanVleet continues to prove why he got that single finals MVP vote last year. He has quietly continued to improve his stats while taking more and more shots for this team. Though Pascal and Kyle got the nods for All-Star voting this year, look for Freddie down the line when we need it most. Don’t be surprised if he surpasses the career-high he set only a week ago in this upcoming playoff run. If he wants to put in 7-plus 3 pointers in a night, he will go out and find those shots for himself. Not only that, but when facing teams with sharpshooters in the backcourt, we will need him to continue to harass and chase down perimeter threats.
Speaking of defence, when Kawhi left, the question on everybody’s mind was "who would take the reins to lock down the opposing superstars in the most important minutes of a game?"; OG Anunoby has come out as that player for the Raps in crunch time. All you have to do is look to the opening bubble game against the Lakers where he not only said no to Lebron, but quietly dropped 23 on 8-for-9 shooting. Still, OG has never quite lived up to the offensive hopes many Raptors fans dreamed of when he was drafted 23rd overall in 2017. If these glimpses of his knockdown shooting can show up in important games and his newfound handles continue to shine through, there is no limit to what OG can do.
Is it even a question that Nick Nurse should be the consensus pick for Coach of the Year? Taking a team that, at the beginning of the year, people were questioning whether they would even make the playoffs to the second seed in the East behind only the Greek Freak himself. He holds this team accountable for their play night-in and night-out, while also reminding these guys that they are NBA champions. This Raptors' stunning defence starts and ends with what Nurse has them doing on and off the floor. If he can find the right rotational minutes out of TD, Hustle Jefferson, Matt Thomas and Boucher, we may just be looking at a rookie coach winning back to back titles to start out his career for only the second time in NBA history.
This hasn't happened since John Kundla led the then Minneapolis Lakers to horseshoe wins during the BAA 1949 championships, followed by the inaugural season of the NBA (post BAA/NBL merger) in 1950. He would then go on to lose in '51 before being the first coach to 3-peat in the '52 - '54 seasons. Fast forward 60 years and even the great Steve Kerr, who is 3/5 in NBA finals to start his coaching career, couldn't complete the double; though we can likely just blame Lebron for that one. Is Nurse quietly about to knock off yet another record, adding to his already stellar coaching resume? Can he do it with a team that has "no true superstar?"
With the all-star nights that Siakam can have, and great defence with high IQ play from the big tandem in the middle of Gasol and Ibaka, the Raptors have what it takes to fight through the Eastern Conference and challenge whatever teams they face. With the unfortunate string of injuries that Phili can't escape, and Indiana thriving even without Sabonis, the East is poised for a deep run from any contender. The Heat and the Celtics are their true threats, but with the craziness of the bubble, it’s possible neither team could end up matching Toronto before being knocked out. Milwaukee (... Giannis) will always be scary, but the boys proved last year that even down 0-2, they will never stop fighting.
This bubble has seen players come in with the attitude that anything is possible. If TJ Warren can drop 53 points followed up with multiple 30 bomb nights, it is not crazy to say that the Blazers could sneak into the playoffs, upset Lebron, and take that momentum all the way. Perhaps everything finally comes together for the Nuggets, and Bol Bol stuns the world with nine 3 pointers in an NBA finals game 6. Westbrook may be the piece the Rockets have needed, and Harden may finally get the ring he so desperately craves. It may take another 4-bounce moment for the back to back to happen again, but the Raps are defending champs for a reason and they came into this bubble ready to run it back.
No matter which way you put it, these playoffs will be one to remember. Nobody knew if the bubble was going to work and we still don’t know what will happen over the next 2 months as this thing winds down. What we do know for certain, is that the Raps have a chance to prove you can never count out a champion; a chance to make a statement that a team is more than just one superstar’s playoff run; a chance to show that elite defence can define championship aspirations in an NBA playoffs with true parity for the first time in years.
They said it took a miracle run for Toronto to become NBA champions last season. What will they say this year when the Raptors are the last team in October, lifting the Larry O'Brien as 2x back to back champions?