Strictly 4 My N.O.R.T.H.A.Z.
Everybody used to talk about how nobody ever talks about the San Antonio Spurs. That was a thing for about 20 years. To say the Spurs were awesome and that nobody ever talks about them. It was a cliche. What people don't say is that nobody ever talks about the Toronto Raptors. And that is because nobody ever talks about the Raptors.
Well how 'bout them Raps? How 'bout 52-17, the same record as the Warriors? How 'bout an 11 game winning steak? 5 games up on Boston, who can barely dress enough guys to play with all of their injuries. Who is going to beat them in the Eastern Conference Playoffs? The Cavs? They're 4-6 in their 10. The Pacers are actually in third place ahead of the Cavs.
The two teams that should have stood in the way of the Raptors making their first NBA Finals are the Celts and the Cavs. The Celtics had a heavy workload in the first half of the season to make room in their schedule for the London, England game. They beat teams by playing great defense, getting balanced scoring and having Kyrie Irving know when to do Kyrie things. They just needed to make it to that London game. The second half of the season was supposed to be smooth sailing. Didn't work out that way at all. The staunch defense began to leak and they still couldn't score enough to win. If that wasn't enough, they began losing players to injury on a daily basis. Kyrie has been out with a knee, Jaylen Brown has been out with a concussion, Marcus Smart needs thumb surgery, Daniel Theis is out for the season...
Then there's the Cavs, losers of 6 of their last 10. The post trade honeymoon is over. Even with LeBron James asserting himself all over rims in a city near you, that team just isn't the threat a lot of people thought they would be. You can never underestimate LeBron in a 7 game series, but they're barely hanging on to the fourth seed. LeBron's teams generally waltz through at least the first 2 rounds and usually don't break a sweat in the Conference Finals. Not so this year. How many tough series' can he realistically carry the Cavs through and still expect to beat this version of the Raptors to advance to the NBA Finals for the eighth straight time. I think that streak is over.
Now for the Raptors themselves. Barring injuries, the starting 5 are O.G. Anunoby, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas. And they have been awesome. Lowry's numbers are down compared to years past, but that is a good thing. It means they aren't playing the isolation game that used to get them regular season wins and speedy playoff exits. DeMar DeRozan should be in every MVP conversation. But he's not. He's a Raptor. He shouldn't win the MVP award but he should be mentioned. He is the best player on the second best team, the best player on the best team in his conference. That's how MVPs used to get decided. J.V. is having an awesome year, Serge is back being Iblocka, O.G. doesn't play like a rookie...
But the Raptors win with depth. It doesn't matter if the starters get a lead for the bench or if the bench inherits a deficit. The bench constantly outscores their opponents second unit. They perform so well that Dwayne Casey generally keeps them in when the starters return for the other team. When the Houston Rockets last visited The Raps, Mike D'Antoni brought Chris Paul, James Harden, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker back in the second quarter to try to stop the Raptors bench mob's run that had pushed the lead up to 19. The Raptors in response kept Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Malcolm Miller and C.J. Myles on the court. And maintained the lead. Unbelievable. The second unit is averaging 19 minutes per game and putting up 37.5 points, 16.2 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.1 blocks. That is awesome. By far the best bench in the NBA. Any one of these guys can be the star on any given night. Norman Powell picking up Chris Paul full court and forcing him to turn the ball over. Delon Wright getting to hoop with ease and finishing or kicking out for open 3s. Fred VanVleet making clutch game-winning 3s. Jakob Mutant Ninja Poeltl doing it all on both ends. C.J. Myles making or missing 3s, either way he's taking them. Pascal Siakam being the Cameroonian Army Knife. Deeeeeeep. Very deep.
My biggest concern was that they are too deep. When the playoffs come and teams shorten their rotations, depth can become irrelevant. I am no longer concerned. These guys can play against opposing starters or reserves. This team is for real. They've got Poeltl Power.