Instead, without Rudy Gay monopolizing their offense, the Raptors started to gel as a team, and showcased their evolution with consecutive December wins on the road in Dallas and Oklahoma City. Kyle Lowry started routinely recoding double-doubles, and youngsters like DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas embraced their starting roles. Toronto quickly emerged as a division favorite in the underachieving Atlantic.
The Raptors have continued their success in 2014. When discussing potential threats to a Heat-Pacers conference final, experts generally mention Brooklyn and Chicago as the surging teams to worry about. However, one simply cannot exclude Toronto from this discussion. The Raptors have nearly matched their conference rivals in 2014, going 31-17 since Jan. 1. Unlike Chicago and Indiana, which rely heavily on their starters, Toronto has role players like Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and Tyler Hansborough, who all play big minutes in the team’s deep rotation. When Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry suffered injuries this winter, Vasquez and Patterson stepped in effectively. While the experience of Brooklyn and Chicago may overwhelm Toronto in the playoffs, the Raptors must be included in any conversation about contenders to the Miami Heat.
If the Raptors hold the third seed entering the playoffs, they could legitimately reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto will likely play Washington in the first round, another young team without playoff experience. The Raptors won the season series 3-1 over the Wizards, and match up well with Washington.
This series would be no cakewalk, but I do not expect the Wizards to win two games in Toronto, which is probably what they would need. Toronto would then probably face the reeling Pacers. The teams split their regular season series, and the Raptors have enough quickness and defense necessary to frustrate Indiana. The Pacers would be slight favorites, but this series would almost certainly last for six or seven physical games. And, if this scenario sounds unlikely, the second-seeded Pacers are starting to look vulnerable to an upset against a tough young opponent, not unlike the 2013 Knicks.
Do not be surprised if the Raptors match up against the Heat. That being said, no matter what happens this spring for Toronto, the season has already been a resounding success.
— Dominic Kearns
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