Things are looking good for the Toronto Raptors: they’re currently on an 11-game win streak, they have the support of one of the most prominent artists in music and they look to host the All-Star game this month. They’re only two and a half games behind the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference and their improved play is starting to turn heads. After a couple of underwhelming seasons in which they did not live up to the expectations of an Eastern Conference contender, they look to make a splash in the playoffs this year.
Everything in Toronto starts on defense. The Raptors are fifth in opponents’ points per game; they have held teams to 43.8 percent from the field and 37 percent from the field, and they average 8.3 steals per game as well as 5.3 blocks per game. The Raptors have always been known as a gritty team, and now with the proper defensive prowess, they have been able to shut teams down on a more consistent basis. Kyle Lowry, their leader, has set the tone defensively, averaging 2.3 steals per game. Their new acquisitions this season have also done well, with Cory Joseph bringing a great mindset on team defense from the Spurs and Demarre Carroll lending his individual defensive talent, despite being injured for a significant time. Bismack Biyombo has also helped in holding down the middle, leading the team in blocks with 1.5 per game in only around 22 minutes per game.
Despite the Raptors’ ability to contain opposing teams on offense is where people have mixed feelings. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have established themselves as the best backcourt in the East this season. Lowry is averaging 21 points, five rebounds and six assists per game, while DeRozan is averaging 23 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. However, due to their reliance on their dynamic duo, Toronto tends to lean too heavily on an isolation-heavy offense. They’re currently 29th in the league in assists per game, and in a league where the current trend is consistent ball movement, sticking to DeRozan’s midrange game and Lowry’s undersized bulldog mentality—while proven reliable so far this season—is a significant risk to take.
Most people are confident that the Cavaliers will get to the Finals without much of a struggle, and for good reason, since it is unpopular to bet against the best player in the East, if not the league: LeBron James. Jimmy Butler is trying to keep the Bulls afloat, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are trying to keep the Heat relevant in the conversation of East contenders. Right now, the Raptors have a chance to try and build up momentum to knock off the Cavs. Despite their dependence on an offensive style that is slowly being rendered obsolete, Lowry and DeRozan are still extremely talented scorers. Cory Joseph has been a revelation and has injected a little of that Spurs magic into the Raptors, and players like Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross are playing well in the Raptors’ system. Toronto’s stock has been steadily rising this season, and after a disappointing first round loss to the Wizards last season, the Raptors are, as Drake succinctly puts it, “looking for revenge.”