TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors keep rolling. Their moment of reckoning will come soon enough, and they can be judged for that when the time arrives.
But when it comes, the Raptors will have done everything possible to be prepared.
The way they are navigating their way through the grind of the NBA’s 82-game regular season is proof. They are grinders. They want to do things right, and they have.
They have stared down the back-to-back games, the four-games in five nights, the injuries and the fatigue and the doubts about them that began forming about a year ago this time and proven that they are physically and mentally better prepared to handle it than almost anyone in the NBA, and certainly the Eastern Conference.
It’s something the "all that matters is the playoffs" crowd should keep in mind. The regular season is six months long. There is no such thing as a bad team fluking their way to a prolonged stay at or near the top of the standings.
The Raptors are not a bad team, and not a fluke, and as a result they will in short order blow past the franchise mark for wins (they are 47-21 and on pace for 57 wins; the record is 49) and end the season as the second seed in the East, if not the first if Cleveland falters.
Their 105-91 win over the Boston Celtics Friday night in front of yet another packed house at the Air Canada Centre was a case in point.
It wasn’t elegant. They turned the ball over 16 times, leading to 19 Celtics points. Still, they never trailed on the night – getting 17 first-quarter points from Luis Scola, of all people, will help in that cause. As an aside, Scola didn’t score again, prompting the quote of the season from DeMar DeRozan: "That's what the old man do," he said of his 35-year-old teammate. "The engine runs well in the beginning … but hey, Scola, he's like an old-school Cutlass. He gets you where you want to go, but don't rely on him for any road trips."
But you can rely on Scola, in his own way. You can rely on the fact he will be prepared. He may fail, but his effort won’t. In that way he’s much like his team. You can rely on the Raptors this season more than any time in their history. They falter, but they refuse to fall.
On Friday they nearly frittered away their early fortune. They led by 19 points early in the second quarter, 14 at half but just by five at the start of the fourth quarter.
It looked like tired legs might be getting the best of them.
But when the game was getting away they were rescued by their defence – they held Boston to 17 points in the period – and by Kyle Lowry, who finished with 32 points on 14 shots, with 15 of his points coming in the fourth. All in a night’s work for the player who just might be the Eastern Conference MVP, at this point.
So sure, nitpick. But the Raptors did hold Boston to 43.9 per cent shooting and forced the Celtics into 16 turnovers of their own. They got it done.
And big picture? That’s what this season has been about for Toronto. The Raptors are on track. What happens when they get to where they’re going is another matter, but for the moment it’s worth appreciating the kind of season the Raptors have put together.
The Raptors are proving a special team, more than capable of withstanding the regular season rigours, and for that they should be recognized, without their shadowy post-season past being held over them all the time.
Scola is new around here and unfamiliar with the Raptors' tortured history. All he sees is a tough-minded team doing all the right things to build a foundation for long-term success. The Raptors are 12-4 since the all-star break and just won four of five games played over seven nights in three cities while missing at least two and sometimes three starters.
"Thats what good teams do," said Scola. "We’ve been seeing teams do that for a lot of years, San Antonio, Golden State’s doing it now, Cleveland’s doing it Miami was doing it a couple of years ago. Those are the things that good teams do, they’re ready to play they have a lot of players and whatever the situation is you still go out there and compete. You don’t win every time, you don’t play well every time but you’re out there competing.
"When you’re competing and playing at the level that we play at every day … you’re not going to win them all [but] most importantly you’re going to be prepared when the time comes."
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is hard to please; his eyes are always fixed on a distant horizon, but even he had to concede his team, most of the time, gives him all they have to give.
"I love the effort. I loved the fight," he said of his club’s performance over the past week. "We didn’t always execute, it wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort. I appreciate from the guys, they gave it to us, they’re laying it on the line and they have the entire year."
Hosting Boston capped off a week that had late season slump stamped all over it, but the Raptors weathered the storm and came home to blow out a team that is fighting for their playoff seeding every night in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
"It's definitely big, because you're playing against teams that's fighting for something," said DeRozan, who chipped in 15 points. "It's the end of the season, you have every excuse in the world. [But to] go out and play aggressive like we did, especially on the defensive end, after these four games in five nights is definitely big."
The Raptors have left the playoff race behind. They went into the all-star break comfortably in second place and have only advanced their position, keeping pace with Cleveland and distancing themselves from everyone else.
Scoff if you want. Sure it’s just the regular season. It’s only the playoffs that matter. But you have to respect what this edition of the Raptors have done. And they are confident they are doing all the right things.
"A lot of players and teams think when the time comes we’ll flip the switch and I’m going to play well" said Scola. "It doesn’t really work that way. It might work that way for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in his prime, but when you do things right every day and we’re ready to play and we approach the game the right way every day, hopefully when the time comes you’re ready."
Who knows what the playoffs will bring for this team, but when the playoffs come they can be sure of one thing: There is no doubt they will have done all they can do to be prepared.