The last time the Raptors were in a position like this, things didn’t end well.
During the 2009-10 season, Toronto entered the All Star break with a record of 29-23—just one game better than the team’s current 28-24 standing. Head coach Jay Triano had his team looking like a safe bet for their sixth post-season appearance and hypotheticals involving the re-signing of free-agent-to-be Chris Bosh began to swirl, with many believing a playoff berth could seal the deal on a long-term extension for ‘CB4’.
Then everything fell apart.
By mid-March, the Raptors had dipped below .500 and when the end of the season rolled around, Toronto had completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Thanks in large part to injuries to both Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu—and a late-season change to the starting lineup—Triano’s team finished at 40-42, good for ninth in the East.
Triano was fired following the collapse, and Bosh bolted for the beach in Miami. The Raptors have been trying to rebuild their roster and reputation ever since.
A replay of that implosion is the worst-case scenario for the Raptors’ second half. However, there's reason to believe that this year’s stretch run could be much different. Not only do the 2013-14 Raps have—arguably—greater depth and balance, but the chemistry among this crew is immensely better. Though health is the biggest X-factor for any team with playoff aspirations, Toronto has built a tight-knit squad that seems to win as many games on confidence and moxie as sheer talent.
“We came into this second stretch with a lot of momentum and it's important for us to continue [and] make sure we stick with this winning,” says Raptors swingman Terrence Ross. “Before ya know, we'll be in the playoffs.”
Since dealing Rudy Gay to Sacramento in December, the Raptors have been winning and developing at the same time—something that rarely happens in pro sports. Ross and fellow sophomore Jonas Valanciunas have helped Toronto go 22-12 since the trade and the two youngsters will continue to be key to Toronto's second-half run. Neither can afford to hit the wall over the final 30 games.
“Mentally, I'm in a much better position,” says Valanciunas. “Last year this time, I was coming [off] the injury [and] missed more than a month. Right now, I feel great and I feel comfortable. I feel confident and ready to go.”
The playoff push begins tonight in Washington. The Raptors head into the final two months of the season with a two-game winning streak, a 14-14 road record and a three-and-a-half game lead in the Atlantic Division. Plus, 17 of Toronto's final 30 games will come at home and the team has gone 9-2 at the ACC since the calendar flipped to 2014.
“We just have to build on that and make sure that whatever we've been doing to get to where we are, we keep doing it,” says Ross. “Keep the focus [and] keep playing together and everything will come together.”
Head coach Dwane Casey has often talked about his team—and many others—seemingly playing better on the road than at home. He believes there are fewer distractions (from family, friends and other commitments) when a team is on the road. So the home-court advantage may not be totally positive in his eyes. But, that said, Casey knows that whether they’re at home or on the road, his team must win. There are no excuses for a team that's trying to send a message to the rest of the NBA.
“The schedule is what it is,” Casey says. “There are no teams coming in that are going to be easy for us—home or away. We have to ... do it the old fashioned way. That's what I've been preaching. That's what we have to continue to do.”
Staying mentally engaged will be as important as any physical factors. Though the East has largely been a punchline for pundits this year, there is no way around the fact that only six games separate third from ninth in the conference. That's nothing to write home about. For a team like the Raptors, everything and everyone must be acknowledged. Toronto can't look beyond the Nets and the Bulls—both of whom continue to hang around—or the Pistons, Wizards, Hawks and Bobcats, jamming up the rest of the muddled mess.
“I know in our playoff run[s] in Seattle, this was the hardest time of the year to stay mentally focused,” says Casey. “When teams are going at you hard, how do you combat that? How do you stay focused? How do you ... meet the physicality that's going to be hitting you?
“These last 30 games are going to be playoff-style basketball. The only way you can do that is experience it. Nothing prepares you for it except for going through it.”