Are you a Vancouver Canucks or Winnipeg Jets fan and can’t bring yourself to cheer on another Canadian team? Are you a baseball fan dismayed with the worst start in the Toronto Blue Jays’ storied history? Looking for a team to distract you this spring? Feel free to adopt Canada’s team in a sport that a Canadian invented. Here’s a guide to all those who want to jump on the Toronto Raptors bandwagon but don’t want to be exposed as a poser.
Overview: The Toronto Raptors are heading to the NBA playoffs for a franchise-best fourth consecutive season, all lead by Dwane Casey. They boast an all-star backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. President Masai Ujiri and GM Jeff Weltman are candidates for executive of the year. Even Raptors 905 is in the post-season. This is literally the best time to be alive for Drake’s favourite team. A season ago the Raptors reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history where they fell just two wins short of the NBA Finals, losing to the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. This year the Raptors finished the season 51-31, the same record as the Cavs.
Strength: The team’s strength is their balance. For the first half of the year they were challenging the Golden State Warriors as the most efficient offensive basketball team in the history of the NBA. However, they were in the bottom third of the league defensively. After the trade deadline acquisitions of Serge Ibaka (for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick) and P.J. Tucker (for Jared Sullinger and two second-rounders) the team is vastly improved defensively and thus are much more balanced. The Raptors are top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. The only other teams in the league who rank top 10 in both categories are the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs who have the best two records in the league.
Weakness: Individual stars tend to go off against the Raptors. Paul George was dominant in Round 1 a season ago. Dwyane Wade found the fountain of youth in Round 2. LeBron James was, well LeBron James, in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their first-round matchup is against a budding star who is arguably both the most valuable and most improved player in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and is the only player to do so while being in the top 20 in the league in all of those categories. This year he has killed Toronto averaging 24.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7 assists on 58.8 per cent shooting in the four meetings between the two teams.
Matchup: The Raptors took three of four from the Bucs this season. The Bucks did win the most recent matchup as they beat the new and improved version of the Raptors on March 4. It is important to note Kyle Lowry didn’t play, and Khris Middleton had just returned from injury.
Biggest Storyline: The biggest storyline this season was Kyle Lowry missing 21 games due to injury. The Raptors only lost seven games in that span. The injury was a bit of drama in what was a rather drama-free season. Lowry had debris and “loose bodies” cleaned up with arthroscopic surgery on his right wrist. The surgery took place after Lowry went to the NBA All-Star Game and competed in the three-point contest. He injured it in the last game before the break against the Charlotte Hornets. Lowry thought the pain would subside and it never did. It spoiled what was a career-best year for the 31-year-old, who is in a contract year, and presents an interesting dilemma for the franchise this off-season. Since Lowry’s return it has been smooth sailing as Toronto has gone 4-0 in that span winning by an average of 8.25 points. The problem the injury presents is Lowry and new addition Serge Ibaka have only ever played three games together. Ibaka was rested for the final game of the regular season. Now they have to find a way to win four games in the span of two weeks to advance.
Biggest Moment: The 92-91 comeback win over the New York Knicks on Feb. 27 was the game that generated the most #WeTheNorth tweets this season. DeMar DeRozan hit a game winner at Madison Square Garden to solidify the comeback win. This was the shot that signalled things would be OK without Kyle Lowry and that DeRozan wasn’t just accumulating points but having a legit All-NBA-calibre season.
Online Presence: The Raptors are an online friendly fan base so get your Twitter fingers ready. The Raptors enter the #NBAPlayoffs as the third-most followed professional sports team in Canada, having gained 150,000 new Twitter followers during the season. #WeTheNorth is the team mantra and hashtag used for discussion about the team. #RTZ is used as an in-game hashtag and it stands for “Raptors Tweet Zone”. The organization’s official account is @Raptors and #NBAPlayoffs is where you’ll find post-season discussion. Serge Ibaka (@SergeIbaka), is actually the most-followed Toronto player with more than 828,000 Twitter followers.
Raptors stars are amongst the most discussed Toronto-based professional athletes on Twitter.
Here are the Top 10 active players on Toronto professional sports teams with the most mentions in the last year:
1. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors (@DeMar_DeRozan)
2. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (@Klow7)
3. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (@AM34)
4. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays (@JoeyBats19)
5. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors (@SergeIbaka)
6. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays (@BringerOfRain20)
7. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (@Marner93)
8. Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays (@mstrooo6)
9. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors (@JValanciunas)
10. Russell Martin, Toronto Blue Jays (@russellmartin55)
Who to love: No, fan favourite Bismack Biyombo is no longer on the team. Nor is the world travelled and incredibly cultured Luis Scola. Serge Ibaka is the new power forward and rim altering presence and is virtually a mixture of the two former Raptors fans grew to love. He blocks shots for fun and can step back and provide floor spacing by hitting threes. Basketball’s default play has become the pick and roll (or pick and pop) and Ibaka’s size to skill ratio allows him to be effective in the screen game on both ends of the floor. No, he is not likely to flex or point to the sky to punctuate plays like Biyombo. But you will get a finger wag from him as the Congo native pays tribute to his countryman Dikembe Mutombo.
P.J. Tucker will also be a name mentioned in chants and a jersey purchased at official retailers. His ground-and-pound game is built for the post-season even though this is his first trip there in his 11-season career. If Russell Martin was a basketball player he’d be Tucker. That is the best way I can describe him. Trust me, you’ll love him as much as opponents fear him.
Best commercial: Jonas Valanciunas starring in Go Daddy’s “Itty Bitty Baller” campaign might be the best thing he has done as a member of the Toronto Raptors besides hitting his first three-pointer in the season finale versus the Cavaliers.
Where to watch: If you’re a local, the busiest space in the city is going to be the Ford Fan Zone at the ACC. With both the Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs together for the first time, the space will be used to house viewing parties for both teams. The fan bases have lots of crossover but the hard-core puck heads and ballers are going to have to learn to share. All home games for either team will be shown on screen. Road games will be shown as well, assuming there is no conflict where the other organization is playing at home. If both the Raptors and the Leafs are playing on the road at the same time the corresponding games will be shown on a split screen (I’m secretly rooting for this). The first challenge for MLSE comes this Saturday where the Raptors play game one at home at 5:30 and the Leafs play on the road at 7 p.m. The square opens two hours before tip-off.
Raptors vs. Bucks – Eastern Conference Playoffs – Round 1 Schedule
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Game 1 – Sat. April 15 Milwaukee at Toronto, 5:30 p.m. – Sportsnet One
Game 2 – Tue. April 18 Milwaukee at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Game 3 – Thu. April 20 Toronto at Milwaukee, 8 p.m.
Game 4 – Sat. April 22 Toronto at Milwaukee, 3 p.m. – Sportsnet
Game 5 * Mon. April 24 Milwaukee at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Game 6 * Thu. April 27 Toronto at Milwaukee, TBD – – Sportsnet
Game 7 * Sat. April 29 Milwaukee at Toronto, TBD