Raptors poised for playoffs after feel-good, resilient regular season

Denver Nuggets' Monte Morris drives against Toronto Raptors' Norman Powell, left, during the third quarter in an NBA basketball game Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)

However it eventually ends, the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors season – all 11 months and counting of it – will never be forgotten.

It was as feel-good of a regular season as you’re going to find in professional sports, full of surprises and stories and moments – and that was before the Raptors rolled into Walt Disney World Resort in team busses labelled with Black Lives Matter in ‘We the North’-style script and kept rolling to a 7-1 record in the eight reseeding games that concluded an abbreviated regular season.

“It was a pretty good one, I think,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before he sent out a partial squad for Toronto’s 117-109 win over the Denver Nuggets that saw his club earn a 53-19 record, translating to a 60-win pace over a full 82-game season. “I think it was the best winning percentage in Raptors history, wasn’t it? [at .736, it was, breaking the mark set in 2017-18]. It was good.

“What we’ve talked about a lot during the year is probably a lot of people didn’t expect us to have this kind of season. A lot of guys stepped up. A lot of growth for a lot of players. I think our defence was great. There was a lot of resiliency considering we had a lot of injuries, too. I think we were top three or four in injuries or games missed in the wrong direction. Just a good kind of top-to-bottom effort by the crew for certainly the first 60-plus games, and then to regather and keep it rolling once we got here. It’s good. It’s a joy to be around this team. As you know, I’ve said that many times.”

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Friday’s win provided more of the same, in a good way. Even with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka out resting or nursing minor ailments, Toronto was game to play in a win that left them with the second-best record in the NBA. Stanley Johnson – buried all season – led the Raptors with 23 points and six assists and the intriguing Paul Watson chipped in 22 points on 13 shots.

If happiness is expectation less reality, there is good reason for Raptors fans to be happy – ecstatic even. Widely written off as contenders with the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors put up a record-breaking season and finished ahead of both the Los Angeles Lakers (Green’s new team) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Leonard’s team) in the standings.

So, before the No.2-seeded Raptors open their championship defence with their first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday afternoon, how about five takeaways from a highly irregular regular season?

• The Raptors faced their first mini-crisis back on Nov. 10 when the defending champions rolled into the gym of the presumptive champions – the Lakers anchored around superstars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and supported by former teammate Green – without Lowry and Ibaka, both injured in a win over New Orleans that kicked off a testing five-game west coast road trip. How to avoid being blown out, was the vibe.

Instead the Raptors – who at that point were deemed by Nurse to not have depth players worth playing heavy minutes – left Staples Centre with a 113-104 win in which they held James to 13 points on 15 shots, Green scoreless and got 43 points from their bench with Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all playing pivotal roles.

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• It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when the championship favourite in the Eastern Conference was the Philadelphia 76ers who lost to the Raptors in seven games in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. The Sixers added Al Horford from the Boston Celtics and even with the departure of Jimmy Butler, were rolling out four “max” players in Ben Simmons, Horford, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid.

But the moon around which all things orbit in Philadelphia is Embiid, which is fine except that every time Embiid plays the Raptors, Marc Gasol blocks out the sun. After holding Embiid to 37 per cent shooting over the seven-game series in May, you might have thought the big Philly centre would want to make a statement. Instead he didn’t make a peep as the Raptors, led by Gasol, held the Emiid to 0-of-11 from the floor and 0-for-4 from three-point territory as he went scoreless for the only time in his NBA career. The Raptors improved to 12-4.

• Not that anyone who has watched them would ever need convincing that the Raptors are a group that competes to the end regardless of the scoreboard, but just to prove the point: on Dec. 22 the Dallas Mavericks arrived at Scotiabank Arena and nearly blew Toronto out of their own building. Over a 13-minute stretch, beginning with just under four minutes left in the second quarter, the Raptors were outscored 49-17 and the Mavs seemed poised to coast home with a 30-point lead with 15 minutes to play.

The only problem is the Raptors don’t coast. With Davis and Boucher leading the charge and Lowry finishing the job, Toronto erased the Mavericks’ lead with a 42-12 run that was sealed with a Lowry-Boucher pick-and-roll ending in a game-winning dunk to cap the largest comeback in franchise history and the largest in the NBA in 10 years.

• The Raptors’ win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 15 was mostly notable for a 9-of-11 shooting night off the bench from Norm Powell and a nice road win over a solid Thunder squad. What no one knew at the time was that the Raptors were about to go on a franchise-best 15-game winning streak that could have been longer had Toronto not stumbled on the road against Brooklyn nearly a month later. The streak all but confirmed the Raptors as the No. 2 seed in the East and was another peak moment in a season full of them.

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• As an organization the Raptors’ mantra was to ‘win the pause’ – in other words: what could the team and individuals on the team do to make sure they came out of the hiatus more prepared to compete than the competition. The Raptors were tested right away as they kicked off what was the most difficult eight-game seeding schedule – their opponents had a cumulative winning percentage of .638, which translates into playing 52-win teams for eight straight games.

They came out of the gates with a massive test as they were facing the Lakers for the second time this season in a high-profile matchup. The Raptors and Lowry were having none of it as the Raptors guard put up 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a game where he was the best player on the floor, even with James and Davis on it. Notice was served:

“It’s a great team, no ifs, ands or buts. Exceptionally well-coached, championship DNA, you can never take that away from a ball club,” James said. “They’ve won a championship and even before that they have playoff-tested guys – that’s just a great team. The media might not talk about them much or give them credit because Kawhi is gone but players in the league definitely know what type of team they are.”

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