TORONTO – As the Toronto Raptors settled back home after a franchise-first 4-0 West Coast road trip, a fair question for the faithful might be: What team could possibly stand in the way of this emerging juggernaut?
Hyperbole, maybe, after the Raptors’ casual 128-112 win over the New York Knicks at Scotiabank Arena Sunday. But 12-1 is 12-1. Every win extends the best start in franchise history and keeps the Raptors on top of the NBA standings.
Might as well celebrate it a little bit.
And hey, Knicks head coach David Fizdale knows a little bit about what a championship-calibre team looks like from his days as an assistant with the LeBron James-era Miami Heat, staring across from Kawhi Leonard in consecutive NBA Finals.
The first-year Knicks head coach wasn’t hedging much.
“Last year they were a 60-win team basically, knocking on the door,” said Fizdale. “You add champions [Danny Green], an MVP candidate [Leonard] to the team, more versatility to the team, and you’ve got to count them in on having a shot to get there… . They are legitimate, they’re tough, they compete hard, they share the ball, they’re fast, they’re athletic. They have all of the ingredients.
“It’s just a matter if they can keep it together and keep connecting.”
The Saturday-evening win won’t go in any museums but the Raptors did enough to keep the Knicks at bay and win going away, helped along by a career-high 23 points (on only seven shots) from the fast-emerging Pascal Siakam. Through 13 games Toronto has yet to have a game come down to the final possession. It’s been very stress free. If there has been one area of concern for the Raptors it’s been that their once potent bench has sputtered somewhat. As if on cue they stepped up on a rare “off” night for Leonard (12 points on 2-of-7 shooting) and Kyle Lowry (10 points and seven assists). The trio of OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright combined to shoot 17-of-24 from the floor as the bench took control of the game in the second quarter and again late in the third.
But things might start heating up a little bit for the Raptors. They have to, right?
If Toronto hasn’t been met with much competition on the floor during its run it got a jolt while loosening up for the Knicks: Jimmy Butler, a high-scoring two-way wing who can guard other elite wings and close games down the stretch – had been traded by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He joins the Philadelphia 76ers and a core that includes two superstar-type matchups in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and there is no question things instantly got more interesting in a conference where Giannis Antetokounmpo seems determined to carry the Milwaukee Bucks to new heights and the Boston Celtics have the deepest lineup this side of Oakland.
That Butler got dealt wasn’t a surprise – it’s hard to remember a player who made a bigger point of forcing his way out of town. That he headed east wasn’t a shock either – it would have taken a spectacular offer for T-Wolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau to deal him within the Western Conference. The timing? Minnesota is on a five-game losing streak and already behind the playoff eight-ball. They could allow Butler to hold them hostage no longer.
“I expected that to happen. Obviously, Minnesota had a tough road trip,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I watched their entire game last night [Saturday]. I guess I wasn’t totally surprised this morning that [the trade] went down. It certainly brings a really good player into our gym a few more times, so we look forward to that.”
Not that emerging from the East was ever going to be a cakewalk, no matter how hot the Raptors started. But it’s more clear than ever that no matter how good a team they become in the Kawhi era – however long it lasts – getting to where the Raptors want to go in the post-season has the potential to leave scars.
“There are a lot of tough teams and these teams keep getting stronger and stronger, so we’ll see what happens,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “I think we have a really high ceiling and we have a lot of talent and we haven’t played really well to any of our standards. It’s going to be exciting to see. Anybody can be beat in the playoffs, but I like our chances.”
But with 13 games played and 69 to go it’s seemingly difficult to imagine the Raptors are suddenly going to stumble. They’re deep at every position. They’re even 3-1 on the road in games Leonard sits out.
Will another team rise though?
You have to think the Celtics, meandering along at 7-5 and somehow unable to score, will right themselves. And given Antetokounmpo’s determination to win an MVP award and elevate the Bucks (9-3) in the process, they loom as a frightening opponent.
Will Butler and the new-look Sixers (8-5) emerge as a challenger to the momentum the Raptors are building?
On paper they look formidable, maybe more so after the trade.
But the Raptors look formidable on wood.