Raptors’ impressive streak a cushion for tough final stretch

Mitch Lawrence joins Lead Off to discuss the Toronto Raptors' chances against the Milwaukee Bucks, noting that the team will have to draw from last year's success to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo.

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors have put plenty of money in the bank. Running off a 15-game winning streak just prior the NBA all-star break will do that for a team.

But you can never be too rich, is the theory, as the defending champions shake off the cobwebs after a week off the floor and a nine-day gap between games that comes to an end Friday night when Toronto hosts the Phoenix Suns.

The Raptors had a light workout at the OVO Training Centre Wednesday night but missing were Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, who got the extra day off after playing this past weekend in Chicago.

Marc Gasol was in Toronto and had treatment on the balky hamstring that has cost him 20 games and counting this season, although there is optimism he’ll be available against the Suns. Norman Powell (finger) will have a check-up this week but isn’t expected to be cleared just yet, and Patrick McCaw was at home with the flu.

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But the final third of the schedule is coming whether the Raptors are ready or not.

Fortunately they come back to work in good shape.

Thanks to their surge, which ended with a loss to Brooklyn last Wednesday, the Raptors are 1.5 games ahead of Boston in the battle for the coveted second seed in the East. If they maintain that position, it would afford them a likely first-round matchup with either Brooklyn or Orlando, teams that are both under .500 and considered a notch below the East’s top-six clubs.

As is typical, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wasn’t about to make too big a deal about how his club navigates a closing stretch that starts with a four-game homestand and then features 14 of their last 23 on the road.

“I’m not going to get caught up into, like, ‘there’s 10 games to go, we’ve gotta be in playoff mode,’” said Nurse, who was sporting a Canada Basketball sweatshirt after spending the afternoon visiting the national team competing in Oshawa in a pre-qualifying game against the Dominican Republic for the 2021 AmeriCup. “We don’t have to be in playoff mode. We’re still in testing mode.

“There’s going to be probably some uneven performances within a game or an uneven performance on a night and you just kinda shuffle it away as one of 82 and keep on going. I enjoy that approach more than trying to act like playoff mode starts in February because it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. So we’re still just growing and building and polishing and trying to get better.”

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They will certainly get a chance to test themselves.

Toronto will play the Milwaukee Bucks – who lead the East by 6.5 games and are on pace for one of the best regular seasons in NBA history – three times and some of the best teams in the West, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets. Steph Curry is expected to be back for the Raptors’ two games against the Golden State Warriors, too.

Their tough finish makes the roll they got on before the all-star break all the more important.

“We still have to go out West and that 15 streak came at a good time to kind of give us a boost going forward,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “[We’ll] try to come out hot out of the break and see where we end up, but it’s a marathon, man. It’s going to be ups and downs, we just can’t get too high and too low and take it one game at a time. I’m going to use all the cliches here at once because they’re borne out of a little bit of truth and I think that we’ve got to live like that a little bit here, but hopefully we put together another streak and give you guys something else to write about.”

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The Raptors’ ultimate trump card is that they have a ring from a year ago and they know what it took to get it. Finishing second in the East would be great and maybe even pushing for the first seed if the Bucks should ever stumble.

But the important games are in April, May and June – the Raptors need no reminder of that.

“Just how we’re built, we want to be the No. 1 seed,” said VanVleet. “We’re not in the position we are in now if we don’t want to be the No. 1 seed. So, yeah, we’ll go for it. It would take Milwaukee to take a serious fall, which you never know, might happen … but, I think just playing good, feeling good and getting healthy is probably slightly more important than where we end up seeding-wise.

“Whatever we get in that first round is going to be a tough draw. I think we learned that last year. Going forward, we’re going to have to beat a good team — three good teams — to get where we want to go. And it takes a hell of a two months to get it done and luckily we know what that’s going to be like so we’ll be prepared.

“It’s just a matter of can we go out there and get it done, so we’ll see.”

They get started again Friday. The plan is to keep running a profit and hope it adds up to the big prize at the end.

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