Raptors mid-season report: Toronto has yet to hit its ceiling

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) celebrates a basket against the Indiana Pacers. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Can you have the most wins in the NBA and remain unsatisfied?

If you’re a team with the talent and grand ambitions of this year’s Toronto Raptors, then yes.

While tip-off for the 2018-19 season — arguably the most anticipated in franchise history following the trade for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and, subsequently, the most realistic Finals hopes maybe ever — seems like yesterday, the Raptors past their halfway mark of the season following Sunday’s impressive win against the Indiana Pacers.

At 30-12, the team is tops in the NBA — not something we’re used to saying about the Raptors — and after an impressive pair of wins against the Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks, seem to be back on track after a relatively ho-hum stretch of ball over the past month.

So, does Green think the team is where it needs to be?

“No,” the ten-year veteran says. “We’re a little bit behind. We need to clean some things up to get back on track to hopefully getting where we want to be — where we expect to be. We have a long way to go.”

The team’s early success set the bar incredibly high, as it should be given the depth of talent on the Raptors’ roster. Led by an all-star point guard in Kyle Lowry and MVP-calibre star in Leonard, arguably one of the five or six best in basketball and almost surely the most capable star player the franchise has ever had — an interesting point of debate on the same day Vince Carter, likely the only other player in the discussion for most talented Raptor of all-time, is in Toronto with his current team, the Atlanta Hawks for Tuesday night’s contest at Scotiabank Arena.

Throw in a deep supporting cast of players in well-defined roles (a two-way threat and experienced winner in Green; a wrecking ball and sparkplug with seemingly limitless potential in Pascal Siakam; a brusing big man and tough screen-setter who can own the paint in Jonas Valanciunas; an evolved modern-day big with big game experience in Serge Ibaka; a confident X-factor and effective floor general in Fred VanVleet; a disruptive force in Delon Wright; a physical player with a chip on his shoulder in Norm Powell. The only thing this roster is missing is a deadeye shooter — and the clock may have already struck midnight on CJ Miles’ ability to fulfill the role that was reserved for him) and the ingredients are all there.

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The season has already had notable highs and surprisingly few lows.

A season sweep of the Golden State Warriors — the first win a nail-biter in overtime that saw Leonard go toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant, and the second a 20-point blowout on the road in Oakland — helped raise the bar and established that the Raptors are every bit as much of a contender as any team.

But there’s no question the team has fallen back to Earth a bit during the last month, over the course of which a team that spent the first part of the season near the top in both offensive and defensive ratings dropped to 13th and 15th in the league, respectively, in that span.

A rash of injuries and a 12-8 record over their last 20 games may have taken some of the shine off of the Raptors. They’re good enough to continue winning games, but this is a team with championship aspirations. Not eventually, not once things gel, or when player X or Y comes into his own. Today. Right now.

So when Green sits back to evaluate the big picture — the 12-1 record out of the gates to start the season, the comfortable perch atop the NBA standings at the quarter-mark of the campaign, the marquee wins— he expected the team to be further ahead of the game than where they’re currently at.

“Because we started out so hot you’d think that we would have grown more to now,” says Green, “but it’s hard to do that when you have injuries, and we’ve spoken about that time and time again.”

Still, it’s worth recapping here. The Raptors’ lineup was always going to be somewhat in flux by Nick Nurse’s design — a natural benefit of having a full chess set at his disposal — but the somewhat contentious rest plan for Leonard and ailments, mostly of the nagging variety, to Ibaka, VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Anunoby, Wright, Miles, Valanciunas (whose hand injury may be the most worrisome of them all), and just about everybody else has provided a bit of a speed bump for the Raptors along the way. And it’s impacted the team’s ability to employ lineups and combinations that they’ll be relying upon come playoff time.

To wit: Tuesday night will be the Raptors’ first game with both Lowry and Leonard on the floor in one month.

So perhaps it makes sense that the team is not quite playing to the potential it established earlier this season, even if the wins keep piling up. But Green, who leads the NBA in offensive rating among all players, knows the team needs to be honest with themselves in order to hit their stride in time for the post-season.

“It’s easier to overlook some of the mistakes because of how talented we are,” says Green. “But we can’t skip steps and just rely on our talent. We need to be more disciplined to get better. Now we’re getting everybody healthy it should be easier to get back on track and fix some things.”

The last two wins have been impressive. Playing undermanned against two of the East’s best teams in Milwaukee and Indiana and coming away with convincing victories is obviously a big step in the right direction. Sunday’s win over the Pacers was even more promising because of the bench, a key part of Toronto’s regular season success last season, woke up, led by Powell’s 23 points.

“Last year the bench year was a big deal for the Raptors. This year, not as much,” says Green, who is confident the team will be running on all cylinders soon enough. “We’re going to get that back, get our starters back, and we’re going to be disciplined and mature,” he says.

They’ll also benefit from a schedule that should help them ease both Lowry and Leonard back into the fold, with four of the next six games against teams already jockeying for draft lottery positioning, beginning Tuesday with the 12-27 Hawks.

The season’s halfway point came fast. Soon enough will be the all-star break and then, before you know it, the playoffs are around the corner. And Green, for one, wants more out of his team.

“We want to be playing better basketball. But again, as of late — really, the last two games — we’ve been good. If we continue in that direction I think we’ll be back on track,” Green says. “And it can’t be just two games. We have to do it for the rest of the season.”

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