When Toronto tipped off the season without superstar Kawhi Leonard, almost no-one believed the NBA defending champions would have any hope of repeating.
The Raptors apparently didn’t get the memo.
Toronto opens the playoffs on Monday against the Brooklyn Nets after bulldozing through the toughest schedule of the 22 teams in the NBA bubble seeding round (7-1), earning the second-best record in the NBA (53-19), and setting a franchise record for win percentage (73.6).
Persevering through a laundry list of injuries, and then a four-month layoff due to COVID-19, the Raptors’ season has come down to beating teams just four times. They believe they’re better at that than anyone.
“We know who we are and that we’re good enough to do it and that we’re tough,” said guard Fred VanVleet. “It’s going to be hard to beat us four times. If you can do that, we’ll shake your hand and congratulate you. But I think we all like our chances.”
The Raptors earned the No. 2 seed like they did last year, while Brooklyn is seeded seventh.
Toronto’s all-star guard Kyle Lowry said the Raptors have built a culture of winning. That ideology didn’t disappear when Leonard went to the L.A. Clippers last season.
“We’ve been continuously getting better every single season I’ve been here… on the same page from top to bottom,” he said.
And while Lowry and his teammates hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy last season in the Canadian team’s historic championship run, they didn’t plan on stopping at just one.
“That feeling is unmatched,” Lowry said. “Other than my children being born, I don’t think I’ve had a feeling like that, ever. And that’s the motivation to keep doing that.”
Lowry plays with a 100-miles-an-hour motor that is virtually unparalleled — especially at 34 years old. He had 19.7 points, 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds this season, earned a spot on his sixth consecutive all-star team, and led the league in charges drawn.
The undisputed leader on the floor and in the locker-room said the Raptors are “the same exact team” they were last season.
“We play hard. We go out there and we defend. We’ve got pros. We’re just trying to win every single game. That’s what we’ve always done,” he said.
“We play to provide for our families and do what we can for our communities,” he added. “But we play to win championships. We play for a higher level and now we’re playing for social injustices and keeping that conversation going. But we’re also playing to win a championship.”
No Raptors were named to either the NBA seeding round’s first or second teams announced Saturday. Nick Nurse was fourth in voting for top coach of the eight games.
If Toronto were feeling any disrespect, they’re used to it. In fact the roster is built out of players with “chips on their shoulders,” said VanVleet.
“I think all of us at some point have had to work for it. Nothing has really been given to us. We kind of take that identity,” he said. “All of our coaches kind of fit that. It’s our identity from the top down. Whatever narrative people will write about is what it’s going to be.”
After Leonard’s MVP performance in last season’s playoffs, much of the narrative have been around who’ll be the clutch player to close out games?
But this year’s roster had five players who averaged 15 or more points: Lowry, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell and Serge Ibaka. According to Elias, the last team to do that with at least 50 games played for each player was the Buffalo Braves in 1973-74.
Is strength in numbers better than one superstar?
“We have a lot of guys who can take over at the end of the game. Maybe that’s better. Maybe that’s better than having one guy you can load up on,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got a bunch of different guys who can make shots. We’ll roll the dice and see what happens.”
This historical post-season at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., poses unique challenges, but also has some positives such as no travel.
Nurse said the verdict is still out on his thoughts on bubble playoff basketball.
“Right at this moment, it feels pretty similar. It’s actually felt a little easier to kind of get organized. Usually you’re flying back from Miami or something and you’re trying to recoup for a day, but we’re not. The coaches are all here. We go to breakfast, we get together, we start talking about the game plan,” he said.
He senses the extra energy and “blood pumping” that always comes with the start of the playoffs.
“(But) I just had a big thought of not doing this in front of fans,” Nurse noted. “Because as you know, man, that first game when the Raptors go to the playoffs and you walk into that arena and the fans get up, it’s really something. It’s really something for us to be a part of, and we’ll miss that, for sure.”
The Raptors faced the Nets in a thrilling 2014 post-season series, losing 104-103 in Game 7 after Lowry’s shot was blocked at the buzzer.
More recently, the Raptors beat Brooklyn six consecutive times before the Nets’ 101-91 victory in the final game before the all-star break snapped the Raptors’ franchise-record, 15-game winning streak.