At one point early in the NBA season, the Toronto Raptors looked like a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. That’s what a 12-2 start will do for a team. Although the Raptors inevitably cooled off over time, it seemed that even when the team was without star player DeMar DeRozan (torn groin) throughout the middle of the season, Toronto was still finding a way to get the job done.
Even at the All-Star break with the Atlanta Hawks taking over first place in the Eastern Conference and the Cavs starting to really heat things up, the Raptors still looked ready to play out the second half of the season with an equally strong finish, especially due to the play of All-Star Kyle Lowry, who carried the team on his back while DeRozan recovered.
Fast-forward to these last two weeks of the season and the Dinos find themselves clinging to the third spot in the Eastern Conference. Lowry has been sidelined of late due to a back contusion, and forward Amir Johnson is once again dealing with an ankle problem that kept him out for a stretch earlier in the year.
Aside from a case of injury woes, the Raptors haven’t been playing the same staunch defense that coach Dwane Casey is known for implementing, and on top of that, the team’s offense and three-point shooting has also struggled. Both of those issues represent quite a dramatic change for a team that boasted one of the best fourth-quarter defenses at the start of the year and was also one of the highest scoring clubs in all of the NBA.
Nowadays the scoring has cooled off dramatically and the defense rarely shows up for a full 48 minutes. But the good news is the Raptors will still likely have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and they’ll have ample opportunity to turn things around against opponents they’ve gotten used to beating this year.
Beating up on said opponents, specifically the Washington Wizards, would be just what the doctor ordered for the Raps. They of course swept the season series between the two squads, taking all three games. While only one of those contests was played in Washington, Toronto can rest assured that they wouldn’t have to win in America’s capital as long as they took care of things at the Air Canada Centre.
The second ingredient the Raptors need to advance in the playoffs is a healthy backcourt. K-Low and DeRozan haven’t played nearly as many games together as they probably envisioned at the start of the year, and while DeRozan has certainly stepped his game up of late, everyone knows Lowry is the heart and soul guy on the team. The pair would be counted on to counter the Wizards’ one-two punch of John Wall and Bradley Beal in the playoffs. Without either one of the Raps’ dynamic duo, an early first-round exit could prove to be the end result.
And finally, as is usually the case, a true playoff contender needs sound defense in order to advance to the later rounds. The Raptors have shown that they’re capable of making an impact when everyone on the floor is on the same page, but the defense has largely been bad this season. Whether or not they can get it together in time to take care of Washington, or potentially the Milwaukee Bucks (the current playoff opponent) depending on how the last days of the season pan out, will likely determine whether this season is viewed as a success or a failure in the eyes of the fans and the Raptors organization.