Casey is in broken-record mode for a good reason: The Raptors have next to no playoff experience, and it surely is occupying his mind as we wind down the weeks, days and games until mid-April. Toronto is playing some good basketball, and that includes the team’s coin-flip loss in Brooklyn on Monday to keep the Atlantic Division race alive, at least for a few more weeks. However, that all gets erased when the playoffs begin, and Casey knows it. On Monday night, in a game Brooklyn needed to win to keep its scant division title hopes alive, the Raptors’ three starters who have never played a single playoff minute all struggled. It was disconcerting, and a possible preview of what is to come. Jonas Valanciunas’s struggles were the most obvious, as well as least surprising. The Raptors’ starting centre has looked lost for a while now, and that continued against Brooklyn’s undersized frontcourt that was missing Kevin Garnett.
Toronto’s starting five features a fifth-year star that has yet to make a playoff appearance. They’re the only team currently in a playoff position that starts two sophomores and it’s been five years since either their point guard or power forward has experienced postseason basketball. Combined that lineup accounts for 24 games of postseason experience. Staring them down in the final minute of a one-possession, high stakes game was a Nets unit that has collectively participated in 268 playoff contests. Paul Pierce alone is responsible for 136 of them while Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko – both out with injuries – would have added another 176. The Nets took a five-point advantage into the fourth quarter and, for all their hardships this season, they had only lost one of 30 games in which they held the lead after 36 minutes. That’s the difference experience makes. The Raptors, despite a valiant effort, showed up to a knife fight armed with plastic forks.
Due to Brooklyn’s sizzling run since Jan. 1, the Barclays Center is now a loud, rocking building. The Raptors committed a host of turnovers in the latter stages of the game and also failed to inbound the ball in time on one crucial play, with the atmosphere and noise having something to do with many of the miscues. “It was definitely a notch higher because of what was at stake,” DeMar DeRozan said afterward about the atmosphere inside the arena. “That’s how intense it’s going to be, maybe even more,” added John Salmons, who has competed in 22 playoff contests. There will be a lot more of that once the post-season begins, so it was good that the Raptors got an early taste. After all, the roster has precious little experience competing into May.
Fortunately for the Raptors, as the season draws to a close all signs point toward their continued success. Toronto is 7-3 in its last 10 games, and aside from dates with Oklahoma City (home), Miami (away), Houston (home), and Indiana (home), its schedule is littered with cupcake contests, including games against the Bucks, 76ers, Knicks, and Celtics. If the wins start pile up, Toronto may begin to molt its juvenile coat in earnest and emerge as a genuinely worrisome thorn in the side of the top-seeded juggernauts. The team seems to enjoy playing together, and when they take the court they ooze tenacity and confidence. At this juncture momentum abounds in Canada, unfettered by the injury bug or intra-team strife, and the horizonz of the Raptors look bright indeed.
Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri’s mantra this season was he would let the players determine what he would do next. A 6-12 start that meant Rudy Gay was gone and he’d try something else. It worked. Since the 4 players the Raptors got back from the Kings arrived, Toronto has won 66.7 percent of their games and that’s at a rate no one saw coming. The winning isn’t by accident, Head Coach Dwane Casey’s players are giving up the 4th fewest points allowed in the NBA and they have a winning record against the Western Conference. The Raptors had the talent to be a playoff team in October, but the chemistry just wasn’t there, now the chemistry has everyone scratching their heads and wondering if this could become the best season in the franchise’s history.
Toronto Raptors: A (First quarter grade: F, Midseason grade: A-) Ever since the Toronto Raptors decided the Rudy Gay trade didn’t signal the dismantling of the roster and the good things Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were doing for this team, they’ve been one of the best teams to watch this season. Most of the season, it looked like this team was going to be a top four seed in the East by default. Now it’s starting to look like they just flat-out deserve it.
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