The Raptors have assured themselves of their first playoff appearance since 2008. Great. This whackadoo season keeps marching on, defying preseason expectations and making mock of all of the recent trends that have plagued this organization. The point guard that was supposed to be traded has become the team’s most invaluable player. The swingman that was said by many (myself included) to be grossly overpaid now has people wondering if his contract might actually be below market value. The coach that was on the chopping block in November is now a fringe candidate for Coach of the Year. The GM that was supposed to be tanking may wind up overseeing the best regular season in team history.
Like I said; whackadoo.
So long as the team is bucking trends, though, they may as well start the prep work to avoid one of the most destructive postseason trends that has kept this team from making much noise in the NBA Playoffs: the trend of their All-Star choking in his first stint in the postseason.
When the team made their first playoff appearance back in 2000, it was largely on the back of Vince Carter’s stellar sophomore season in the NBA. The first-time All-Star averaged nearly 26-6-4 on 45.6% shooting and a 40.3% mark from behind the arc. He posted what would wind up being the second-best PER of his career at 23.4 (the best would come one year later) and for all intents and purposes he put Toronto on map as a legit NBA franchise.
When the Playoffs rolled around, though, Carter’s game fell apart. Stifled by New York’s relentless defensive attention, as well as the heightened expectations that come with being in the postseason, Carter wilted, and his team couldn’t make up for his struggles.
Carter scored only 17.5 ppg on a horrific 30% shooting clip (10% from three-point land). Dell Curry was the team’s only backcourt player that shot above 40% from the floor and Toronto was swept out of the Playoffs before they could even really get their feet wet.
Of course Carter would bounce-back the following season, using his experience in the 2000 Playoffs, as well as that summer’s Olympic Games, as a learning experience that would only make him a more deadly competitor in 2001.
Seven years later, it was Chris Bosh who pushed the team back into Playoff contention. It was his second All-Star season and first alongside a group of scrappy Euro-vets built under Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo. Despite missing thirteen games due to injury that year, Bosh was a force in pushing Toronto to their first Atlantic Division title. He averaged nearly 23-and-11 that season, shot just a hair under 50% and acted as a fulcrum for what was the best Raptors team since Carter’s shot infamously rimmed-out in Philadelphia back in 2001.
Like Carter, though, Bosh was not prepared for the meat-grinder that is the NBA Playoffs. His scoring and rebounding dipped precipitously, and his shooting fell to below 40%. He was hounded by New Jersey, especially by physical centre Jason Collins, and there simply wasn’t enough talent around Bosh to offset his reduced production – especially with Jorge Garbajosa out with a knee injury.
The Playoffs are unforgiving. Teams have the time to scout each and every wrinkle of a team’s attack, and for newcomers that can be a dramatic adjustment over the style of play in the regular season. For the Raptors and their lone All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, a repeat of history is a scary proposition, and one that could cost the Raptors a chance to advance to second round for only the second time in franchise history.
DeRozan has been struggling a little of late. His numbers haven’t dipped too much in March (though his shooting is down to 41.8% on the month), but he isn’t having as big an impact as consistently as has been needed in recent weeks. He’s been scoring lots, but he has also disappeared for large stretches of games. Not coincidentally, the team has had trouble putting away even the weakest of opponents and may be giving Dwane Casey an aneurism with their recent play in first quarters. Increasingly, it has been Kyle Lowry that has been the linchpin for the team’s attack, with DeRozan being a clear (yet potent) second option. Opposing teams have looked to play aggressively against DeRozan, knowing that he is easily frustrated when faced with physical defence, and on nights when the refs swallow their whistles that has spelled trouble for the Raptors.
In the playoffs, whoever the Raptors face will likely employ a DeRozan-swallowing strategy for exactly that reason. When Lowry is pushed, he pushes back harder. When DeRozan is pushed, he can be taken out of his game. Those are the only two players that an opposing team will have to consistently account for in a seven-game series against the Raptors, and so if an opposing team had to choose they’d probably look to bottle up DeRozan and dare Lowry to beat them four times on his own.
If history repeats itself, then that means that the Raptors will likely be sunk in round one. DeRozan will wilt under the constant pressure and Lowry will simply be overextended trying to keep the team afloat between bouts of effectiveness from Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and Greivis Vasquez.
However, in a season of bucked trends, maybe the playoffs are exactly what DeRozan needs to be activated against this style of defence. Maybe instead of getting frustrated he rises to the occasion, learns how to play through ceaseless physical play and takes the next step as an NBA professional. Getting to see the same opposition for four-to-seven games in a row might just help him figure out how to read those defences better, to see where the pressure is going to come from and to beat it before it arrives or to make the right pass a half-second quicker which forces the defence into scramble-mode to keep up.
For a team as inexperienced as the Raptors are, a huge element in their success or failure in the postseason is going to be their first round matchup. However, if the Raptors can keep both Lowry and DeRozan effective for the duration of their series they have a chance of pushing through regardless of which team is pushing back. It wouldn’t be in keeping with how the Raptors have traditionally introduced their All-Stars to the postseason, but not much that has happened this season has been in keeping with team history. If the Raptors are going to keep bucking trends, they may as well work towards bucking their most destructive postseason tendency. While this would have been considered unlikely in most seasons, it would be perfectly in keeping with this whackadoo campaign where so little that has happened has any precedence in the seasons that came before.