Raptor Celebration

Last week when Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson were both injured I panicked. Perhaps even I, the internal optimist wasn’t immune to the Toronto curse mindset. I’ve had copious conversations on why this season was different. I was one of the first to declare the trade (The Big Tease) would lead us to the promised land. I pointed to how adding depth and the right veterans (Chemistry Class) would allow for the growth of our core, specifically the sophomores (Flight Patterns Changing at ACC) and I continually highlighted milestones (Raptors Seek To Gain Respect).

So why the sudden worry?

It’s no secret Lowry and Johnson are my favorite players on the team, embodying the heart and soul of the squad, so it’s reasonable I told myself to feel the angst I was struggling with. But, truly I think I had simply fallen victim (momentarily) to the Toronto sports team curse. Just last year we watched the Leafs implode and the Blue Jays add a horde of mega million players only to finish one win better than the prior year.

As for the Raptors, it’s hard not to recall the absolute dejection I felt watching Carter’s shot clang off the rim in game 7 versus Philly. I remember fighting with the Bboyz (my term for a group of guys I attend games/argue about our Dino’s with) about wanting to play Washington instead of facing the then: New Jersey Nets in 2007, because I just knew Carter would take us down. And, these were the good years!

Hey, it’s hard to be a devoted fan of any Toronto sports franchise when it’s been years since any of our teams have been considered contenders. As Raptor fans we’ve had to endure:

  • Loss of franchise players/bonafide leaders: McGrady, Carter, Chris Bosh.
  • Witnessed players arrive via trades/free agency fail to live up to their potential: Kapono, Turkoglu, Gay.
  • Observed draft picks not measure up (Bargnani) or be traded away (Davis).

Then the mini win streak coupled with a few gentle ribs from the Bboyz thrust me back into reality and I had an epiphany. I came crashing back to earth to remember something very important: as much as the fan base has had to endure this torture, so too have the players!

DeRozan and Johnson have watched each season of their tenure pass by without a trip to the post season and heard the snickers as they’ve taken to the court. They, more than anyone have had to keep their heads amidst the media throngs who question the team failing year after year. It might hurt us as fans, but imagine how that feels as a player. From the time they first put on sneakers and played organized ball they wanted to compete, to grow and play on a winning team. Watch any interview with this year’s team and it’s a veritable certainty they are equally fed up with being cast aside as an afterthought within the Association.

This 3-game mini winning streak in truth is reflective of this year’s squad. It’s not just the next man up mentality it’s more than that. This squad is a team in the truest sense of the word. I recall the last second win in Brooklyn when Lowry looked directly in the camera and said “that was for you D” referring to the injured DeRozan. Ditto for Vasquez who opined “We won that for Kyle”  following the Houston victory. This team cares about each other, about the city, about the fans and most importantly about winning.

When I did snap out of my fleeting funk, I recalled some important facts regarding this season’s squad.  I thought I’d share these with you just in case you find yourself hit by the same temporary curse mindset.

Playoffs Confirmed

There are a couple of key components involved in the ascension to a playoff team: chemistry, consistency, continual improvement and pride.

Chemistry:

Perhaps the most obvious sign of chemistry is witnessed in the ball movement which was immediately evident by the increases in the team’s assists per game following the trade.

  • November: 17.6
  • December: 20.3
  • January: 23.8
  • February: 23.5
  • March: 20.9
  • April: 21.0

Outside of on court performance another key factor is we never hear of off court troubles for individual players or locker room problems.

Consistency:

For me consistency is best demonstrated in 3-areas: minimize losing streaks, compete every game (no blow-outs) and road records.

The Raptors have excelled in all these areas, especially since the trade:

Losing Streaks:

  • 2 losing streaks prior to trade: 3-game streak within first 6-games of season and a 5-game streak which ended the eve of the trade.
  • Since December 6, Raptors have not lost 3 games in a row.
  • In total, the Raptors have had five 2-game losing streaks (only 1 since the All Star Break).
  • This is a very heady stat when you consider the only other team not to have had a 3-game losing streak all season is the Clippers who, like Toronto have had five 2-game losing streaks. Only 4 other teams have had losing streaks of less than 3 games since January: Clippers, Chicago, Golden State and Memphis.

Compete Every Game:

  • Of the 5 teams above, Toronto is the only team who hasn’t suffered a blow-out of 15+ points since January. Since the trade Toronto has 3 losses of 13 points: twice to San Antonio (both within 8 days of trade) and once to the Clippers.

 

Road Record:

  • Only 5 Eastern teams have a .500 or better road record:
    • Miami: 22-16
    • Toronto: 21-18
    • Chicago: 20-18
    • Washington: 20-19
    • Indiana: 19-19

 

Continual Improvement:

In 7 Week Itch I touched on how the final portion of the schedule offered the right opponents to fine-tune for the playoffs.  March/April stats demonstrate growth is occurring:

  • Best field goal percent
  • Highest points per game
  • Improved 3-point shooting
  • Valanciunas offense and defense is dramatically improved:
    • To end of February: 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, +/- minus 0.8
    • March: 12.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, +/- plus 2.5
    • April: 18 points, 9.3 rebounds +/- plus 11
  • Ross is also showcasing improvements and consistency:
    • To end of February: 10.5 points, 3 rebounds, 3-pointers: 1.9pg
    • March: 11.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3-point shots: 2pg
    • April: 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3-point shots: 2.7pg, +/- plus 4.0 (highest of season)
  • The bench has begun to mesh and is consistently producing
  • Veterans Hayes, Salmons and Novak are contributing (especially in the past week)
  • Copious areas improved from 2013: offensive rebounding, overall defense and fourth quarter dominance

Kyle Lowry

 Pride

Josh Lewenberg tweeted: the Raptors are 9-0 without at least one starter playing: (Johnson: 4-0, Lowry: 3-0 DeRozan: 2-0, JV: 1-0, Ross: 1-0).

Only the loss of Patrick Patterson resulted in multiple losses. I’m not suggesting we should go any length of time without the services of any of the starters, but the fact is this year’s Raptors may actually be the best team in the league at dealing with adversity.

 

 

Final 5 Games

When I cursed the schedule gods at the start of the season, I didn’t have the foresight to see how the final 2 months would work in the Raptors favor. Just like their 4-day rest in March, the current 3-day rest is equally timely.

Although the Wednesday Philly game appears irrelevant it actually has major significance; with a 10-3 record vs. their division, a win in Philly will put the Raptors out of reach in a tie-break situation for Brooklyn who has 6 losses (9-6). Brooklyn have 6 games remaining including 2 back-to-backs, 3 road games and a game in Miami who will be motivated to stop a Net sweep.

If Toronto wins the division they will also win a tie-break with Chicago for the third seed. The Bulls also have a back-to-back and 3 road games in their final 5-games with tough matches potentially against current spoiler team: Minnesota and playoff contenders Charlotte and New York.

Since the trade the Raptors have a winning percentage of 62% (68% since All Star). Given this consistency a safe guess is 3 wins resulting in what I called for February 4 which is a franchise best: 48 wins. (On Pace to Win 48) Whether Toronto attempts to sweep the last 5 will depend on how Chicago performs; a loss of 1 or 2 games by the Bulls would allow Casey to rest some starters in the final games.

Perhaps the greatest motivation for Toronto to take the third seed is how well they match up versus Indiana who appears fated for second place and are currently in turmoil internally. (Here’s an article featuring Raptor Republics William Lou’s take on a Bobcat versus Raptor first round match-up)

As we approach the post season and anxiously await the determination of our seeding and opponent I can say without reproach I’ve given in to the fairy tale season and firmly believe this Raptor squad is destined. Not just to gain experience, but to do what they’ve done all season: overcome the odds, face adversity, benefit from timely occurrences and maybe just maybe over achieve en route to a second, third and maybe even higher round. My hopes are they’ll do it not just for themselves, but for a fan base eager to dispose of this curse mindset once and for all.

Tipping off to an exciting week of basketball, enjoy.