It’s OK to admit it: the Toronto Raptors are the best team in the Eastern Conference before the trade deadline, even if sports betting sites’ future odds don’t reflect that notion.
Cleveland and Boston possess glaring weaknesses which seem unfixable without adding talent to their rosters. Sure, the Cavaliers and the Celtics could cash in on assets and land a significant trade, but all signs point to the Raptors’ leading the pack into the playoffs. Most old criticisms of Toronto basketball don’t apply, because of new personnel and strategy embraced by the North.
Living And Dying By Threes And Drives
Shooting more threes is the most obvious strategy switch for the Raptors this season. Toronto no longer frequently settles for long deuces, focusing more on ball movement to create open jumpers along the perimeter. When the three-point arc doesn’t yield an open look, the Raptors drive to the rim more often instead of selecting an inefficient two-point jump shot.
Instead of DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson heaving bricks, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, O.G. Anunoby and Fred Vanvleet have taken over as key three-and-d players.
DeRozan’s recent embrace of the three-point shot has transformed the all-star starter into an unstoppable offensive threat. Even Valanciunas pops threes nowadays, earning his first multi-three game of his career against the Jazz. Toronto still occasionally grind to a halt offensively because of late-game iso-ball, but they do not face the same uphill climb to create scoring like the injury-depleted lineup of the Celtics.
Kyrie Irving’s a premiere point producer, but the Celtics have difficulty putting points on the board without a secondary scorer like Gordon Hayward. Boston own a 108.2 offensive rating with Kyrie on the floor, and a 97.2 rating when he sits. Extra points will be hard for Boston to find without external help or sudden internal development.
Raptors Show Elite Defense
The Toronto Raptors have changed on defense too, employing young legs and long arms to great effect. Players like Siakam, Poeltl, Wright and Anunoby can guard all positions on most evenings. This enables a switch-heavy scheme which helps cover pick-and-rolls, slash-and-kicks, and more importantly, prevents easy looks from beyond the arc.
Toronto’s earned the third-best defensive rating this season, giving up 105.2 points per 100 possessions, ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who’ve received attention across the NBA for their defending prowess. The Raptors have the fourth lowest FG% against at .447, allowing opponents a mere .349 3P% and a .489 percentage for two-point shots.
The Raptors also collect 6.1 blocks per game, second in the NBA, along with 8.3 steals per game, which ranks seventh. Comparatively, the Cavaliers defense allows 111.9 points per 100 possessions on 3.8 blocks per game and 7.3 steals per game. Cleveland’s interior defense has been so porous that trade rumors include Nerlens Noel as a potential fix, despite Noel scratched regularly on the rebuilding Mavericks.
Toronto play the type of defense Cleveland desperately needs for another playoff run, while the Celtics would love to possess the type of scoring depth built by GM Masai Ujiri and Coach Dwane Casey. As the only complete team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors should be considered top contenders before the trade deadline.
Raptors Weekly Preview – No Rest For Hungry Hunters
Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors – January 30th
Toronto will seek revenge after letting a win slip from their claws during crunch time in the previous meeting between these teams. The Raptors are still one of the best home squads in the NBA, which should even the score for this runback.
Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards – February 1st
The Washington Wizards have managed to survive time without John Wall while remaining in the thick of the playoff hunt, mostly because of the skill of Bradley Beal. However, if Wall sits, the Wiz don’t have the personnel required to deal with Toronto’s deep backcourt of Lowry, Wright and VanVleet.
Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors – February 2nd
One of the most challenging games this week will be a “schedule loss” against the Trail Blazers, who will enjoy a rest advantage for this matchup. Toronto will need to lean heavily on their superior bench mob to prevent Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum from splashing all over the North.
Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors – February 4th
Perhaps the least fortunate team in terms of health over the past couple of years, the Grizzlies recently announced that star point guard Mike Conley will miss the remainder of the season after surgery. As such, Memphis aims for the tank, even if Marc Gasol’s dropping the occasional triple double. The Raps should reap a big win to end a busy week.