Ah, the sweet respite of the All-Star break. The mid-season time of calm before the final countdown to the playoff storm. A week meant for lurking players’ Instagram accounts in search of a beach vacation sighting, catching up on any trades you might have missed, randos who slipped through the cracks, and going slowly stir crazy without any games to watch.
This past All-Star Weekend, for the Raptors anyway, effectively helped shift the focus, finally, onto Toronto. Which is good, because the disregard for the Raptors leading into All-Star Weekend, even if it’s something fans and the franchise are used to, was starting to feel more like an intentional act of erasure instead of garden variety ignorance. With Casey’s appearance on The Woj Podcast, and a rare, positive—dare I say fawning—interview opposite rival All-Star Game coach, Mike D’Antoni, that focused on the Raptor’s growth and success thus far this season via practical and balanced basketball, there was suddenly an uptick in acknowledgement. It didn’t hurt that Casey coached the LeBron James-led winning team in the All-Star Game itself, or that Lowry and DeRozan played well opposite their coach in a game that while mostly is a fun excuse for seeing players reactions to their friends who are in it, still has a hell of a lot of people watching.
All this to say that while nobody should hold their breath expecting recognition and sustained support of the Raptors from the American press or pundits, there was a palpable shift in the way the team was getting talked about—a part of me wants to say getting talked about at all but come on, let’s have some self-respect.
The All-Star break is also the only mid-season breather before the last haul to the finals, and for reasons most evident over how the last quarter of the season played out the last few years for Toronto, it’s crucial to come back strong. The last two years were tough on the Raptors coming out of the break. Despite the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline last year, there was a palpable dip in energy and performance by Toronto leading up to last season’s finals. In large part due to the absence of Lowry with his wrist injury, the road up to the finals felt like a slog, and things didn’t get any better once the team was in them and Lowry came back. Offensive ferocity withered, energy went flat so many times during games that the team looked like a patient in cardiac arrest that had to keep getting shocked back to life. The 2014-2015 season, while strong throughout, suffered from the same gaps when the playoffs came around. The team had no answer for a 4th gear to kick into when the time came and while they continued to claw their way back again and again, in the end it left them exhausted with no reservoir left to draw from.
The defeats were bitter, hard lessons to learn from. It’s not even being dramatic to say that, they were awful and still have the capacity to give you shame-chills if you linger on them for too long. The biggest differences this year is that half of the team has the wounds and resulting wisdom that came out of those losses, and the other half is a live-wire poised to shock the collective chest of this team should they need it. The bench, beautiful as they are, for the most part haven’t been through that kind of defeat. They don’t play with any eye or indication that there’s even a chance to falter, that the post-season game should look any different than the one they are playing now. This doesn’t make them clueless, but fearless. The bench, in all their raw energy, has also rarely played dumb. They are all unbridled enthusiasm, yes, but they have all shown capacity for methodology and measured response, for adaptation without getting too caught up in why something isn’t working. It’s the fluidity of the bench that consistently has critics taking note. The rotations change constantly, there’s not one lineup with the Raptors bench unit that is set. It’s rare for this kind of constant flow and flux to seem practiced, and it has as much to do with chemistry as it does with game IQ and that’s a huge advantage that the Raptors are going into the final stretch of the season with.
Team chemistry can make or break a playoff shot. While the Raptors eventually figured it out last year, and Tucker instantly found a groove and a place on the team as a dogged defender and gave them a sense of grit that stayed with them into 2017-2018, Ibaka didn’t really start working out, not in the way Casey and Ujiri likely wanted him to, until this year. It took time, a lot of it. And that’s something that most teams ramping up for a playoff run after making trade moves at the season deadline don’t have.
The Cavaliers are a new team now, essentially. What they did to the roster was the equivalent of taking a rug outside in the spring and hitting it with a tennis racket for forty minutes. James obviously wanted a cleaning of house and some new energy, and that’s what he got. It’s not coincidental that the reworked Cavs took a good, long look at the Raptors bench, one that was easily contending with Cleveland’s starters, and saw what they needed. The “new look” Cavs look an awful lot like the current Toronto Raptors, in blueprint anyway, the chemistry is another question.
Cleveland came out to their first post-break game against the Wizards looking less sharp than they should have. Even with John Wall out, as Raptors fans well know, the Wizards are not a team to be trusted with a lull in intensity for even a second. They are very skilled at turning one missed rebound or a sloppy turnover into a full-on sea change that’ll wash out an opposing team’s chances of coming back. Chalk it up to the first game back for the Cavs, needing to find their groove, sure, but the Raptors, evolved headcases but headcases all the same, need to come out so sharp in their first game back that they’re practically singing. This is especially true against a Bucks team that is winter-hungry and barely trailing the Pacers and Wizards in the Eastern Conference standings, respectively.
The Raptors have the benefit of not having to make any big adjustments around newly acquired players, their flourishing ecosystem is wholly intact. I’d also argue that they are overall a more robust team than they were in years past, and are probably ready to take some knocks that won’t leave them reeling, only retooling. But there will need to be adjustments if they want to close out the season strong. There can be no resorting to sloppy, long-range shot attempts when driving the ball or moving it around is better collectively for their momentum and offensive mentality. Turnovers, with all the wild energy of the bench unit, need to be contained. Another reason Toronto has an edge over teams accustomed to easier wins, or teams in the habit of dominating, is that the Raptors don’t get comfortable (fans don’t either). Beating a team like Cleveland or Golden State in the finals takes a lot of skill and tenacity but these can also be teams where new players—in Cleveland’s case—might treat their trades a bit like getting handed the keys the kingdom, and this casual approach could cost them.
Attention after being long-starved for it can do that, too. Not saying it’s not completely warranted with the Raptors, but the only reason anyone is looking is because Toronto has been steady, consistent and has made them look. Now’s not the time to bask in it, just to keep at the fundamentals and dig deeper. It took over half the season to get here but it’s what happens after the break that’s worth betting on.