Vanquishing Demons of Playoffs Past

As the playoff schedule finalized on Wednesday night, and the first round opponent for the Raptors was finally determined to be the Orlando Magic, Raptors fans seemed to be immediately looking for reasons to worry. Whether that was talking about Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard struggling a little bit against Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon this season, or Terrence Ross’ incredible performance in Orlando’s final game of the season, all of those reasons were immediately brought up. It was easy to justify all these small things being reasons that the Raptors might find struggles in the first round, but the evidence of the season still overwhelmingly favored Toronto when you looked at the series as a whole. Raptors fans looking for reasons to stifle their own expectations, trying to keep themselves from getting too high at the start of another playoff run, was entirely understandable though.

We’ve been here before. Not with this team, not really, but with the Raptors as a whole. We’ve been at the start of a playoff run with all the reasons in the world for optimism about the Raptors, after an exciting season in which the team looked the part of world beaters at times and put up one of the best records in the league. To say it hasn’t ended well previously would be a massive understatement. In order to address how those runs might not be relevant though, first we have to talk about, however painful it might be, exactly what did go wrong in those years.

Last year felt like this, in many regards. It was a Raptors team that had finally found a way to have a starting lineup that was a net positive. The bench was a huge advantage all season long. DeMar DeRozan had expanded his game and improved his playmaking to a large degree, and OG Anunoby felt like the missing cog that finally gave the Raptors the defender they needed beside DeMar to help solve the woes they’d had in previous playoff runs. Yet, the result was all too familiar.

The Washington series took a little longer than felt necessary, which has been a trend during the last four years, allowing opponents to stay in a series where the Raptors eventually win. The Raptors handily won several of the games, but still showed some signs of not being the same regular season team. Fred VanVleet’s late season injury seemed to be a crippling blow to the bench mob, and the rest of the players in that group just couldn’t really manage many positive contributions in that series. Of course, the second round was where things really fell apart.

Against Cleveland the Raptors didn’t seem to have enough answers at either end of the floor. It would be easy to lay the blame in several places, but the team just structurally didn’t hold up in ways that can’t be simplified that much. The Cavaliers followed the same defensive strategy each of the three times they eliminated the Raptors, which was to take the ball out of DeMar DeRozan’s hands whenever possible, and then overload the defense against any other ball-handler, using the fact that DeRozan isn’t a threat to knock down threes off-ball to allow them to do so. This kept Kyle Lowry’s impact limited, because he didn’t have the space to create much. Also, the fact that the Raptors were forced into playing several other non-shooting threats further allowed this strategy to succeed.

At the defensive end of the floor, the Raptors had defenders who they didn’t want guarding the best players on the Cavaliers, and Cleveland had a talented group of shooters around LeBron whenever possible. They would find ways to put the Raptors’ worst defenders in motion, creating opportunities to find open shots, which they hit. To Dwane Casey’s credit, he shifted the defensive assignments around in each game of the series to try to account for this, but the team simply didn’t have enough capable defenders on the roster to really stop the strategy from succeeding at the end of the day.

This is obviously not a complete accounting of that series, and it was a long and painful series for the Raptors fanbase, even if it only took four games. It was also entirely emblematic of the team the Raptors have been for the past five seasons, a team that has, despite their success, just had too many holes at both ends of the floor to not be exposed a little bit when the postseason arrived. For an opposing coaching staff, identifying the places where you could lower your defensive attention to focus on stopping what the Raptors wanted to do was too easy, while at the same time you could clearly identify the places where you could open up holes in Toronto’s defense.

That’s who the Raptors were. Fortunately, that’s not who this Raptors team is. While this is the same run of franchise success, this team resembles those teams of the past mostly only in name. Nearly half of the playoff rotation will be different, with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and FredVanVleet the only players who seem guaranteed to be in the playoff rotation who are holdovers from those years. More than the individual players though, the roster composition is different.

That fatal flaw of those past teams, the ability to be clearly gameplanned against in a way that would force the Raptors away from the game they wanted to play has been mitigated, in building a roster of players where each on-ball player also has to be accounted for away from the ball. Pascal Siakam is probably the weakest three-point shooter in the Raptors’ starting five, and he shot 36.9% from long distance this season, and 41% from the corners. As well, the likely first three players off the bench is each a capable shooter, in Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka, although Anunoby and Ibaka have each struggled somewhat this year from three, they can do enough damage if left open that teams will at least hesitate to give them that space, and Ibaka is a deadly pick-and-pop threat in the midrange game even if his three-point shot isn’t falling. This, combined with the strength of their attacking players in Leonard, Lowry and Siakam and a lot of capable playmaking on the roster, gives the Raptors the offensive versatility to tool their own game to the opponent’s defense, without being forced to attack from a position of weakness.

At the defensive end of the floor, where their issues were amplified most in past playoff years, the Raptors this year present an entirely different team. There is a case for four of their starters to get votes for All-Defense this year, and the guy who won’t is Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol has lost a step from those days, but his instincts remain strong and he’s a good communicator, and surrounded by one of the best perimeter defensive groups in the league. All season long, when the Raptors lock in at that end of the floor, they’ve impressed, and they should find that level more frequently in the playoffs. It’s not just that each of those defensive players can guard their own position well enough, either. Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam can switch onto any position and accord themselves well enough, and the danger of posting up Kyle Lowry should be well known around the league at this point.

All of this isn’t to say that the Raptors couldn’t still struggle in the playoffs, and there is definitely always a possibility that the run doesn’t go according to plan. Part of what makes the postseason exciting is the chance of something unexpected occurring, and it’s impossible to totally remove that.

Also, given everything written above, and while I could easily write another several thousand words on the reasons why this Raptors team is different, and worth investing in as a fan even after those painful years past, the scars are real and they aren’t that easy to erase. Should the Raptors drop game one to Orlando, it wouldn’t be a devastating blow to the team’s playoff hopes and wouldn’t really change anything, they’d still be one of the favorites around the league to win the title afterwords, but it would bring back all those painful memories. That can’t be erased, except with a successful postseason, and measuring that is difficult. Clearly, a title would accomplish that, and making the Finals would go a long way, but short of that it’s hard to imagine how this team could deliver an outcome that would give Raptors fans the closure they desperately need after those tough years.

Whether this team is capable though, and whether this team can be expected to accomplish that shouldn’t be in question though. This is the closest Toronto has ever been to fielding a team that can be expected to win an NBA championship, and that’s meaningful, in that it should allow Raptors fans to find faith in them going into a first round series they should win with ease. This team has guys who have been there before in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, guys who won’t be intimidated by the spotlight. It has veterans, in Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, who are desperate to get there and haven’t quite made it yet.

Truthfully though, for the Raptors fans who aren’t willing to invest themselves, for whom the scars are simply too much to really buy in this time around, there is nothing I could write here that would convince them. That’s not an unreasonable stance, because last year’s playoffs end did hurt. It wasn’t just that the team lost earlier than expected, it was that the entire series felt hopeless, like the Raptors just didn’t belong. It’s understandable not to want to go through that again, and I can’t promise that it won’t happen again. This team has shown themselves, this season, to be worth considering as something different though, and if this is the payoff for the last five years of struggles, if this season delivers on the promise that those teams failed to live up to, then maybe it will have all been worth it.

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