All year, Raptors’ fans have fantasized about a “fully realized” version of this team; a world where the Raptors — with a rookie head coach and new acquisitions in three of five starter spots — would unlock a final gear and maximize their collective talents. After all, that is the hope every fan base has because, in order to win a championship, a team must maximize their potential. Think about the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, who spent years forming chemistry with their big three and finally put the right role players around them, avoided major injuries, and overcame an elite Warriors team by having everything go right when it mattered most.
The Raptors aren’t going to win a championship playing the way they have been throughout the postseason. They barely squeezed out a series win against the Philadelphia 76ers and are now 2-2 with Milwaukee Bucks because they are leaning way too heavily on Kawhi Leonard, shooting the ball poorly, giving up easy transition buckets and making the type of mistakes championship teams can’t afford to make. And while fans have been optimistic all season that the Raptors might eventually unlock this theoretical final gear, that optimism has waned in place of predictable Torontonian pessimism. And why wouldn’t it? The Raptors haven’t played to the best of their abilities very often this postseason — it seems unlikely that would change now. But it is possible, and every now and again — like game 4 of the Bucks series, for example — we are reminded why we had optimism in the first place. Let’s take a look at how that final gear could be reached and what it might look like.
When the Raptors are at their best, they can beat you in a number of ways. Only one other team in the world can truly say that: the Golden State Warriors, who have five All-Stars on their roster, including two of the best five players in the world. The Bucks, as good as they are, play one style so well — backed by math that proves it a winnable format — that they are usually impossible to stop without needing to stray from their one winning format. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the primary ball handler, he drives to the paint forcing help from the perimeter, and he either takes it himself or swings it out for an open three or any number of opportunities that come from a frantic, scrambling defense. When the Bucks are at their best — and they have been all season — they beat you by scoring enough points that even if you’re hitting half the threes they give you on the other end, it’s usually not going to be enough. That’s why they lost one back-to-back all season and never lost three in a row. They became a fully realized version of themselves early in the season, fine-tuning their formula the rest of the way. And that’s not to say the Bucks have no room to grow: Giannis will continue getting better — he is only 24 and has never been this deep in the playoffs— and the team can shoot better than 29.9 percent from behind the arc (like they have against the Raptors).
The Raptors, though, have much more room to grow. They haven’t had the luxury of playing together for several years like the Bucks, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. They are yet to reach a fully realized version of themselves. But throughout the year they have shown glimpses of all the different ways they can win games: Defensively, they play two former defensive players of the year alongside three more All-NBA capable defenders in the starting lineup, where they have stifled the Bucks in the half court. From behind the arc, the Raptors were the best three-point shooting team since the All-Star break, shooting 41.4 percent from three until the playoffs, where that number fell to 33.4 percent. From the midrange, where Kawhi Leonard is one of the most dangerous players in the league, shooting 53.2 percent in the playoffs. In the paint, where the Raptors’ forwards have the footwork and strength to dominate inside. On the break, where they ranked 5th in the league with 18.1 points per game during the regular season. They are great at getting to the line, with Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka all capable of initiating contact.
Their ability to dominate in different areas of the game manifests itself in different ways: some games Kawhi isolates for 39 shots and wins by himself, some games you “give the ball to Gasol and have the rest of the guys cut repeatedly,” as Nurse said about their style after the trade deadline, and the ball moves around beautifully creating all types of open looks. Some days it’s a defensive slog-fest, where the Raptors slow the game down and win defensively. The graphic below shows how much Kawhi’s scoring load has varied this postseason, demonstrating how different the Raptors can play on any given night.
Game 4 against the Bucks saw Kawhi Leonard carry the lowest scoring load for the team all post-season (tied with Game 3 vs Orlando). pic.twitter.com/mzIjg2KF7Y
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) May 23, 2019
Speaking about the Raptors identity, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz said on the most recent Lowe Post, “we are so far gone from what we thought the Raptors were when I landed here on May 11th… The funny thing is the personnel hasn’t changed, they’re running the same stuff, they have adapted certain defensive schemes, but in terms of sheer identity and what we know of this team, it just doesn’t get actualized on the floor all that often.”
“The Raptors,” Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star added, “they’re a team that has beaten teams a lot of different ways and can kinda do different things game to game.”
Maybe this is just who the Raptors are, though: an inconsistent team theoretically capable of greatness but lacking the special sauce to put it all together. I wouldn’t argue with that logic, but a few times this season the Raptors have proven capable of putting it all together. Look at game 5 of the 76ers series for example: The Raptors blew out the Sixers 125-89 behind 21 points from Leonard, 25 from Siakam, 19 from Lowry, 17 from Danny Green, 11 from Marc Gasol, and 10 from Ibaka. The Raptors held the 76ers to just 41.8 percent from the field, including 25.0 percent from deep. They forced 19 turnovers and came up with 12 steals. They outrebounded the Sixers, 52-43, with all five starters grabbing five or more rebounds. They shot 40 percent from deep, got to the line 33 times (13 more than the Sixers), scored 38 points in the paint (six more than the Sixers), and 33 on the fast break (25 more than the Sixers).
Or look at a more recent example: Game 4 of the Bucks series, one of the best Raptors postseason performances ever. Without relying on Kawhi, who was injured, they got paint touches and moved the ball well, assisting on 32 of their 41 made field goals. Their bench came to play, outscoring the Bucks bench 48-23. And perhaps most importantly, they completely stifled the Bucks half-court offense, guarding Giannis with Kawhi and quick double-teams while playing smart help-defense and rotating around the perimeter. By the end of the game, the Bucks looked afraid of the Raptors defense. And, considering Green was 0-2 from behind the arc and Siakam finished with just seven points, that wasn’t even the best possible version of the Raptors.
In both cases, everything clicked for the Raptors and they won in so many different ways looking nearly unbeatable doing it. It’s not often that a team is capable of dominating in such a well-rounded fashion, and it will only get harder to do as the opposition gets better. But the Raptors have proven they a final gear in them. And it’s a good thing that the Raptors have had to defeat difficult opponents, face adversary, and seem to be getting better as each game and series goes along.
Part of maximizing their potential and reaching a fully realized version of themselves has to do with certain things reverting to the mean: the Raptors outside shooting has been abysmal this postseason (although they are shooting better than the Bucks this series), and guys like Green and VanVleet need to consistently find their stroke. Rebounding wasn’t a big problem in the regular season but it has been against the 76ers and the Bucks. If the Raptors can grab closer to 50 percent of boards, they should be in a much better position to win. The paint was always going to be a problem against the Bucks, who structure their defense to take away shots at the rim, but guys like Gasol, Ibaka, Siakam, and Leonard are all capable of dominating inside. They will need to create more mismatches and generate better ball movement in order to make that happen. OG Anunoby, who is yet to play in the postseason, should be nearing a return and, if he comes in fit, could be a huge 10 points off the bench along with much-needed size on defense. In other words, the Raptors have lots of room to grow, they just don’t have much time to do it. Although if game 4 was any indication, they look to be heading in the right direction.
Since the start of the Lowry-DeRozan era, Raptors’ fans have hoped for an NBA Finals birth. But this year was different: Once we realized Kawhi was healthy, Siakam was the most improved player, and Gasol was a Raptor, it felt like the collective goal changed from hoping to make the finals to thinking we could win the championship. That optimism diminished throughout the playoffs, and in typical-Toronto fashion we became satisfied with what has been a spectacular playoff run composed of moments we will never forget. But before we act like it’s over — like it’s a foregone conclusion the Bucks or Warriors are going to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy — let’s continue to put our faith in the Raptors. That is no easy thing, to put your faith in a team that has disappointed us time and again, in a city that knows nothing but disappointment from its sports teams. But this is the best chance the Raptors have ever had to win it all, and the next one might not come anytime soon.