Back on February 1st, I wrote about the Toronto Raptors and them looking for a team identity. It had been tough sledding for five or six weeks at that point in the season, the team had a hard time sustaining momentum from quarter to quarter, let alone from game to game, and the difference between the peaks and valleys was massive. The season was more than half done as well, and as much as the talent on the Raptors was clear, it felt like they didn’t know who they were yet or who they wanted to be, and with the constant injuries and the games Kawhi Leonard was missing for rest, it wasn’t clear that they’d figure it out.
Nearly three months later, headed for the NBA Finals, it couldn’t be more clear that they found that identity.
In looking forward to the NBA Finals, it only felt right to look back to the season and how the Raptors got here, and if this team has had a calling card in this postseason it’s been their ability to handle adversity, despite their tendency to sometimes get themselves in trouble. In each of the last two games against the Milwaukee Bucks the Raptors were slow starters, looking tired and out of sorts before fighting back as the game went on and putting themselves in position to take control. Obviously, the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard has been a large part of this, and that’s where the lion’s share of the credit will deservedly go, but the team as a whole seems to have found a comfort in who they are and want to be.
But a team that goes five months without having a concrete identity doesn’t walk an easy path to suddenly being one that dictates the tone of an Eastern Conference Finals against a juggernaut Milwaukee Bucks team.
What the Raptors have done over the course of the last few seasons, and going into the playoffs, to become a team to be reckoned with and one that is now just four victories away from a championship is that they’ve embraced that adversity that bothered them earlier in the season and caused them struggles. It’s felt throughout the fan base too, in that now absorbing an opponent’s best punch early in a basketball game is no longer a sign of a loss coming, but an expectation of a coming Raptors counterpunch, and we start looking for the first signs of that next run the team will make to bring the game back into play. It doesn’t always work out, there have been some tough losses along the way, notably game three against the Sixers and game two against the Bucks, games in which the opponent was able to run away with it with the Raptors unable to answer, but those have become the exception, not the expectation.
It starts with their defense, though. The Raptors have been dominant in the halfcourt in the postseason, adapting to the opponent to take away their normal paths of attack and forcing them to look to adapt, and that’s a foreign concept to Raptors postseason play in itself. In past playoff runs, the Raptors have been the team adapting, the team trying to find answers to solve an opponent and making changes that take them outside of their identity to try to do so. This year’s team hasn’t had to do that, they’ve been able to force those adjustments on the opponent, forcing Philadelphia to look away from Joel Embiid for their offense, and forcing the Milwaukee Bucks to try to create away from Giannis Antetokounmpo when they weren’t in transition. Taking away those options took each of those teams out of their comfort zone and allowed the Raptors room to figure out their own struggles without going away from their game.
The confidence that they can continue to limit these high-powered offenses has bled over into other aspects of the Raptors game as well, and helped them build runs to get back into games after an opponent has built a lead. The Raptors know that they can eventually created a stretch where the other team will have trouble scoring, and that will open their window, and that played out across the last two games against the Bucks. Milwaukee came out scoring in both of those games, creating in transition and knocking down their shots, and the Raptors defense bent under the weight of a team hitting the shots that you want them to take, but they didn’t break. They absorbed body blows and kept working and moving forward, and fighting back. After each Milwaukee run to build the lead back up came a Raptors run to tighten the game in turn, and eventually the willpower of the Raptors to not break became the weight that broke their opponent itself.
That’s what leads to confidence in the Raptors’ ability to defeat the Golden State Warriors, as well. One of the most dominant teams that basketball has ever seen, the Warriors win games often through dominant runs where they knock down seemingly impossible shots and those runs seem to break the will of an opponent, making even observers feel the helplessness of trying to stop their shotmakers and slow down their offense. In order to win against them, you have to absorb those runs and believe in your ability to hit them back afterwords, and believe that the onslaught will stop, that your defense can get things back under control.
If there’s a way to prepare for that, the Raptors have experienced it in this postseason. If there’s a team that can break the Raptors, it will be the Warriors in these Finals. They have the capability to just keep hitting those tough shots Toronto presents you with until the game ends. However, if there’s a team that can withstand those onslaughts and then punch back, it’s these Raptors. Because they’ve stood up to that test over and over again, and that’s become their team identity that was missing for most of the season.