The Toronto Raptors have had a rough stretch dating all the way back to last season, where they had to host all of their home games down south in Tampa Bay and missed the playoffs.
Their bad luck carried over to the first few months of this new campaign, as they were hit by several injuries and Covid-19 health and safety protocols. They closed the month of December with a 15-17 record that put them in 11th place in the East.
However, things took a turn for the better in January and they have won 13 of their 19 games in the new year. The Raptors’ most recent victory was a thrilling 127-120 overtime win over the first place Chicago Bulls, which has extended their current winning streak to four games. Their record has improved to 27-23 and they are now seventh place in the East.
Toronto is fast-approaching the free-falling Brooklyn Nets who are a mere 1.5 games ahead of them in the standings and they are suddenly just 4.5 games away from the East-leading Bulls. To top it off, their starting point guard Fred VanVleet was recently named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career.
Everything is falling into place for the Raptors, and they have flipped their team’s preseason narrative in a major way by embracing the unconventional. Initially pegged as a rebuilding team this season, head coach Nick Nurse’s brilliance has brought the best out of this group. His creative play calls have caught opponents off-guard and the center-less line-ups that they regularly deploy are a nightmare to cover
Toronto have established themselves as a dark horse contender for the Eastern Conference title over the past few weeks and a deep playoff run is not improbable for this core that still has a few remnants from their 2019 run to the NBA championship. Although VanVleet is their sole representative to this year’s All-Star game, with career-best averages of 21.5 points and seven assists per game, their success has truly been a result of their team-first approach and balanced attack that has fed off their camaraderie as a unit.
In their win over the Bulls, six different Raptors scored at least 16 points. Pascal Siakam led the way with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists in the latest stellar showing from the 6’9 forward whose resurgent play has coincided with the team’s resurgence. VanVleet, rookie Scottie Barnes, and OG Anunoby added 21 apiece while Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher had 16 each.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Toronto were perceived to be sellers at the upcoming trade deadline with their treasure trove of players who have yet to hit their prime. Fast forward to today and they have now turned into buyers as they gear up for a late season push behind the collective efforts of their in-demand pieces.
Though their switchable line-ups with three forwards manning the front court positions has sparked their success, they remain in the hunt for a dependable center. They will especially need one come a potential postseason match-up with the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Jarrett Allen, and Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic who just torched them for 30 points and 18 rebounds.
The Raptors have been linked to all of the big men whose names have been floated around in the market, from Robert Williams to Myles Turner. Former Toronto player Jakob Poeltl, whom they traded away in the deal that netted them Kawhi Leonard in 2018, has also been reportedly mentioned in discussions.
It will be interesting to monitor the developments on this front and if a transaction can materialize before the deadline next week. If nothing happens, it will not be the end of the world for Toronto and it might be the best thing that could happen to this team now.
Their distinctive and unselfish brand of basketball has been refreshing to watch as they push the limits of what a modern NBA line-up could look like. They have manifested the underdog Nurse’s gritty attitude on the court as they play with a massive chip on their shoulder and emphasize teamwork.
The novel tactics that they employ might not catch their opponents off guard come the playoffs, but that might not even matter if those teams do not have the appropriate personnel to keep up with these unpredictable and exciting Raptors.