The Toronto Raptors have been called a lot of things this season. The NBA’s deepest team. Its most flexible. Its most well-organized.
Yet after the most powerful wins of the season so far, it might be time to ditch all those and replace them with a convenient catch-all. Are the Raptors simply the best team in basketball?
No one has been spoken of in those terms in recent times except for the Golden State Warriors, who have kept such a stranglehold on championships and bragging rights that there has been little room for anyone else in the discussion.
It's time for that to change.
The shrewd minds of the Las Vegas sports books might disagree, with Sin City still listing the Warriors as clear favorites at an ungenerous price, but the Raptors are showing signs that suggest they are ready to mount a serious challenge for a title, no matter who they face at the final hurdle.
Regular season games are not always an accurate indicator of how things will pan out in the playoffs, but confidence does play into it and there is no question that Toronto has bundles of belief, especially after the events of this week.
First, Toronto went to the Los Angeles Clippers, until recently owners of the NBA’s best home record, and destroyed them 123-99, opening up a 29-point lead before cruising through the final quarter.
But it was Wednesday night when they ground down the Warriors on their own floor – in what looms as a potential NBA Finals preview – when the Raptors really began to raise eyebrows, winning 113-93 in a game that never felt close.
This wasn’t a depleted Warriors team. Stephen Curry is back and firing on all fronts, taking aim from three-point range and, in a cheeky podcast, at NASA. The Draymond Green/Kevin Durant beef has cooled and the recent four-game slide is long forgotten.
That didn’t stop Toronto from bursting into an early lead, quashing any hint of a home revival and generally playing like a team that feels like it is the favorite. All without its primary superstar, Kawhi Leonard, out with a bruised hip for a second straight game.
“It’s big,” Kyle Lowry told ESPN. “With Kawhi we are a different team and without him (it had to be) next man up. We want him back, and when we play with pace and energy we are really good.”
A major reason why it is easy to be high on Toronto and its title credentials is the way it has managed to deal with adversity without losing momentum. The swashbuckling start to this trip came following Leonard’s physical concerns, a four-game personal slump in which Lowry managed just 15 total points, a listless home defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks and the passing of head coach Nick Nurse’s mother.
At 23-7 the Raptors have the best record in the league, and are worthy of it.
Lowry’s response has been particularly impressive. He tallied 21 in Los Angeles and 23 at Golden State, assuming control in the absence of Leonard and taking the team’s record in back-to-backs to 6-0.
Winning consistently without Leonard may not be possible in the postseason, but the squad has coped admirably on the occasions the former San Antonio Spur has been missing so far. Despite going 7-1, they’re not better without him, but it does speak to the true depth of the line-up and its extra parts.
Serge Ibaka is showing power and hunger, Pascal Siakam is having a transformative year, Fred VanVleet has blossomed into a master provider and Lowry, his temporary lapse notwithstanding, offers scoring power either with his own hand or as a facilitator.
It is a fun place to be around, joking and clowning in the locker room being the norm in the relaxed environment preferred by Nurse.
“Winning is always fun,” Siakam said. “We’re having a good time.”
The Raptors hadn’t won in Oakland for 13 years but Wednesday’s clash wasn’t a nail-biter by any stretch. It was the kind of win that you see from a serious team that believes in itself, no matter who it is up against.
“They’re not an up-and-coming team,” Durant said. “They’re here.”
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took a slightly different, and more defensive, tack.
“I would think that we would have the edge, now that they have kicked our butts twice,” Kerr said, when asked about any psychological advantage if the teams were to meet in the Finals. “If that were to happen I know we’d be ready to play.”
Kerr likes being on top and he doesn’t want to cede ground to the team that seems to present the biggest danger to his team’s dominance. But Toronto has arrived and he knows it. The quest to be the best is in full swing, and it’s turned into an even fight.
Follow Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno
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