By: Ryan Suknandan
“I don’t feel they have the ‘it’ that makes you worried,” explained former Washington Wizards small forward Paul Pierce in regards to the 2015 Toronto Raptors.
Pierce would eventually back up those words by leading his Wizards to a convincing 4-0 series sweep over the 3rd seed Raptors, holding Kyle Lowry to 12.3 PPG. Pierce repeated his work from a year before, when the Brooklyn Nets toppled the Raptors in a full 7 game series. This year the Raptors may have just found ‘it’ at the right time.
The Toronto Raptors began the post season after coming off a franchise-best 56-26 season, good enough for a 2nd place finish in the East. After barely escaping the first round of the playoffs against Paul George and the 7th seed Indiana Pacers, a second round birth could have been viewed as a successful finish to the season on its own, but the Raptors have continued to push forward and are finding their form after each passing game.
Lowry, who averaged 21.2PPG this season, saw a significant drop in production in the first round matchup with the pacers, averaging 13.9PPG and putting up a 31.6% FG percentage. While DeRozan broke out in game 7 against the Pacers putting up 30PTS, he averaged 15.8PPG compared to the career high 23.5PPG he produced during the regular season. Lowry and DeRozan both stepped up for the Raps in their second round victory over Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat, bringing their totals to 18.6PPG and 20.0PPG respectively. Dwayne Casey and the Raptors know that the team will only make it as far their two all-stars will carry them.
Lowry and DeRozan have both struggled to maintain consistent play throughout the entirety of their first two series, playing poorly at moments, displaying signs of playoff inexperience that cannot be exposed against a deadly Cleveland Cavaliers team in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors overcame these falters with help from their bench, particularly the play of Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo who has stepped in for injured Jonas Valenciunas (ankle) who has not been given a timeline for a return at this time.
Statistically speaking, the Cavaliers are stronger than the Raptors at every positional matchup. Cleveland’s big three consisting of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have been nothing short of great this post season. Coming off of two series sweeps over the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, a well-rested Cleveland team has come together and is synced up to make a serious run at an NBA championship against the heavily favoured Golden State Warriors. The Cavs are shooting just under 50% from the 3 point line while King James is almost averaging a double-double per game, with 23.5PPG and 8.8 REB.
At first glance, Toronto may look undoubtedly outmatched by LeBron and the Cavs, but with each passing game the Raptors continue to find their playoff form. It will be an uphill battle, but not impossible. The Raptors took the season series against the Cavaliers 2-1 and know they are never out of a game.
The Raptors are better this post season than any other team in franchise history, but in order to continue silencing their critics, they will have to prove they have indeed developed their ‘it’ factor. Lowry and DeRozan have no more room for an off game. Demarre Caroll will have to do what he was signed to do, shut down a player of LeBron’s caliber. Biyombo will have to continue to fill Jonas Valenciunas’ large shoes. No pun intended.
The Raptors open up game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers tonight in Cleveland.