They say the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
But for the Toronto Raptors, it couldn’t get any worse than the devil they knew. And so it’s on to the next.
For three seasons running, the Raptors’ playoff runs were cut short by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a shadow the Raptors could never escape.
By now, we all know how the story ended: The poster boy of those post-season failures, DeMar DeRozan, was shipped out to San Antonio. LeBron, the story’s antagonist, went to Hollywood and missed the playoffs.
And so enter two new characters. Kawhi Leonard is the Raptors’ new hero, and Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is cast to play the villain.
For that to happen, though, the Raptors will have to meet the Bucks in the conference final, and there’s work to be done before then. For Toronto, that begins with a first-round series against the Orlando Magic that tips off on Saturday.
Milwaukee, as the East’s top seed, would be the only team favoured against the Raptors. It still feels like the Raptors have a better chance against the Bucks than they did any of the past three seasons with LeBron in their way.
The path has never been clearer for Toronto to reach its first NBA Finals.
Whatever happens, the spectre of Leonard’s free agency looms.
When the Raptors traded DeRozan for a disgruntled Leonard in July, the stakes for the season were made immediately clear. Finals or bust — and convince Leonard to stick around while they’re at it.
The regular season, meanwhile, was deemed meaningless. Leonard’s load was carefully managed – to the tune of 22 missed games — and minutes played fell across the board. If the DeRozan era taught Toronto anything, it was the futility of regular-season accolades.
Kawhi Leonard: “There’s 82 games and for me these are just practices and playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
Leonard, the former Finals MVP, understands that. There will be no more load management. The practices are over. Golden State Warrior Draymond Green once said there are 16-game players and 82-game players.
Leonard falls firmly into the former camp. DeRozan was the opposite.
And so if Leonard — as he said himself — mainly cares about the playoffs, then the playoffs are where Toronto needs to prove its worth.
The Raptors are peaking at the right time. They won seven of eight games to close the season as the starters were fully healthy for the first time.
Questions of chemistry, then, have mostly been answered, although the second half of the season did serve up a soft schedule.
Peaking at the right time
Still, some troubling early season trends have disappeared. Most importantly, the Raptors’ three-point percentage ranks first in the NBA since the Marc Gasol trade. Toronto ended the season at 36.6 per cent, good for sixth overall and second in the East.
The trade of Raptors stalwart Jonas Valanciunas for Gasol meant another readjustment. But 26 games into the experiment, Toronto’s offence is flowing better than ever while the defence has remained about the same.
Before the Spanish centre came to Toronto, the Raptors averaged the 16th most assists in the league with 24.1 per game. Since Gasol entered the mix, Toronto ranks third with 27.8 assists per game.
While the extra passing comes with some added turnovers, its unpredictability should prove useful when teams can gameplan for opponents more specifically in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Raptors should be much better prepared than they were one year ago. The biggest upgrade in going from DeRozan to Leonard was always going to be on defence. And a fully healthy, fully engaged Leonard is the best defensive player in the league, as voted by his peers.
The Raptors can close games with starters Leonard, Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Danny Green. That lineup features two former defensive players of the year and three others who are sturdy and switchable.
Magic up 1st
The Magic should be a good test run for the playoffs with their long, agile group of defenders.
They enter the playoffs 21-9 since the beginning of February and boast the league’s eighth-best defensive rating. Orlando beat Toronto two out of four games, including a 29-point blowout in December and a 15-point beatdown two months later.
Still, no one is picking a Magic upset. It would qualify as a massive surprise for the series to even go six games.
The playoffs truly begin in the second round with a likely matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
A Raptors’ victory against the 76ers would place them in the conference final, most likely against Giannis’ Bucks with the possibility of the pesky Celtics sneaking through.
Toronto is experienced, with championship pedigree in Leonard and Green. It finished top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, marking a contender that gets it done on both sides of the court.
A championship and a superstar lie in the balance.