Despite the fact that the Raptors have become synonymous with choking in the playoffs over the past couple of seasons, this year seems different. I know the same thing was said last year, but there are more tangible changes to suggest improvement this season. They have been red-hot over the last month and look ready to make a run in the playoffs. In this article, I’ll break down why the Raptors were swept last postseason, and why this year should be a lot different.
THE FORMER FAILURE
Last season, the sweep was a result of two factors. The first was LeBron James going insane. In that series, he averaged 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists per game. James’ Cavaliers had tortured the Raptors for years. The previous 2 seasons the Cavaliers also sent the Raptors home. Last season, despite having a worse team on paper, LeBron knocked the Raptors out of the playoffs again. In the last 3 years, the LeBron-led Cavaliers have a 12-2 record against Toronto in the postseason. With LeBron on the Lakers, the Raptors won’t have to face his team to make the Finals. Which is very good news for Raptors fans.
But, the more prevalent issue from last year’s playoff failures was the team abandoning the principles they followed during the regular season. Throughout the regular season, the Raptors passed the ball freely and shot the 3rd most threes in the NBA. But, against the Cavaliers, they shot just 26.5 threes a game, a decrease of 6.5 attempts, as well as their assists per game reducing from 24.3 to 21.3.
One reason for these declines was DeMar DeRozan. He attempted the most shots for the team despite having the 7th lowest field goal percentage of the 9 rotational players. That series he shot just 44% without making a single three. Additionally, he managed an individual offensive rating of 95 despite the Raptors much higher 112 offensive rating as a team. There is no way to sugarcoat it, DeRozan was flat out bad against the Cavs.
Last season’s failure was nothing new. Over multiple seasons DeRozan has led his team to amazing regular season records, yet consistently disappoints in the playoffs. Even though he had done great things for the Toronto franchise, it was obvious the team needed change. It just so happened that San Antonio’s superstar small forward was forcing his way off the Spurs at the same time.
THE PERFECT SUPERSTAR
The Kawhi Leonard trade couldn’t have been better for the Raptors. Leonard is a true superstar that covers every flaw DeRozan had. Kawhi is leaps and bounds ahead of DeRozan on defense, a much better shooter, and a proven playoff performer. Leonard is a 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, has shot 39% from three throughout his career, and has won a Finals MVP. To get this big of an upgrade makes the Raptors way better than they could’ve dreamed just a season ago.
So far this season, Kawhi has been as good as advertised. He has averaged a career-high 26.2 points per game shooting 49% from the field and 39% from three. To go along with his scoring, Leonard has been a good rebounder (8.2 per game) and an elite defender. His play this season has led the Raptors to a league-best 23-8 record.
But, we all know the Raptors are a great regular season team. With Kawhi leading the way they should be special in the postseason as well. As previously mentioned, Leonard is a Finals MVP and a two-time NBA champion. He has learned from the best coach in the NBA and played with many future Hall of Famers. This postseason the Raptors will be able to lean on Kawhi’s steady play and experience to lead them to what could be their first NBA finals appearance in franchise history.
Besides adding Kawhi, there have been other changes that suggest this team will be a threat in the playoffs. The two most important improvements, in my opinion, was the growth of Pascal Siakam and reducing Jonas Valanciunas‘ minutes while playing Serge Ibaka more minutes at center.
This season Siakam has gone from a bench player to a valuable starter making him a Most Improved Player candidate. The third-year player is averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting an incredible 60% from the field and 37% from three. He has created new career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals all during this season. Even last season, Siakam performed well in his limited postseason play. Now that he’s entering a larger role, players who performed poorly in the playoffs will have less of a negative impact, and Siakam can have more of a positive impact.
The second move that has made the Raptors much better and primed for a deep playoff is the lowering of Valanciunas’ usage rate. Although he has been far from a bad player, Valanciunas doesn’t fit in today’s NBA. A big, lumbering center that isn’t a great defender or outside shooter shouldn’t be playing heavy minutes. The reduction from 22 minutes a game to 18 hasn’t hurt his stats much and has allowed Toronto’s offense to be much better. More importantly, it has given Ibaka more minutes at the center spot.
Serge Ibaka’s 2018-2019 Season So Far: 16.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 55% FG%
After becoming the Raptors’ starting center Ibaka’s career has been somewhat rejuvenated. His averages in every major statistical category have improved and, despite shooting worse from three, his overall efficiency has been much better. With Ibaka on the court, the team is 22 points better on offense per 100 possessions compared to their offensive rating with Valanciunas. This change has been a major reason why the Raptors offensive rating has improved and should continue into the postseason.
Rather than relying on a change in playstyle that quickly regressed once pressure was applied, this year’s Raptors team has obvious structural changes that make them a team to fear. With Kawhi’s arrival, the improvement from Siakam, and Ibaka playing center, it’s hard to imagine this team crumbling in the playoffs. It’s finally time for Toronto to show the NBA that they deserve their first Eastern Conference championship and a chance to take down the Warriors in the Finals.