Raptors' road success has them looking like playoff spoilers
The Toronto Raptors have already surpassed expectations this season. Many thought this team would conclude the 2021-22 campaign with a record reminiscent of the days when Bryan Colangelo ruled Jurassic Park. While that was a safe bet, the culture around Scotiabank Arena is worlds apart from those dark days. After a disappointing year in Tampa, the Raptors are back in the playoff picture as a dark horse who some believe could upset a top seed. It's such a unique situation. An ironic situation, truly. Yes, the Raptors are back in Toronto and much of the discussion regarding last season’s shortcomings focused on the fact that they were in Tampa.
With a gratifying 118-108 routing of the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, the Toronto Raptors guaranteed their eighth postseason appearance in nine seasons.
Firmly locked into a top-six seed, the Raptors will face one of three teams, all of who can lay claim to being the beast of the East. The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics each have MVP-calibre stars and a solid supporting cast with more experience than the Raptors.
With that being said, Toronto is like an annoying little brother: always getting in your way, constantly challenging what you do and acting stubborn beyond belief.
So, let’s talk about how those “little brother” tendencies could play out against these three heavy hitters.
Raptors edge Celtics in overtime behind 40 points from Pascal Siakam, move to tie for fifth in East standings
Raptors edge Celtics in overtime behind 40 points from Pascal Siakam, move to tie for fifth in East standingsWith the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls in action – the two teams surrounding the Raptors in the playoff picture – tonight's result was going to alter Toronto's place in the standings one way or another.
The defending NBA champions are very familiar with the North. Milwaukee’s two cornerstones, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, have underwhelming track records against the Raptors. Through their careers, Antetokounmpo is 13-31, while Middleton is 15-32.
Some numbers don’t matter and although the Raps are 3-0 against the Bucks this season, Antetokounmpo was unavailable for two of those games. That’s not to completely discount Toronto’s success against the Bucks, but Milwaukee is 11 points better than the opposition when Antetokounmpo is on the court.
With that being said, Toronto’s ability to neutralize the Greek Freak shouldn’t go unnoticed. In one game against the Raptors this season, Antetokounmpo logged 30 points, six boards, and four assists. However, he only shot 35.3 percent from the field in what was one of his worst shooting performances of the season. On the other hand, Toronto missed Scottie Barnes that same game and missed OG Anunoby on Dec. 12, so adjustments were made on both sides.
Raptors show how they've changed, and stayed the same, in Lowry’s return
When Kyle Lowry’s Raptors tenure came to an end, with the Raptors flipping Lowry for Precious Achiuwa and selecting Scottie Barnes 4th overall last offseason, nobody knew what the new-look Raptors were going to look like. But we did know that they were going to look different. While the personnel on the court has changed for the Raptors, causing some of what they do stylistically to be dramatically different, there are elements of the 2021-22 Raptors that embody everything that Lowry stood for. Namely, just how hard they play on a night-to-night basis, and how scrappy they can be when it comes to fighting their way back into games and not giving up.“For sure.
The Bucks rely heavily on their big three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. In fact, 60 percent of Milwaukee’s nightly output comes solely from them. Bobby Portis is having a stellar year, and although he’s extended his range, he’s the kind of player that defences can plan for. Overall, Milwaukee shoots just 39 percent from the field against the Raptors – a far cry from their season average of 46.7 percent.
In addition to those numbers, Milwaukee’s confidence could take a huge hit in a series against Toronto as the Bucks are just 22-23 against teams above .500, whereas the Raptors are 25-22. The deeper you go in the playoffs, the better your competition gets. As evidenced by the numbers, Milwaukee starting the playoffs against an annoying and stubborn team like Toronto isn’t an ideal situation regardless of the regular season or the playoffs. The Raptors are well equipped to defend Joel Embiid and the 76ers in the NBA playoffs. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid is colossal. Not just in size, but also his impact. He carried Philly to a 35-23 record despite the whole “Ben Simmons-saga” and now that he finally has a co-star who happens to be one of the most prolific offensive players in NBA history, the 76ers finally look like a formidable playoff foe.
Why the Raptors have the potential to be more than a feel-good story
The Toronto Raptors have exceeded any and all expectations this season, from Vegas’ over/under line of 35.5 wins to Masai Ujiri’s comments about not being a “team of now” and “growing pains” to come. With 47 wins and counting, the Raptors are guaranteed to finish at least 10 games above .500 and make the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, with the only exception coming in 2020-21 during their displaced season in Tampa Bay. While theWhile the expectations were tame, the path to regular-season success was always there for the Raptors.
Since James Harden was acquired, Philly is tied for the third-most wins in the league, seventh in three-point shooting percentage and scoring .96 points per possession in isolation, which is fifth-best in that category. While those numbers are impressive, the 76ers are fairly predictable on offence.
The first option is obviously to get the ball in Embiid's hands and let him go to work in the paint. If that doesn’t work, he’ll kick it out to Harden, Tobias Harris or Tyrese Maxey (who’s playing out of his mind and should be garnering way more MIP recognition) on the perimeter.
Second option? James Harden brings the ball up and either sets up for some iso action or deploys a pick-and-roll with Embiid. Harden and Embiid have been one of the NBA’s deadliest duos in the 19 games they've played together, generating 71.2 points per game. Something equally if not more fascinating is that there’s another Philly player that Harden ranks higher with as far as two-man lineups go: Tobias Harris, at 73.0 points per game.
Containing that kind of output is going to be a tall task for any team, especially one that’s developing on the fly like Toronto. But if there’s one thing the Raptors have demonstrated over the season, it’s that they’re ready to take on any challenge.
Raptors vs. 76ers: Gary Trent Jr. could be Toronto's biggest X-factor
When the Toronto Raptors traded for Gary Trent Jr. last season, they got a certified bucket-getter. But at only 22 years old, he had the potential to become something more than just a scoring machine off the bench. While the Raptors exceeded expectations across the board this season, Trent has served as a staunch reminder of how good Toronto is at identifying and developing talent. Let's start with defence, where Trent made significant strides this season. In his time with the Trail Blazers, he didn’t see consistent minutes, which was understandable given that he was backing up Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
In terms of how this matches up with the Raptors, Philly is very heavily dependent on Embiid and Harden to generate buckets. Whether it’s assisting or scoring themselves, the 76ers should be a potent offensive team. But with the news that Matisse Thybulle is “ineligible” to play in Canada, the 76ers are going to have a tough time on defence, especially in transition – an area the Raptors thrive in.
Thursday night will provide us all a preview of how things could unfold in the playoffs between these two division rivals.
I want you to imagine Darth Vader’s theme song playing right now. Why? Because it signals that something bad is coming, which is exactly how Raptors fans should feel about the Boston Celtics. They are that good. After starting the season 17-19, the C’s have turned the jets on.
Since Jan. 1, the Celtics are second in wins, fifth in three-pointers made, fourth in three-point percentage, fifth in rebounds, ninth in assists and second in blocks. In terms of wins, the Raptors aren’t far off, having won 31 games, the fifth most since the new year.
They’ve figured it out. Jayson Tatum is playing MVP-level basketball, Jaylen Brown is once again one of the game’s elite 3-and-D players, and Marcus Smart may become the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton did it in 1996.
Expert picks for 2022 NBA playoffs: Phoenix Suns over Milwaukee Bucks in Finals a safe bet?
The Bucks and Suns met in the 2021 NBA Finals. Our experts expect a rematch. But this time, most are predicting a different outcome.Once the Lakers were eliminated, the discussion turned to another preseason title favorite: the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets won their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, claiming the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Earlier in the season the Raptors dealt the Celtics a huge blow in Boston, routing them 115-83. However, the Celtics would go on to take the next two games by an average of 14. The last regular season contest between the Raptors and Celtics took place on March 28, and didn’t include Tatum, Brown, Robert Williams or Al Horford. So, while the Raptors won that last tilt, there was a huge asterisk beside the final result.
There’s one thing that cannot be dismissed so easily and that’s the expected absence of Williams during the first round. If that’s the case, the Raptors should be able to operate more freely in the paint and be more willing to cut to the basket knowing the “Timelord” won’t be there to swat anyone’s shot back.
Otherwise, the Celtics will likely continue to lock down the perimeter and based on their recent string of success, Boston will have to clog the paint by committee in order to fill the temporary void left by Williams.
So, who is the most ideal opponent for the Raptors?
With all these things taken into consideration, the least ideal opponent is the Boston Celtics. They can score from anywhere and defend like it’s nobody’s business. Next is the Bucks, simply because they’re the reigning champions and Antetokounmpo's newly developed jump shot could prove to be a real problem.
The most ideal opponent for Toronto is Philadelphia. Their main options are going to be Harden and Embiid, which is great if this team was constructed with shooters. But it’s not, and as mentioned, the 76ers run a very predictable offence. While the Raptors haven’t reached their full defensive potential, a team like the 76ers will be a great test for them (and the rest of the league) to evaluate the chaos they can cause.
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76ers beat Raptors at their own game in series-opening blowout .
People often say the NBA playoffs are like an entirely different sport; that what happened between two teams in the regular season might not matter when they match up in the postseason, when they can game plan for each other better, shorten rotations, and increase the physicality. If you didn’t believe that ahead of Game 1 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, you certainly should now. The Raptors wonThe Raptors won the regular-season series 3-1 despite Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby missing three of the games.