I happened to catch Stephen A. Smith on Sportscenter this morning talking about the Eastern Conference playoff picture, more specifically the current struggles in Miami and Indiana. Naturally, as the segment neared its conclusion Stephen A. mentioned Brooklyn and Chicago, (maybe because they’re big markets? Maybe? Probably) as sleepers in the Eastern Conference.
I’m sure Stephen A. Smith knows the Toronto Raptors are the three seed in the Eastern Conference today, and have a chance to clinch the Atlantic division title tonight with a win or a Nets loss. Or that Toronto has been a top ten team both offensively and defensively in efficiency this season. Surely, Stephen A. merely mistakenly forgot to mention that Indiana’s best player, Paul George (by the way, Stephen A. called George a superstar this morning during the segment) sits at 27th in Player Efficiency (20.23), and Kyle Lowry who is Toronto’s best player is only three spots behind George at 30th in the league (20.06).
A lapse in judgment on Stephen A’s part to omit the Toronto Raptors and dismiss the pleasant season they’ve had this season? Perhaps. What’s more likely the case is one of two options. 1). Nobody, and not just Stephen A. Smith and the fine folks at Bristol, is buying the Raptors as a team viable enough to upset either Indiana or Miami. Or 2). In a superstar driven league, the Raptors are a young, star-less group of hardworking players that have gained league wide respect, but not enough national attention.
I’d compare this year’s Toronto team to last year’s Denver Nuggets team. Although when you look at the numbers, Denver played at an incredibly high pace at 97.8 possessions a game on average, and Toronto runs a style with a lot more half-court sets. The styles of play may be different, but Denver was the dark horse in the playoffs last season like Toronto can be this year, lurking. And yes, although the Nuggets were upset by the Warriors in the first round, a barrage of Stephen Curry doing Stephen Curry things was what the difference was.
This isn’t intended to be sounding like sour grapes on how Toronto isn’t respected enough. Toronto’s in the playoffs, and they’re there because they earned it. They take care of the ball, are in the top ten in 3-point shooting as a team at 37%, and as we saw how critical free throws are in the NCAA tournament this year – Toronto shoots in the top five in the league at the line at 78.3% as a team.
The expediency of the growth the Raptors have shown this year, as I’ve touched on many times previous was an unexpected result by most. The team grew so quickly because Kyle Lowry played like a top five point guard, DeMar DeRozan played like an All-Star, and because all the pieces around those two guys are very good individual and team defensive players.
Toronto expects to be a taken seriously in the playoffs, there’s no guarantee they even get out of the first round. But they got in the postseason through a controlled brand of basketball, with emphasis on defending night-in-and-night out. Playoff basketball is a different animal entirely and the intensity is amplified to another level. I for one am as excited as anyone to see if Toronto can crash the party.