Back 2 Back: Can the Raptors defend The North?

Updated: Oct 24


(Frank Gunn/CP)

By: Alex Baumgartner


On June 14, 2019, the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in game 6 of the NBA Finals, giving the franchise their first ever NBA Championship. It has been over a year since the Raps were made champions of the world and they have begun their title defence has round one of the playoffs recently began.


In the offseason, the Raptors lost finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and starting shooting guard Danny Green in free agency. The Raptors entered the season as an underlooked team in the Eastern Conference while being the defending champs. 


Despite losing two starters, including one of the NBA’s best players in Leonard, the Raptors didn’t let this hinder their performance during the 2019-2020 NBA season. Toronto was second place in the East prior to the suspension of the NBA season in March. The Raptors went 7-1 in the bubble before the playoffs. This year’s Raptors team had a higher win percentage (.736) than last year’s team (.707). 


Not only was the Raptors team performance statistically better than the championship team’s, many players had career years following their historic championship run. 


Coming off of a 2019 NBA Most Improved Player award, Pascal Siakam signed a four-year $130 million max extension with the team. He went on to average 23.6 PPG, while taking an average of seven more shots a game compared to the previous year. Siakam made his first NBA All-Star game while becoming the number one option on the Raptors. 


Fred Vanvleet’s coming out party was during the Eastern Conference Finals when he started shooting lights out from beyond the arc. Vanvleet’s contributions off the bench helped Toronto win that series against Milwaukee and eventually the NBA Finals against Golden State. This year, Vanvleet averaged 17.6 PPG compared to his 11.0 from last year, he also started all 48 games he played in this season. 


23-year-old OG Anunoby was given the starting Small Forward roll just a year after coming off of an injury which kept him out of the lineup during the 2019 playoffs.


And the Raptors longest tenured player Kyle Lowry has once again proven to be an extremely valuable player to this team and will play an instrumental roll in their title defence.


The Raptors showed that they didn’t need the likes of Leonard of Green to win games, but this is just the regular season. Despite performing extremely well prior to the suspension of the NBA season, the question is, how can the Raptors go back to back?


Bench play

(Frank Gunn/CP)

Toronto is lucky to have such a deep rotation in their lineup. You can thank Masai for that. The Raptors have one of the best benches in the NBA. When the starting five needs secondary scoring, you have guys like Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka coming off the bench to play big minutes. As the Raptors progress through the playoffs, expect to see guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis pick up some minutes in the rotation. Toronto relied heavily on bench scoring throughout last year’s playoff and it will be just as important this year, especially without Kawhi.


Nick Nurse isn't afraid to take out players who aren't performing well, or not play guys because of certain matchups. In game two against Brooklyn this year, Marc Gasol wasn't playing well, so Nurse and Ibaka and Powell play big minutes down the stretch. It was also the first time in 74 games that Terence Davis wasn't used. Nurse has also used Thomas and Hollis-Jefferson in the rotation so far this playoffs.


Starters


(Raptors Rapture)

The Raptors finished the regular season with the second best record in the NBA for consecutive seasons. Their starting five is a huge reason for that. Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, Lowry and Gasol will be seeing the floor a lot, but once again,Nick Nurse isn’t afraid to switch up the lineup. It is always next man up for the Raptors, so if one guy struggles, the next man comes in, like Ibaka playing more minutes than Marc Gasol in game two against the Brooklyn Nets. VanVleet has put up back-to-back 20 plus point performances, including a 30 piece in game one. Lowry has once again proven to be valuable on both sides of the court and has played well in the NBA bubble up to this point.


This Toronto team does not have to rely on one guy putting the team on their back. The Raptors are always making that extra pass or trying to draw the charge. Other teams in the NBA rely more on a single star player, like Portland with Damian Lillard or Phoenix with Devin Booker. Nick Nurse is always saying, there's twenty or thirty points up for grabs tonight, who Is going to get it? And that's what his team does, they go and get it, collectively as a unit.


Toronto’s starters can’t let up on the gas during the postseason because each series will get harder and more competitive.



Nick Nurse’s Defence


(The Athletic)

Toronto’s key to a second NBA championship is their defense. The Raptors play a team oriented game on both sides of the basketball court. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto found the solution to Giannis Antetokounmpo and was able to adapt their defense to stop him. Siakam, Gasol and Ibaka will have to defend the perimeter and the paint well if the Raptors want to defeat teams with really talented stretch bigs, like Milwaukee or the Los Angeles Lakers.


Kyle Lowry will carry the load for the team in terms of drawing turnovers. Lowry leads the NBA in drawn charges this season


Nick Nurse’s defensive rotations has shut down a lot of teams over the last seasons and it will be the main reason why to Toronto’s title defence. Toronto has so many different defensive sets it gets hard to keep track of all. One second they are playing man, then they switch to a zone, before you can blink they are pressing you at both full court or half court. Toronto will keep teams on their feet and keep them guessing all playoffs long.


It is really a shame that Nurse is out of the running for coach of the year because he has taken this Raptors team which was looked down on by many in the league and made them even more competitive than last year.

The Diamond in the Rough


(Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Last year’s diamond in the rough for the Raptors was definitely Fred VanVleet. His contributions in the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals was a major reason why Toronto is the reigning NBA Champions. The former bench player received a Finals MVP vote last year, now he is a starter for the Raps. I think this year Norman Powell will be the guy Toronto looks to off the bench. In game two this year, he scored 24 points in a five point Raptors win, putting them up 2-0 in the series. Norm tends to be on and off but he can flat out play. I don’t see him consistently dropping 20 points a night off the bench because the Raptors don’t run the offense through a single player. But, I do think when the boys need an energizer bunny, Powell will be there, as he was in their comeback win against the Nets.


The OG factor


(Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports)

Kawhi is gone, which left a huge gap at small forward for the Raptors. Luckily for them they have a mini Kawhi in the lineup, OG Anunoby. OG is still young and he won’t be able to have as big of an impact as the superstar Kawhi Leonard has on the game. Yet, OG is a really promising two-way wing player. His defensive stability will be crucial for the team. Toronto doesn’t need OG to put up 20 points a night, but they need him to stop the other team’s starting small forward. Alongside Siakam, OG will help defend the perimeter and the lane. OG was hurt for the majority of the 2019 playoffs, but he is ready to go this year.


Will they do it?


Toronto has a really good shot at defending their title. This team wants to prove that they are more than just Kawhi’s former sidekicks. They have been 9-1 in the bubble so far including 2-0 in the playoffs. Toronto is still getting slept on as defending champions but that helps light the fire in their stomach. This team wants the smoke and they will bring it every night.