Don't look now, but the Raptors are playing like NBA contenders once again

Feb 19 2021, 11:27 am

Does anything — anything — in the last 25 years of Toronto sports fandom compare to the spring of 2019 when the Raptors went on a run that ultimately culminated in their first NBA championship?

The spontaneous street parties wherever you were, the euphoria of that Kawhi Leonard shot going in, and just the general incredible vibes that were echoing throughout the GTA and across Canada for a two-month span?

Even putting the complications of winning during a pandemic aside for a second (as much as you can), the 2019-20 Raptors briefly flirted with the idea of returning back-to-back championships to the city. A franchise-high winning percentage coupled with a 15-game win streak made the Raps look as dangerous as anybody in the NBA, as they finished atop the Atlantic Division once again and just 2.5 games back of Milwaukee for the best record in the NBA.

It may seem like a distant memory now, but the Raptors actually finished with a slightly better record than the eventual champion LA Lakers, who they defeated twice in last year’s regular season.

But the bubble playoffs had a different ending to write, with the Raptors crashing out in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the second round. The offseason wasn’t much kinder, as both of the team’s key centres in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol both departed for LA’s Clippers and Lakers, respectively.

After an ugly start to this season, the Raptors briefly looked like they’d given this thing a fun five-year run or so, but it was time to slip back into irrelevancy.

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Raptors that. After reeling off consecutive victories against reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the 14-15 Raptors are the hottest team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with a 7-3 record in their last 10 games. They’re just a half-game back of the Celtics for fifth in the conference now, and just two off of Milwaukee for third place.

While catching up to the conference’s top dogs in Philadelphia and Brooklyn may be out of reach, the Toronto Raptors are officially back as a force in the NBA.

Sure, they’re not without their issues. But hey, they’re as put together as anyone right now.

Why not Toronto? Here are a couple reasons why the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked over this year as a championship contender.

Pascal Siakam’s re-emergence

Pascal Siakam has truly dealt with it all in his NBA career so far. Going from a late first-round pick from a mid-major college to a legitimate star on a championship squad in his first three years, life really couldn’t get much better for the power forward. And oh boy, it didn’t.

Siakam never looked like himself mentally and physically in last year’s bubble, a trend that continued through the early stages of this season. Already signed to a four-year max extension, things began to grow ugly, with Siakam the target of repeated online harassment and abuse as his play was falling off.

But just like well-inflated basketball, Siakam bounced back to perhaps the highest height’s he’s seen. Over the Raptors’ last 10 games, he’s averaging 23.9 points, 4.7 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game, all of which are an improvement on last years’ totals where he earned an all-star berth. If Siakam plays well, the rest of the team usually follows suit.

Nick Nurse’s experience

Even if he’s quite bad at following mask protocols, Toronto head honcho Nick Nurse is quite good at coaching an NBA team. A champion in his first year as a coach and the reigning NBA coach of the year, Nurse has a knack for finding a way to generate some late-game heroics that will do the Raptors well over the remainder of the season.

Boston’s Brad Stevens may have gotten the best of him in a heavyweight coaching matchup in last year’s playoffs, but if Nurse has shown anything through his three years in Toronto, it’s that he’s never one to back down from a challenge. Nurse very easily could’ve thrown in the towel after Toronto’s 2-8 start, but he’s quickly brought the Raptors right back in the conversation of the East’s top squad.

The front office’s reputation

Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have formed one of the most formidable front office duos in NBA history. Yes, I said it.

Even if they’ve won just one ring together, their work in creating a team that’s had just a smorgasbord roster year in and year out (outside of Kyle Lowry) and remained an NBA contender is nothing short of miraculous.

Though it’s hard to predict what their next move will be at any given point, they really do always find a way to make it work, don’t they?

You can write them off all you want. But again… why not these Raptors?

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