The Raptors are headed to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, but this year feels different.
This is their chance.
The Raptors will begin their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday with the franchise’s best chance to bring a title north of the border.
Last year, the team made it further than it ever had before making it to the Conference Final before being eliminated in six games by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This season Toronto tied for the second best record in the Eastern Conference with Cleveland at 51-31, but finished as the third seed due to the tiebreaker.
At their training camp this past summer in Vancouver, leaders Demar Derozan made it clear that they won’t be just happy to there, and only a championship will be satisfying.
General manager Masai Ujiri has constructed a roster that is capable of contending, so expectations are different this time around for this team.
Here are five reasons why the Raptors could be holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June:
1. Deadline deals
Toronto’s biggest need for the last four seasons was at power forward. No offence to Patrick Patterson or Luis Scola, but those guys weren’t going be difference-makers at both ends. Masai Ujiri was able to address the hole by acquiring Serge Ibaka from Orlando.
Ibaka provides versatility and is able to stretch the floor with his outside shooting as well as protect the rim on the defensive end. He was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team from 2012 to 2014 and has led the league in blocks twice.
The other move Ujiri made that went under the radar was getting P.J. Tucker from Phoenix. The 31-year-old forward’s only averaging 6.8 points a game, but his leadership, toughness and defensive game bring a dimension the team needed off the bench. He also provides insurance on the front line in case of an injury.
2. DeRozan-Lowry combo
The NBA is a league of stars. Rarely do you see a team win without at least two of the top 30 players in the league, and these two fit the bill.
Derozan came into the season with a chip on his shoulder after being ranked as the 46th best player in the league by Sports Illustrated.
— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) September 16, 2016
He responded by finishing fifth in scoring, averaging 27.3 points per game. Derozan is one of the few guys who doesn’t mind shooting the mid-range jumper and is able to get the free throw line at will.
Lowry is in a different boat heading into the playoffs. He missed 22 games dealing with a wrist injury, but the All-Star averaged 22 points and 7 assists. He’s a good three-point shooter (41% for his career) and gives the Raptors a legitimate second scoring option.
If these two can put up similar numbers in the postseason, Toronto can compete with anyone in the league.
Derozan and Lowry have been All-Stars for a few seasons now, but no longer are they the only weapons that can help produce points.
Centre Jonas Valanciunas continued his development. The big man provides some scoring from in-close and leads the team in rebounding.
Canadian Cory Joseph did a nice job filling in for Lowry at point guard when he was injured and can hit some big shots when called upon.
Former second round pick Norman Powell has worked his way into coach Dwayne Casey’s rotation, and had a few 20-point games this season.
The Raptors continued to improve as a whole in the offensive end. Though they were ranked 29th in assist ratio, Toronto’s isolation heavy offence improved overall, finishing sixth in the league in offensive efficiency.
4. Improvements on defence
— Raptors Insider (@raptors_insider) April 5, 2017
Casey has made no bones about the fact that he’s a defence-first coach. His team has improved with him at the helm each season.
Toronto ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency in the 2014-15 season, and 11th last year before coming in ninth this season. Ibaka, Tucker, and DeMarre Carroll are major reasons why, and if they can keep it up in the playoffs, this team will challenge the defending champs.
5. Cavs are ripe for an upset
Look, there’s no denying LeBron is still the best player in the NBA. He’s played in six straight NBA Finals, and has Kyrie Irving as well as Kevin Love in Cleveland to help him out.
But this team has looked anything like a championship squad lately, winning only 11 of their last 25 games. Their offence looks disjointed, and they rank in the bottom-10 of the league defensively.
If both teams do as expected, they’ll meet in the second round. With Ibaka and JV protecting the rim, this team has enough to give Cleveland fits offensively.
This is the best chance the Raptors have ever had to make it to the NBA Finals. Their roster has stars, is deep, and well-balanced.
It all gets started Saturday (2:30 pm PT/5:30 pm ET) against the Bucks.