The Toronto Raptors are in first! The Raptors are in first! That's right Lucas! With the season past the half way point, Toronto fans everywhere are crossing their fingers, throwing salt over their shoulders, and praying to the basketball Gods that, for once, we can hold on to such an amazing feat and go into the playoffs stronger than ever before. However, faith is nothing without works, and these following points are vital to maintain the success of the Raps this season.
1. Stay Healthy
In an unusual and unfortunate season with injuries happening all across the league, the Raptors have been extremely lucky, *knocks on wood* that they have, in most part, had a healthy team throughout the season. The Raptors are quite notorious for becoming injury prone during the all-star break period (i.e. Kyle with his wrist last year, DeMar with his groin the year before), but the lesser minutes per game so far this season for the two all-stars have been a sight for sore eyes.
2. Goal: Home Court Advantage
To have the number one seed in the league means that the team in their respective conference will have home court advantage from the first round to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors absolutely need this. Boasting the best home record in the NBA right now (23-4), Air Canada Centre and Jurassic Park has developed into one of the most exciting playoff atmospheres within this decade, making it very difficult for visiting teams to play in such environments. Maintaining this mindset of securing the number one spot will pay dividends when it matters the most.
3. Win Close Games
This is the itch that seems almost impossible to scratch. They have had a lot of winnable games that were decided within the last two minutes, but the Raptors have mostly failed to perform within “clutch time”. Check out this graph that displays their margin of victory throughout the 2017-2018 season.
That’s a lot of small red bars, ain’t it? You can probably guess what those are. Here are the teams that the Raptors lost by 6 points or less: Golden State, San Antonio, Washington, Utah, Philadelphia, Indiana, Boston, Dallas and Miami. All these teams (except for Dallas, all due respect) are within the playoff picture. The high margins of victory are indeed satisfying to watch, especially against strong teams. However, the Raps cannot expect to be blowing out teams of high-caliber during the playoffs, and need to begin refocusing their efforts and mentality when the 48-minute game becomes the 2-minute game.
4. Continue to Move the Ball
Dwane Casey and his coaching staff have done a superb job coaching the Raptors throughout his tenure as head coach. His defensive schemes are proven as shown in his work with the championship winning Dallas Mavericks in 2011. While he has been under duress with his offensive plans in the past, he has certainly come a long way from his ‘pound the rock’ philosophy by accepting a change in culture (along with the other players and staff) of sharing the ball. The Raptors have certainly made heads turn from being dead last in assists per game last year (18.5) to eleventh so far this season (23.2). In the modern era, this is what will win championships.
5. The Bench Mob
I present to you the biggest X-factor in the Raptors playoff run - #damob. The Toronto Raptors' bench is currently within the top 2 in offensive and defensive efficiency when compared to the other benches in the league (No. 2 in Offense, No. 1 in Defense). In comparison, the starters are within the top 12 when compared to other starters. (No. 12 in Offense, No. 9 in Defense). The bech has continuously improved throughout the season, and shout-outs to Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster for doing an excellent job in acquiring these pieces. If they can continue to play with this pace, confidence and vigour, they may be able to cover up the multitude of sins that the starters may present throughout the playoffs. (DeRozan isolations? Please, no more of that.)
**Thank you to www.hoopstats.com and www.basketballreference.com for the information.