January was a good start to 2018 for the Toronto Raptors as they went 9-5 for the month with some crucial games making up those 9 wins. For example, demolishing the Cleveland Cavaliers 133-99 and then walking away with their first win in the United Centre since December 2013 with their victory over the Chicago Bulls, 124-115. And yes, we know that there is no such thing as moral victories in the NBA but some of the losses in January were respectable like 125-127 to the Golden State Warriors. This was a game where the Raptors were able to come out of an 81-54 deficit going into the second half. January was also the month in which DeMar DeRozan was able to set a new franchise record for most points scored in a game with 52 points in their New Year’s Day victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
So going into February on such a high, how did the Toronto Raptors fair against their January performance?
Well for starters, Raptors finished the month 9-2 only losing to the Washington Wizards on February 1, 2018 and the Milwaukee Bucks in OT on February 23, 2018. Oddly, they had lost to these teams by the same exact score, 119-122. In addition to a winning record, the Raptors also had the opportunity to set the record for highest scoring margins in the month of February in NBA history. Unfortunately, they were 1-point shy of this record despite beating the Orlando Magic, 117-114. In their 11 games for the month, the Raptors averaged 117.5 points per game, 50.0% shooting from the field, 42.3 total rebounds and 38.7% shooting from beyond the arc (13.9 3PM/35.9 3PA). It should also be noted that the Raptors averaged an impressive 27.8 assists per game in February with Kyle (6.5 assists) and DeMar (5.2 assists) leading their teams in average assists for the season thus far.
Also, the Raptors continue to maintain their health this late into the regular season which is a rarity for this franchise. All-Star break used to be a time where players’ injuries start to reveal itself. Two seasons ago it was the groin injury for DeMar DeRozan and just last year it was Kyle Lowry’s wrist. But at this point, we have only seen two players catch the injury bug. CJ Miles was out of commission for the first two games of the month due to knee soreness. OG Annunoby is another player who suffered an injury late in this month as he left last night’s game with a sprained right ankle. A key factor in keeping the Raptors healthy is their depth because it allows for better minute distribution. Because this bench is 11-deep, players like Kyle Lowry benefit as he is averaging only 32.1 minutes per game which is 5.3 minutes less than last season. Even DeMar DeRozan is benefiting as he is playing 1.4 minutes less than the 2016-2017 season. With the starters getting their much needed rest, it allows them to preserve themselves for what will hopefully be a deep play-off run. This new-found minute distribution also gives the second unit more opportunities to play, further strengthening their bond and allowing them to excel where needed.
February was also a time in which Deebo and Kyle were named All-Stars for the 4th year in a row with Deboo being voted in as a starter for the 3rd time! Not only were the Raptors represented by players but Coach Casey and his staff was named as Team LeBron's coaches, making him the first Raptor coach in franchise history to be named as the All-Star. Not only did Coach Casey get the honour of being named an All-Star coach, he was also able to walk away with a win over his own players as Team LeBron won a nail biting game, 148-145. It shouldn’t go without mention that DeMar was tied with Portland Trailblazer’s Damian Lillard for leading scorer for Team Stephen as he contributed 21 points. If Team Stephen had won, DeMar DeRozan could’ve been the All-Star MVP. Sigh, one can dream, right?
So with all that in mind, what grade are we giving the Raptors for their performance for February?
Overall Grade: A–
There is still a lot that the Raptors need to work on if they want to stay on top of the East. For one, the Raptors struggle to pull away from a team despite their offensive efforts. We saw it in their game against the Bucks earlier in the month and even last night against the Magic. The reason for this would be their lack of defense at times as the Raptors become complacent with the idea of just outscoring the opponent. Though they have become an offensive juggernaut, the Raptors will have their cold moments and so they must be able to produce on both ends of the court in order to be successful. Shot selection also continues to be a struggle for this squad especially in close games as they revert back to their isolation-style of play when they feel the pressure or get frustrated. We hear that season after season play-off basketball is a whole different level and so the Raptors need to think about the habits they’re creating now as it can have a huge impact to their future.
Looking ahead at the rest of the Raptor’s schedule, there are only a couple threats that stand in their way. Raptors will face the OKC Thunder, in which they hope to split the record for the season, and the Houston Rockets, whom they wish to sweep. Along with the Thunder and Rockets, Raptors will see Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers a couple more times before play-offs begin. Safe to say that the fight for the top of the East will come down to the last couple games for these teams but we will just have to sit tight and see what March has in store for this Raptors squad…