Prior to the start of this season, not many would have predicted that the Toronto Raptors would be able to successfully defend their Eastern Conference title. Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers were always the favorites to come out of the East this term, but at this point in the campaign, Toronto has emerged as a legitimate contender in the conference, despite losing their best player during the offseason in defending Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks are still the heavy favorite to make their first NBA Finals appearance in a long time. There’s no denying that. However, with what we’ve seen from Toronto so far this season, the defending champs have given us enough reason to believe that they might actually be capable of upsetting Milwaukee. Here are the keys to the Raptors’ title defense.
There’s no denying that reigning Most Improved Player winner Pascal Siakam has been the primary reason why Toronto has been outstanding this season. The 25-year-old got his first All-Star nod this term, and he’s averaging 23.7 points (on 46.4 percent shooting), 7.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while also knocking down 2.2 triples per ballgame on a 37.3 percent clip.
Siakam has emerged as a legitimate franchise player for the Raptors, and he has shown on several occasions that he can step up for his team in the big moments. Every championship-aspiring team needs a bona-fide superstar, and Toronto certainly has one in Siakam.
Another thing the Raptors have going for them is the envious depth of their current roster. Take for instance Tuesday night’s battle against the Bucks, a game that Milwaukee convincingly won, 108-97. For their part, however, Toronto put up a good fight in spite of the fact that they were missing three guys who have been crucial to their rotation: Marc Gasol (a starter), Norman Powell (28.2 minutes per contest), and Patrick McCaw (24.1 minutes per game).
In their stead, guys like Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas were asked to log a few more minutes, and both players were effective during their time on the floor. At full strength, the Raptors also have Serge Ibaka, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and rookie Terence Davis coming off the bench, so it’s safe to say this is a team well-equipped to go on an extended postseason rum.
We cannot, of course, forget about the man who has been masterfully orchestrating things for the Raptors all season long. Despite his brief career as an NBA head coach, Nick Nurse has proven he can match up against some of the best masterminds in the league today. The 52-year-old has a great system, and one that has withstood the departure of a top-five player in the NBA today in Kawhi.
Nurse will once again be a contender for Coach of the Year honors by the end of this season, and we can safely say he very much deserves it.
Finally, the Raptors are once again the underdogs. No one is expecting them to be able to defeat a heavily favored Bucks in a seven-game series. This is the same narrative they had last season, and with the relative lack of pressure on them (despite being defending champs), the Raptors will have the luxury of doing their own thing sans the microscope.
All in all, the more the season gets closer to its ending, the more Toronto is looking like a legitimate contender for this year’s championship.