By Cole Parkinson
The Toronto Raptors have played just under 20 games on this still young NBA season and so far they look like a team destined for the playoffs yet again. They currently sit in second place in the Atlantic Division, behind the Boston Celtics.
Though the Raptors have been staples in the top half of the Eastern Conference regular season wise for the past few years, the playoffs are a completely different story as they can never get passed the class of the Eastern Conference — the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sure, the Cavs have been mediocre this year but let’s be honest here, LeBron doesn’t care about the regular season and why should he?
The man has been to eight straight, yes eight straight, NBA finals so why would he care about where his team sits in the standings come spring time?
Even Cavs forward J.R. Smith has come out and said the Cavs “don’t’ even start paying attention until after the All-Star break” which I think was pretty obvious anyways, but this of course caused a stir.
The Raps meanwhile have had a considerable amount of regular season success which included a team record 56 win season back in 2015-16.
Now the team’s success is fantastic for Toronto and Canada basketball, but the fact remains the Raps are not a team that is considered elite or one of the big boys.
It’s true considering the NBA right now is really a two-team league and I know the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs are all great teams that can compete. But they still haven’t beat Cleveland or Golden State in the last few years when it really matters — the NBA postseason.
In that 2015-16 season, the Raptors made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals but fell in six games to Cleveland. I’ll be honest, when they won their first two home games to tie the series, I thought they might be turning a corner.
Now I didn’t think they would win the series, considering they absolutely stunk anytime they played in Cleveland, but I figured it would go seven games and next season they would have a game plan and figure out how to finally slay the dragon.
They couldn’t win Game 6 at home and Cleveland went on to beat Golden State in an absolute monster of a series where they came back from a 3-1 deficit.
Flash forward to last season and the same thing happened.
The Raps have a great regular season only to get rinsed by Cleveland again, only this time the Cavs didn’t screw around and swept the series.
This year brings another chance for Toronto to prove that they are indeed a team that everyone should be scared of and at a quarter way through the season, I don’t think anyone can confidently say they have proved to be that team.
They’ve already dropped games to some the teams I mentioned earlier including a 101-97 loss to the Spurs, a 117-112 loss to the Warriors and a 95-94 loss to the Celtics.
Seeing losses to those three teams doesn’t give me much confidence in saying the Raps are a team that can be the East rep in the NBA Finals, alas all three games were decently close.
Now the game against the Rockets in Houston is a different story, especially considering it was an answer back after dropping the game to the Celtics.
The problem that seems to hinder the Raps is closing out a game with a win, especially against the elite teams in the NBA. But against the Rockets they did just that.
DeMar dropped 27 and they managed to keep Houston in check despite the Rockets going on a couple runs late in the game.
Could this be a turn in the right direction? Sure.
Could it be a one-time thing? Definitely.
I know I will have the Dec. 27 game against OKC circled on my calendar because if they can beat another top-level team convincingly, then maybe I’ll start to believe, albeit it will only be a small per cent.
The Raps still have 11 more games against Cleveland, OKC, Houston, Golden State, San Antonio and Boston, including another back to back against the Warriors and Cavs, which is ridiculous, but that’s another topic for another day.
January will be a particularly tough month for the Raps as they play 15 games in the month, nine at home and six away.
The real challenge, though, comes from the back-to-back against Cleveland and Golden State, as well as the game against San Antonio a few days later.
Will that week-long stretch make or break their season?
No, not at all, but it will be another big test for this Raps team.
While I would love to be optimistic and say they will win six or seven of those games, I believe they will only win three or four.
The good news for the Raps is they have a real good team and shouldn’t have much problems winning around 50 games again this year.
But the postseason is starting to be the focal point for fans across the country because we’ve already witnessed what they can do during the first 82, it’s the ones after that have fans nervous.
Once that time comes, one of Cleveland or Boston will certainly be in their way barring some miracle. But really, I think the Raptors are the best shot at beating either of those teams.
Most likely it will take series wins against both of them to make it to the finals and then they would probably be staring at Golden State as they would be waiting on the other side.
The road ahead isn’t easy, but the Raps need to turn the page on these teams eventually and you never know, this may be the year that they shock the world… but I wouldn’t bet on it.