The Toronto Raptors have proven they are the real deal this season and are on course to finish the campaign in historic fashion.
The Raps currently lead the Eastern Conference with a 48-17 record and became the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season with their recent victory over the Detroit Pistons.
If they secure another 9 wins, they'll break their franchise wins record of 56 that was set in the 2015-16 season when they went on to reach the conference finals.
They are the favourites to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers and end LeBron James' seven consecutive trips to the finals.
Under Dwane Casey in the last three years, Toronto has been among the best teams in the east but have often failed to get over that final hurdle and have suffered disappointing playoff losses.
This year, however, there is a growing optimism that they finally have the team and the mentality to overcome their previous failings.
A reason for that is due to one major difference in their team that has played a huge role in their success this year.
The Raptors have often relied heavily on All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to do the heavy lifting and carry the team.
But this season that's all changed as they possess one of the best bench units in the NBA which has allowed Casey to utilise his entire roster.
Youthful reserves Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby, as well as the experienced C.J. Miles, have added another dimension to the Raptors.
They've allowed Toronto to be dominant on the floor even when the starters DeRozan, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka sit.
They have come up big and contributed significantly to wins. Casey has put a lot of faith in his young guys and they've performed beyond expectations.
Even rival head coaches have seen their importance and value to the Raptors.
"Their bench has been killing everybody, starters, bench, everybody," Boston coach Brad Stevens said, per the Globe and Mail. "Whoever is on the court against them, they've been great."
Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy said: “Their bench has been very, very good, they’ve done a great job.
“They’ve done a great job with everything, but their bench has been really good.”
The mix is mostly made up of second and third-year players that play with an energy and tenacity that other teams struggle to match and deal with their own bench players.
"They play like an experienced, veteran group that played together all summer and then came in and tried to make a statement, cementing themselves as the best second unit in the league and they have confidence in themselves," Boston star Kyrie Irving said.
"Delon and VanVleet play extremely well off one another, and then Siakam is just running the rim every single time, rebounding and protecting the rim."
According to Casey, there have been times this season where opponents have resorted to playing their starters against the Toronto bench squad.
“Quite a few teams have done that and they’ve (Toronto’s bench players) met the challenge,’’ said Casey, per The Toronto Sun. “It’s a credit to them that they are playing well together.
"There are some nights when they are playing against teams’ starters it doesn’t work, but not because they’re not out there fighting, scratching.
"It’s just not happening. For the most part, they’ve competed against starting units.”
They have brilliantly complemented DeRozan and Lowry and the veteran stars have placed more trust in them whenever they're on the floor with any of the bench players.
This was evidenced by their win over the Pistons on Wednesday night as DeRozan kicked the ball out to VanVleet to knock down the crucial game-winning jumper in overtime.
Teams normally shorten their rotation when it comes to playoffs and often rely on nine players or less.
Coach Casey, however, is prepared to change that and stick with his young guys off the bench and give them valuable minutes in the postseason.
“The question has been whether we’re going to keep that group in the playoffs,’’ began Casey. “Why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t prove it in the playoffs, that’s our plan.
“They’ve been a good group together and every once in a while in games we’ll put one with the starters to close out games and for whatever need we have in that situation.”
They could prove to be the difference the Raptors needed to finally get over the hump and compete for a championship.
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