NBA Stories: Can the Toronto Raptors battle for the East again?

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Last year, the Toronto Raptors experienced a close to the regular and post-season that could not have ended better if they had written the script themselves. It's almost like the universe conspired to make sure that they lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy by any means.

The team’s president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri took a gamble when he let go of four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan along with Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green – and boy did that trade pay off. 

After the historic win that brought Toronto its first NBA championship, Ujiri commented that the team was not viewing itself as the defending champions. “We have the 2018-2019 championship in the bag, there is nothing we are defending, our mindset is that of chasing the next one. There is nothing to defend,” he confidently stated.

Enter the 2019-2020 season, besides Leonard and Green, who left Toronto to join the two Los Angeles-based franchises, the team’s core remained basically the same.

Many a critic or analyst expected the team to struggle a lot this season, considering that they had lost one of the best two-way players in the league in Leonard and a decent shooter in Green, but what the Raptors have achieved so far, is nothing short of impressive.

In the midst of all this, the Eastern Conference is quite competitive this season, with notable performances coming from the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers, who have all stepped their game up.

This week, the league-leading Bucks pulled off the fastest Playoffs clinch in NBA history, but the Raptors are not too far behind. They are holding the second spot in the east with 42 wins and 15 loses, and have the best home record in the league at the moment with nine wins and only a single loss. Toronto also has the third-best road record of 19 wins and eight losses, only behind the Bucks and Lakers.

Statistically, the Raptors are only slightly behind last season’s pace even after having to perform when some of their core pieces were injured earlier in the season. It is no wonder Ujiri is already the target of some struggling franchises.

Meanwhile, this season is developing into one of the most competitive and evenly matched in recent history, with a group of teams in the top-tier all having a chance to win, but no real overwhelming favourite. 

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons

The top four teams in each conference have a genuine chance at winning the championship. In the east, the same teams have returned for more this season, even though some of them have had a few changes: The Celtics got Kemba Walker but lost Kyrie Irving (now with the Brooklyn Nets); the Sixers got Josh Richardson and Al Horford but lost Jimmy Butler (now with the Miami Heat) and J.J. Redick (Now with the New Orleans Pelicans).

Impressively, even without a key piece in Leonard, the Raptors have remained contenders for a top seed in the Eastern Conference once again.

The key pieces for Toronto this season have been Cameroonian All-Star forward Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Nigerian-British forward OG Anunoby. In addition to the significant progress that they have made so far, there has also been a veteran contribution from Kyle Lowry, Congolese forward Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and not to mention the coaching of Nick Nurse. 

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons

The Raptors coach has done a brilliant job of utilizing different lineups, especially with the injuries that plagued the team in the first 27 games. His confidence in the squad looks to have gone a long way in helping the Toronto keep its wins and confidence up.

In the process, Nurse seems to have mastered the art of getting the best out of his players, even when playing them out of their comfort zones – he has gotten results.

He has also managed to get some good production from playing Patrick McCaw 20 minutes or more per game and doing the opposite of what the Houston Rockets are doing by playing big lineups with all four - Siakam, Anunoby, Ibaka, and Gasol taking to the hardwood together.

Above all, the Toronto Raptors were expected to struggle this season and they have not. They have played with a chip on their shoulder because they have a point to prove. With the front office as it is and the squad clicking as is, here is every possibility that we will be seeing the squad from the North in the Eastern Conference finals, and just maybe the NBA Finals again.

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