Late last week the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the NBA world by firing head coach David Blatt. At the point of Blatt’s firing the Cavaliers were 30-11, first place in the Eastern Conference. When players were called in for a team meeting to be informed about Blatt’s dismissal, reports say some players thought the team was about to announce they traded starting power forward Kevin Love. The Blatt firing left the team shocked with the unexpected news.
The off court drama the Cavaliers are dealing with only helps out the Toronto Raptors. Riding a season-high eight game win streak, the Raptors are 29-15 and only two games back of the Cavaliers ahead of Monday’s games.
This season has been the Raptors best window of opportunity to take control of the Eastern Conference and the issues with the Cavaliers only widens the window. Both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are playing at an elite level, Jonas Valanciunas is healthy and the rest of the roster is stepping up when needed.
The Raptors opened the season with a 5-0 record, including wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. But then ran into one of the toughest schedules to start the season in the NBA. The first 13 of 19 games for the Raptors this season were played on the road – included in that stretch was a west coast trip where the Raptors almost took down the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Still with a tough schedule the Raptors have somehow kept the Cavaliers in arms reach and the schedule only gets easier. Currently, the Raptors are on a seven game home-stand where they have beat the Miami Heat by 20 and then took down the Los Angeles Clippers by 18.
With the NBA All-Star game approaching – which will be held in Toronto – the Raptors will close out the first half of the season on a five game road trip and then start the second half with three games in four nights (two of which are on the road). The Raptors will also have a seven game home-stand to begin March, so the schedule is more in their favour.
Through the first 44 games of the season the Raptors rank top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. They have a 105.2 offensive rating, good for fifth in the league (tied with the Cavaliers ahead of Monday night) and 100.9 defensive rating, 10th in the league. Their 4.3 net rating is sixth in the league.
The Raptors have also seen improvement in their rebound percentage, as last season they finished 21st in the league at 49.5. But have improved that to 51.5 this season, good for seventh in the league.
In terms of Lowry and DeRozan, they are proving yet again why they are the second best backcourt duo in the NBA. Lowry, who was named as an NBA All-Star starter, has seen his player efficiency rating improved by 3.5 this season, and at a career-high of 22.8. His true shooting percentage is also at a career-high at 57.2 per cent. Among other career highs, Lowry is averaging 20.7 points per game, 38.1 per cent from three, 88.1 per cent from the free throw line (5.5 attempts per game), five rebounds and 2.3 steals.
DeRozan, who should have also been named as an All-Star starter, but will be named to the roster either way is also having a career season. His PER is 4.1 better than last season at a career-high of 21.5 and he’s got a career best of 54.5 true shooting percentage. He’s also averaging 23.3 points per game and 4.2 assists, both of which are career-highs.
The bench has also seen improved play with Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson playing at a higher level. Against the Clippers, the Raptors bench scored a season-high 51 points. If that play can continue, the Raptors become even that much more dangerous in the Eastern Conference.
With the backcourt duo playing at very high levels and the schedule becoming easier, the Raptors could steal the eastern conference away from the Cavaliers. The two teams only have one game left between each other – the Raptors got the better of the one game the two have played this season.
It’s still unclear how far the Raptors can go and how good they truly are among the best in the NBA, but they have made a name for themselves. The Cavaliers were predicted to run away with the conference, but the Raptors are going to make that difficult for them. With the issues the Cavaliers continue to try and resolve, this is the time for the Raptors to make a move for first place.