Coming into Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors sit in second place in the Eastern Conference. They are just three games behind Cleveland for the top seed, and are playing their best basketball since coming into the league in 1995. Based on their win percentage, they are on pace to win 55 games, six more than their previous franchise record of 49 (2014-2015).
The Raptors took on the Houston Rockets in Toronto Sunday night where they dropped the contest 113-107, thanks to a shaky fourth quarter that saw the Rockets outscore the Raptors by 14 points. Luis Scola led the Raptors in scoring with 21 points on nine of 13 shooting. Kyle Lowry also had a strong game for the Raptors with 17 points, nine assists and four rebounds. James Harden powered the Rockets to victory by dropping 40 points to go along with 14 assists. The loss came just two nights after an intense two-point-win over the Trail Blazers for the Raptors.
If the Raptors finished their season at the same pace as they are on now, it would be the first time they’ve ever finished with a winning percentage above .600, and the eighth time that they have qualified for the NBA playoffs. In the previous seven playoff appearances however, they have only managed to get past the first-round once. This happened back in 2000-2001 when they lost in a seven-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second-round.
With the Raptors on pace to finish with their best record in franchise history, it may be time to finally break that dreaded first-round curse that haunts Toronto fans. However, does finishing with the first or second seed in the East guarantee the Raptors a first-round win? Trying to come up with a reasoning for the struggles is difficult.
The past two seasons, the Raptors finished fourth and third in the conference respectively, and finished first in the Atlantic Division each year. The 2013-2014 playoffs saw them take on a sixth-place, below average Brooklyn Nets team that took the Raptors to seven games and ended up taking the series. Last season, they took on the Washington Wizards who took any hope Raptors fans had, and swept the series 4-0.
Looking back on 2013-2014, the Raptors played the Nets four times during the regular season and split the series two games a piece. Last season, the Raptors managed to win all three of their games against the Wizards before the playoffs. There may not be any reason that the Raptors have difficulty winning playoff games other than the lack of playoff experience in the locker room.
Going into last year’s playoffs, the Raptors had six players who had played a game in the playoffs and had started at least one career playoff game before that. The Wizards had nine players with starting playoff experience. Five of those Raptors players had only seven games of experience — all from the previous year’s seven game series against the Nets. In total, their six players had 40 starts in the playoffs.
The Wizards’ nine players had 335 career playoff starts, including 158 from Paul Pierce alone. Throw in Pierce’s NBA championship, and the Wizards had a ton of experience that the Raptors couldn’t match.
Raptors fans can only take the information and hope that the team keeps on performing throughout the regular season, and gains the playoff experience to perform.
Going back to the question, does where the Raptors finish put them in a better spot of moving past the first round? Perhaps positioning themselves to play against a lower seeded team such as the Detroit Pistons or Charlotte Hornets would give them an advantage, solely on the lack-of-experience scenario.
Those solutions are out of Toronto’s control however, and they for sure do not guarantee anything. One thing the Raptors do need to focus on is continuing to build team chemistry, and to perform each and every game.
This season has seen point guard Kyle Lowry become a bigger threat to opposing teams and fans. The starting Eastern Conference all-star has put up career highs in virtually every statistical category including minutes per game (37.0), points per game (21.7), rebounds per game (4.9), steals per game (2.2) and field-goal percentage (.443 per cent). Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have also been the third highest scoring backcourt duo in the NBA behind the Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and Chris Paul and J.J Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The offseason additions of Scola, Cory Joseph, and Bismack Biyombo have all paid off. DeMarre Carroll has also been solid when healthy. The solidified bench should help the team finish off close, hard-fought playoff games.
Whether or not anyone wants to buy into the lack-of-experience excuse for the playoff failures, its only a matter of time before head coach Dwayne Casey and his team carry out their success from the regular season, and turn it into an Eastern Conference title and maybe even an NBA championship.
Stay patient Raptors fans. The Golden State Warriors had playoff troubles dating back to 1975 before they won a championship last season.