Toronto Raptors are the second seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them homecourt advantage in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. Should Milwaukee fall before the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors will have homecourt in that series too.
The MVP-candidacy of Giannis Antetokounmpo, roster turnover in Philadelphia and underachievement in Boston has seen Toronto go somewhat under the radar.
Their stellar regular season has handed them a favourable first-round matchup with the Orlando Magic. Orlando finished strongly, defending as well as any team in the NBA after the All-Star break, but this is arguably the easiest series any of the East’s ‘big four’ have.
Toronto made the biggest non-LeBron move of last offseason, trading franchise star DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Leonard and Green make up 40% of Toronto’s starting five and bring invaluable playoff experience to a franchise that repeatedly suffered in the postseason.
The Raptors followed that with another big move at the trade deadline. Marc Gasol arrived from the Memphis Grizzlies, providing a major upgrade on Jonas Valanciunas. Gasol and Ibaka give the Raptors options in the frontcourt and provide insurance against foul trouble and fatigue.
Toronto have depth that Philadelphia lack, and that Milwaukee could be missing with Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic injured. Leonard at his best is a demon in the playoffs, locking down opponents defensively and being an unpredictable threat offensively, capable of hitting threes and barrelling to the basket.
The addition of Gasol makes the prospect of Joel Embiid in the second round less terrifying. Gasol will cause Embiid problems too, dragging the seven-foot Cameroonian to the perimeter and creating space in the paint.
Nick Nurse has options like few other coaches in the NBA. He can go small, playing Lowry, VanVleet, Leonard and Green. He can go big, using Ibaka, Gasol, Siakam and Leonard. Both of those line-ups are improbable, and have their issues, but Nurse can run those groups out there without having to delve deep into his bench. Switchable defenders like Leonard, Siakam and Green will cause problems in the postseason, whoever they face.
It makes sense that Toronto have been forgotten about. Leonard’s rest days have seen him slip from award contention, and there isn’t another big-name star on the roster that attracts NBA eyes in the same way. Even Leonard’s brilliance, largely because of his introverted nature, is often understated.
Philadelphia adding Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler meant they were the focus of attention. Antetokounmpo deserves all the praise he gets, as does Mike Budenholzer. Boston, after the shock run last year, were going to have every play and every quote analysed.
Toronto just went about their business. They made some smart moves, they didn’t overwork their key players, and they comfortably finished in the second seed, finishing with a better record than the Golden State Warriors.
This isn’t to say the Raptors will win the East, or even get past the second round. They are, though, in position to make a deep run – we could see a wave of support for the Raptors to make the NBA Finals if they cruise past the Magic.