The Toronto Raptors have already blown away the modest expectations of a fanbase who expected a tanking teardown this year. With a little luck, they could add to the franchise's best-ever season with a playoff run.
Boasting top-10 ratings on both offense and defense, per NBA.com, Toronto profiles statistically as a dangerous squad. And since jettisoning Rudy Gay earlier in the year, this group has developed the kind of gritty, team-first identity that typically leads to success in the playoffs.
They surrender nothing easily:
Objectively, there are plenty of signs indicating this is a team fit to win at least one series this spring.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of things beyond Toronto's control that could make postseason success more difficult than anticipated.
Kyle Lowry has been his team's best player all year. He should have been an All-Star and essentially keeps Toronto's offense afloat by himself.
B/R's Chris Walder wondered where the Raps would be without such consistent production and leadership from their point guard:
To be fair to the Boston Celtics, they're still much worse than the Raptors—even when Lowry's not on the floor. (Congratulations, C's, you're terrible.) But Toronto's numbers look far uglier and certainly don't resemble those of a playoff team without Lowry in the lineup.
Per NBA.com, Toronto's offensive rating dips by 4.5 points per 100 possessions without Lowry, taking it from a respectable 10th in the league to a figure on par with the one posted by the Cleveland Cavaliers' broken offense this season.
That's not good, and it's undeniably scary to imagine where Toronto would be without its most important player. In a terrifying development, the Raptors might not have to imagine anymore:
(h/t Raptors Republic for the gif)
According to multiple sources, the results of that March 31 collision with LeBron James aren't promising:
Per Eric Koreen of The National Post, head coach Dwane Casey said:
We are not in the position to just totally shut him down. I think we have to be smart with it. Greivis [Vasquez] is playing well for us right now. But I don’t know if we’re in a position … if he can go, we’re going to have to find him some time.
If Lowry's not right, we can pretty much stop any further analysis of the Raptors' postseason chances. They can't beat anybody without him.
It's too early to know the extent of his injury or how it will affect him when he (hopefully) returns for the games that matter most.
The problem is, Toronto actually needs to worry about the next couple of weeks in the regular season as well.
The Power of Positioning
Like the rest of the mid-tier playoff seeds in the East, Toronto can worry about facing either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers later. Its first order of business is setting itself up for a favorable first-round matchup.
Specifically, the Raptors have to avoid the Charlotte Bobcats at all costs.
Per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, the Kitties have a habit of batting around the Raptors like a dead bird:
Based on recent history, if the Charlotte Bobcats could hand-pick a first-round opponent in the upcoming playoffs, it would be the Toronto Raptors; the Bobcats have won 11 of the past 14 meetings and all three this season.
At present, Toronto is set to face the sixth-seeded Washington Wizards. That's a preferable alternative to the shockingly unbeatable Bobcats, as the Raptors have taken three out of four contests against the Wiz this year. The only loss in those four games was an overtime tilt on Feb. 27.
So it's safe to say the Raptors hope Charlotte doesn't climb into that No. 6 spot. You'll never hear them (or any team, for that matter) talking about dropping games to avoid certain matchups. But if the Bobcats jump up a spot, don't be surprised to see Toronto subtly sliding to No. 4.
If that were to happen, the Raptors would square off against the fifth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, a team with whom they've evenly split a four-game series this year. Brooklyn is a scary playoff opponent, especially with how well it's been playing since Jan. 1.
But avoiding the Bobcats should be Toronto's first priority. If it can do that, a first-round win is definitely in the cards.
The fact we're even discussing the Raptors' chances to win in the playoffs is an indication of how far they've come.
Remember, this is a franchise with one playoff series win in its 19-year history. Toronto hasn't even been to the postseason since 2008, when it won a single game before bowing out to the Orlando Magic.
Merely reaching the playoffs is a major achievement for the Raptors.
Yes, Toronto can absolutely win a series, or perhaps even threaten one of the top two seeds in the next round. By any standard that would constitute a "win."
But from a broader perspective, these Raptors are way ahead of schedule on their rebuilding plans, have recaptured the attention of their fans and are probably the best version of the team to have ever existed.
In other words, they've already won.