The biggest question on everybody’s mind last season was, “Are the Raptors for real?” The NBA’s Toronto Raptors went from once again being counted out of the playoff picture, for the sixth year in a row, to finishing third in the Eastern Conference, all in less than one season.
After the trade of Rudy Gay to Sacramento in early December 2013, the Raptors started winning more frequently and against tougher competition. They had the best record in the Eastern Conference after the trade, better than Indiana and Miami, the conference finalists. As they climbed the standings, more questions were being asked. “Was it a lucky streak or were they real competition?” Most of the speculation was due to the Raptors not being over .500 and not being playoff contenders in six years. However, post All-Star break they showed no signs of slowing down. They improved each game and went on to have a franchise-best 48-34 record.
During the post-season Toronto was matched up with their Atlantic rival, the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn’s coach, the Hall-of-Famer and former player Jason Kidd was accused of intentionally wanting to lose in the final games of the season so his team could face the Raptors in the playoffs rather than Chicago Bulls or Washington Wizards.
Brooklyn and Toronto did end up going head-to-head in the first round of the playoffs, but the end result was not all that mattered. Brooklyn brought a group of experienced veterans and the Raptors were an energetic young team, practically opposites.
The seven-game series was a dogfight and the Raptors’ high intensity performance literally lasted until the last minute. Brooklyn forward Paul Peirce blocked Raptors star point guard Kyle Lowry’s game-winning attempt.
Despite the unfortunate ending to what was otherwise a great run, the NBA got to witness the amazing fan base supporting the Raptors and the world got to realize the team’s potential.
Toronto was the NBA’s best team in the fourth quarter of games last season, averaging the highest points per game in the fourth. They also held the record for most wins when trailing after the third quarter.
Rudy Gay played a lot of minutes every night and took more shots than anyone else on the team but he was too much the solo scorer rather than a team man, and not what they were looking for in a player.
The players acquired in the trade for Gay played major roles during the entire season. Fan favourite Greivis Vasquez became a reliable backup for Kyle Lowry. Veteran Chuck Hayes helped young Jonas Valanciunas become more of a presence in the paint and Patrick “Patman” Paterson made a game-winning steal and shot in a regular season game against Brooklyn.
Former general manager of the year Masai Ujiri can take the credit for bringing together a group of players that function like no other. Over the off-season the Raptors re-signed Vasquez, Patterson and Lowry and added Atlanta natives Lou Williams and Will Cherry. So without losing any key contributors to last season and only gaining more options off the bench, the team can look to build on to what they accomplished last season.
One of the main, if not the main player on the roster was 28-year-old Kyle Lowry. It’s only fitting he signed a four-year $48 million contract extension.
The effort he put in every night was visible to anyone watching, basketball fan or not. It’s hard not to notice someone running up and down the floor contributing both on the defensive and offensive end. Lowry was second in charging fouls taken in the NBA. He was also top 10 for steals by a point guard, all while averaging nearly 18 points per game (PPG) and just over seven assists.
He plays the leader and voice for the young team, driving everyone to do better every time he stepped on the floor. All-star DeMar DeRozan had an exceptional year as well, and is looking to do even more this season. He led the team in PPG (22.7, the highest in his career) and improved on everything from a year ago, including three-point shooting, rebounds, assists and blocks.
Along with Lowry and DeRozan, many other players stood out and performed very well last season, too many of them to list here.
Another reason spectators doubted the Raptors was because the Eastern Conference was not as competitive as the West. But what most don’t realize is that Toronto had a record of 16-14 against the west. And yes, they would not have made the playoffs had they been in the west but they performed well against them. They swept season series with teams like the Dallas Mavericks and the Memphis Grizzles.
The doubting of the Toronto Raptors should cease and teams – along with fans – should realize the Raptors mean business and are an elite team. It’s not because they are full of superstars but due to coaching, teamwork and dedication.