How on earth are the Raptors suddenly this good? It is a question with an answer that comes in many parts. It is easy to forget that the Raptors were third in the East last year, but the conference was so weak that should the Raps have been in the Western Conference last year, they wouldn’t even have made the playoffs (Dallas, the 8th team in the West had one more win than Toronto). Still, that team was very young, and that playoff experience allowed all their players to mature during their seven game loss to Brooklyn.
But it really all starts with the GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri, has been key, not only in doing his job of improving the roster, but also making an impact on the fans. Especially popular for saying, “F**k Brooklyn” during the playoff series last year during an interview, Ujiri has become a mini-celebrity here in Toronto. I mean how many other GMs star in ads that air constantly on the local sports stations of other teams? But Ujiri has backed up his popularity with being seriously good at his job. He brought in many of the keys to the Raptors’ success, including Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson in last year’s Rudy Gay trade, and Lou Williams and James Johnson this offseason.
But there’s one thing Ujiri couldn’t control. How well his players worked together. The Raptors’ season started with some fairly easy opponents, their first eight games including only including three teams over five hundred. They lost only one of their first eight, and at 7-1, faced the five and two bulls, who beat them by seven. The loss featured Toronto playing with very little energy, but since that time the energy has picked up.
Their last four games, all wins, have been incredible indicators of how dominant they can be. First, a strong, 18 point bounce back win against the Jazz. A game where they limited Gordon Hayward, who has been putting up ridiculous numbers (18.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists) at the age of 24, to just 12 points on 3-10 shooting. After a few days’ rest, the Raps welcomed Memphis to the ACC. Many people, me included, had doubts about how the Raptors would handle the best team in the league, who boasted a record of 10-1 coming into the game. The Raptors kept it close all game, and finally prevailed, winning the game by four points. If beating a good team wasn’t enough, the Raptors crushed an average one, the Bucks, by 42, one point shy of the franchise record for margin of victory.
The Raptors only remaining question was whether they could win on the road, as a vast majority of their games had been played at home. Doubters probably thought they were right, as the Raptors started last night’s game in Cleveland down by 18 points in only the first quarter. The Raptors stellar starting back-court, plus sweet Lou combined for 79 points, 36 of them coming from a career high scoring night for Williams. The effort resulted in a come from behind victory of 17.
This is how the Raptors have done it. A combination of a defense any team would be happy to hang its hat on and incredible perimeter scorers on the offensive end. The Raptors’ ball movement has also improved dramatically, and it is one of the keys to their success, as they’ve averaged over 20 assists in their wins, and just 14 in their losses. They’ve also had great contributions from everyone who steps on the floor, as every player knows his role well. Another important aspect has been the fans. Having played 9 of their 13 games at the ACC, the Raptors have relied a lot on the undying support of their fans. There’s always a buzz in the arena, and the crowd is ready to erupt whenever a player makes a good play.