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The road was long, but your defensively-sound Toronto Raptors are playoff ready

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How far have the Toronto Raptors come in this herky-jerky, up-and down season?

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Well, consider that when the season began, the expected win total for the team was set between 34 and 36 games.

The team reached that almost a month ago, fittingly in one of their most impressive wins of the season as they marched into Phoenix and knocked off the league-leading Suns on their home court for win No. 36.

Vegas certainly didn’t think much of the Raptors. They set the win total number at 351/2. That was actually a win less than the oddsmakers were giving the Sacramento Kings.

It was nine fewer wins than the oddsmakers had for Portland, and don’t spit your coffee all over your laptop, but even seven less than the lowly Knicks.’

Oh, and the Lakers? Well, they were a monumentally stupid 17 games higher.

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Yes, there were reasons the Raptors were underplayed. For one Kyle Lowry, the face of the franchise would not be around for the first time in nine seasons.

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No one, outside of the Raptors’ brain trust that selected him, was exactly sure what they were getting in No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes.

Then there was the uncertainty of Pascal Siakam coming off a year and a half of personal struggles with the pandemic, not to mention his off-season surgery that would cost him the first month of games.

But now flash forward to today and the Raptors are sitting on 46 wins with a chance to get to 49. They are in the playoffs, currently the No. 5 seed in the East and can finish no worse than No. 6 in the conference.

How were we all so wrong?

Turns out we vastly underestimated Fred VanVleet’s readiness to assume the Kyle Lowry role and equally undervalued Siakam’s recuperative powers, both surgical and his ability to bounce back from a season and a half of non-Siakam like basketball.

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But perhaps the biggest surprise of this young season was the way the young talent, starting with that prized No. 4 overall selection jelled into a cohesive unit that figured out a way to consistently score the basketball, but of far more importance, how to stop the opposition.

Credit here goes equally to those young men, a group that includes Barnes, Gary Trent Jr, Precious Achiuwa and even the seldom used bench players like Dalano Banton, and Justin Champagnie who figured out one of the more demanding and extensive defensive scheme packages in the league.

It didn’t happen right away, but this group persevered.

“The first 25 games of the year we could not execute switching our defensive schemes,” Nurse said following win. No. 46 over an offensively dynamic Atlanta Hawks team.
“We just couldn’t do it. Every time we switched to zone it was wide open, every time we switched to blitzing, we weren’t making the rotations, every time we were trying to do whatever we were trying to do, we just weren’t doing it at all, which was concerning,” Nurse said. “But now and again like tonight we flipped out of man, we flipped to a bunch of different screen and roll coverages, we flipped to the box-and-one and so they’ve grown so much in that area, which for us, I think with the length and speed and stuff that we have, we can execute those things, different things, then we have a chance to guard a little bit.”

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Nurse’s desire to alter the defensive looks an opposition sees multiple times in a single game demands a lot of his players. Basketball IQ isn’t just a skill, it’s a requirement in Toronto and from the top on down it’s demanded.

VanVleet, Siakam and OG Anunoby set the tone. But even a wise old vet like Thad Young, who joined the team at the trade deadline, admitted it took some time and some repetitions to get it down.

It was no surprise then to hear VanVleet gushing about the job the young guys, and not to be overlooked the coaching staff, did in getting the entire roster to the point where defence is once again a strength of this team.

“I think those guys deserve a ton of credit,” VanVleet said. “If you look at what Scottie has done, look at the growth in Precious, you look at the role Chris Boucher has played, the addition — I’m getting away from the young guys now — but the addition of Thad. A Gary Trent Jr. and the growth he has made, I think all of these guys deserve a ton of credit because as we know it’s those extra pieces around the board that make a team what it is,” VanVleet said.

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“We have had contributions from just about everybody in the rotation and it’s going to help us going forward and I’m really just proud of those guys,” he said. “As one of the leaders of this team, it’s refreshing to have those guys step up.”

VanVleet though, like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry before him, is also very keen to use the nobody-gives-us-credit narrative to further motivate his team and himself.

“Having a group that nobody thought was going to be any good, being here in this position is good,” VanVleet said. “We did what we set out to do in the regular season which was have a good regular season and obviously we still have three more games left, but get us a spot where we feel like we belong, and now it’s time to go see what we can do.”

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Tonight Phiadelphia 76ers (49-30) at Toronto Raptors (46-33), 7:30 p.m., Scotiabank Arena, TV: SNET: RADIO: AM-1050

SCOUTING REPORT: A potential first-round playoff preview with the Sixers and Raps currently occupying the No. 4 and 5 spots in the conference. Philly has a three-game lead on the Raptors, so the chances of catching them are slim but in this season. Toronto has won two of the three games the two teams have played so far this season. Philly has won three in a row but lost the previous three before that.

MARQUEE MATCHUP: Joel Embiid vs. All the bodies Nick Nurse throws at him. Embiid is in beast mode right now. In his past three games he has scored 116 points, and pulled down 44 rebounds to go along with six blocks. It’s like he’s demanding voters just hand him the league MVP title. Nurse isn’t going to get too tricky with Embiid. No point in showing him anything they might do in the playoffs against him. That said the Raptors aren’t going to just roll over for the big guy either.

DID YOU KNOW: Finally, finally Danny Green is going to get his 2018-19  NBA championship ring he won here. Green was an under-appreciated part of that championship team and has refused to accept the ring until he could do so in person in front of the Toronto fanbase … Since joining the Sixers at the trade deadline, James Harden is averaging 21.4 points and 10.1 assists a night … Point guard Tyrese Maxey had eight threes on Tuesday vs. Indy and bumped his season average to .429, the second highest total for a player 21 or younger in NBA history. 

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