With the playoffs beginning on Apr. 18, the Raptors are officially a little over five weeks away from making a run at their second-straight Championship. Many people didn’t expect the Raptors to be in this position. Then again, the narrative of this franchise has always revolved around proving the popular opinion wrong.
As the Raptors close out the regular season, let’s dive into the top headlines surrounding the team.
With the Raptors win on Mar. 6 over the Golden State Warriors, they became the second team this season after the Milwaukee Bucks to clinch a playoff berth. It was the fastest clinched playoff berth in franchise history.
This is another huge achievement for the team that many pundits predicted to be going “back to the lottery.”
What’s more impressive about this playoff berth, aside from the obvious departures in the summer, is the fact that Toronto was able to accomplish it despite endless injuries. The Clippers are often the team that often receives the excuse of not being healthy, but the Raptors have been the most injured team of the NBA so far this season by total games lost. Gasol, Siakam, Lowry, Powell, Ibaka and VanVleet have all missed major time at some point due to injury, yet through it all, the “next man up” mentality this team lives by has kept them surging.
This ensures that Toronto will be in the post-season for a seventh consecutive year, which is currently the third longest consecutive playoff streak in the NBA, behind the Spurs’ 22 consecutive playoff appearance, and the Rockets, who will most likely clinch their eighth-straight berth in the upcoming weeks. However, with the Spurs inching closer to missing the playoffs, the Raptors will soon have the second longest playoff streak in the NBA.
As the standings look right now, it appears as if the Raptors will likely have a first-round matchup with the Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn Nets or a rematch against Jonathan Isaac’s Orlando Magic.
Sunday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings marked the return of Marc Gasol. The 35 year-old center had not played since Jan. 28 in Toronto’s 144-130 win at home over the Atlanta Hawks, when he scored 10 points in 16 minutes before leaving the game with hamstring tightness.
The injury forced Gasol to miss 15 games. Along with the 12 he’s already missed throughout the season due to a hamstring injury, Gasol has missed a total of 27 games this season.
In his return, Gasol put up three points, two rebounds, and two assists in 16 minutes. At 35, it’s clear that Gasol’s career is winding to a close. However, the belief is that he still has a bit of good basketball left as long as he isn’t overworked. As a player struggling to stay healthy, Gasol is in the perfect situation in Toronto, as the Raptors are deep enough to ease his load.
The hope is that Gasol can stay healthy for the remainder of the season, and come playoff time, have a huge defensive impact against the premier big-men of the Eastern Conference.
On Feb. 23, Nick Nurse recorded his 100th win as Raptors head coach in Toronto’s 127-81 win over Indiana. It took Nurse only 139 games to achieve this benchmark. With a win percentage of 70.7 per cent, Nurse currently has the second-highest career winning percentage of any active NBA coach behind only Steve Kerr. What Nurse has done this season as the Raptors head coach is nothing short of remarkable.
In his first season, he won 54 games and a championship. However, the legitimacy of how good Nurse was as a head coach was questioned, as he had a top-five player in his lineup. Now, without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Nurse has led the Raptors to more successful regular season than last year’s. It’s often forgotten, but it was only six months ago that analysts predicted the Raptors to not even make the playoffs, let alone hold the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
With success comes trials and tribulations, and this Raptors squad has experienced their fair share. However, through it all, Nurse has always been able to adjust and put players in the best position to be successful. As the Raptors have battled injuries all season long, Nurse has put out 15 different starting lineups this season, all of which have recorded a win.
There’s no question that Nick Nurse is a top candidate for NBA Coach of the Year, as he already has one of the most decorated resumes of any active NBA coach.
The home stretch
As the season comes to a close, the Raptors only have 18 games remaining on their schedule. Of those 18 games, 12 of them are against teams that will most likely be making the playoffs, meaning Toronto is going to be well-tested as they close out their regular season campaign. What’s important is that the Raptors will regain a healthy roster, as Powell, Gasol, and VanVleet are slowly returning to action. These final 18 games are going to give Nick Nurse an opportunity to test out different lineups and observe matchups, while fighting to keep the second seed in the East.Key games will be the Raptors hosting the Celtics on Mar. 20, a home-and-home with the Bucks on Apr. 1 and Apr. 3, and a visit to Miami on Apr. 14.