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Paul Flannery | March 27, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: The Raptors know it's their time

The Raptors know it's their time

BOSTON -- Coming out of the All-Star break, the Toronto Raptors gathered in Chicago for what amounted to a mini-camp. They had two days of practices to work through things on the court, a luxury during the season. It was also time to focus on what lies ahead, and the tantalizing possibilities that have eluded this franchise for so very long. And so, Luis Scola gave what Patrick Patterson called an inspirational, powerful speech.

"Luis has been on playoff teams," Patterson said. "He’s been on teams that were trying to rebuild. He’s been on teams that were trying to make a push. Luis shared all of his information and it woke a lot of us up."

Scola is new to Toronto, but he’s been in the league for almost a decade. He’s played on quality teams with big postseason plans and everything in between. Even before coming to the NBA, the Argentine had already lived a full basketball life, winning championships in Spain and a gold medal in the Olympics. His words, and his experiences, carry weight.

"The All-Star break, we all know, is what separates good teams from great teams," Scola said. "This team has been in the situation where they’ve been really good and (then struggled after the break). I have been on other teams where it happens in the same situation. We’re ready for that to not happen."

Scola relayed his story and the message was clear: There may never be a better chance than the one they have right now.

"A lot of us have come from situations where we were on non-winning teams," Patterson said. "Teams that we’re at the bottom of the playoffs, teams going home, teams having problems with players or (the) coaching staff or this and that. None of us have been in this type of environment with the whole city behind you, the whole nation’s behind you. Just realizing this opportunity is not going to last very long and we’re all not going to be in the league forever."

As Scola put it, "I think this team has gone through all those steps and is ready now to make the next step forward. The look in people’s eyes is that. We’re going to make a step forward. We’re going to make it happen."

We first need to acknowledge that the Raptors are a really good team. They have won at least 48 games in each of the last seasons and are on pace to win 55 this year. Barring a stunning turnaround they will clinch one of the top two seeds for the first time ever and there’s even a small chance they can catch the Cavaliers for the top overall record in the conference. By any definition this has been a hugely successful season.

While the Raptors’ status as an an objectively good team has not been in doubt, they are also locked in an unwinnable battle with perception. Back-to-back playoff appearances confirmed their abilities, but consecutive first round defeats seemed to establish their ceiling as also-rans.

The Raptors know that they have to perform in the playoffs. No matter what they accomplish and no matter how many franchise records they break, the postseason will serve as their final exam. That’s a tough way to get through the 82-game grind, but that’s their reality and they all understand and accept it.

"Yeah, ‘They got to win in the playoffs,’" Patterson said, echoing the sentiment. "My thing with that is, it’s a process. It’s not going to happen over night. It’s not going to magically happen in one season. It’s a learning curve. We’re not trying to let what the previous years did to us, affect us on the court or our mindset. We believe in ourselves. In my eyes this isn’t a fluke. I believe in this team. It’s about going in and actually doing it."

It wasn’t until January when the Raptors went on an 11-game winning streak that people started to think that they might be really for real this time. Hot streaks comes and go, but they have played consistent basketball over the last three months. Their recent two-game slide marked the first time since early January that they had lost consecutive games, and they responded with a dominating performance against New Orleans on the second night of a back-to-back. These are not the same old Raps.

To be sure, they have done this kind of thing before. Following the in-season trade of Rudy Gay two seasons ago, a hot winter stretch catapulted them into the playoffs and lay the groundwork for the team that has evolved ever since. A first-round playoff series with Brooklyn played out over seven brutal games and ended in last-second disappointment. They started last season with a 24-7 record only to stumble home with a .500 record, their flaws waiting to be exposed in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Wizards.

There are several factors that point to this run being more sustainable. Since January, they have the fourth-best record in the league behind only Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland. Their depth has been bolstered by offseason additions like Scola, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo and their reserve lineups have been killer. The offense has been a constant, but their defense has perked up of late, especially with Biyombo controlling the paint.

Most importantly, Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan have stayed healthy while solidifying their status as All-Star caliber players. In their own ways, each have been revelations. Lowry has been arguably the best guard in the conference, while DeRozan has struck the right balance between high volume scoring and efficiency. From coach Dwane Casey’s point of view, his team has followed a logical progression. Yes, their core has been together for the last several years, but it’s still a young core.

"Everybody thinks we’re this experienced old team," Casey said. "We’re a young team. Everybody wanted instant success last year and the year before that, but we were still a young team. All these guys have grown organically. How old is DeMar? 26. I would still say that’s a young player. I’ve been in this league a long time, that’s a young player. Kyle is the oldest of that group but to come from where he came from as a backup in Houston and Memphis, he’s just now getting that opportunity even at a later age."

There are also underlying tensions that will play out after the season. Casey has one more year left on his contract after this one, which is a team option. DeRozan is set to become a free agent, marking a pivotal moment in the franchise’s history. Biyombo has played so well that he will likely exercise his player option to become a free agent and without Bird Rights, the team is limited in what it can pay him. Even Lowry is one year away from being able to opt out of his deal.

Every team has decisions like this to make, but not every team has reached this point of critical mass. It’s admirable that the defining characteristic of this Raptors team to date is their refusal to get caught up in the big picture ramifications.

"The first step was getting 50 wins, and now it’s to the point where we’re going to get that," Scola said. "Then homecourt was another thing, which we’re going to get that too. I believe getting through the first round, that will be the next step."

At the bare minimum the Raptors must win a playoff series. That much is clear. Only one Toronto team has ever advanced out of the first round and that was back in 2001 when Vince Carter was still taking flight. And then what? Will it be enough to go out valiantly in the second round or will they have to boldly go where no Raptor team has ever gone and reach the conference final?

Who’s to say they can’t knock off the Cavs, who have looked vulnerable of late? They’ve beaten them twice at home, including a thrilling last-second win just after the break. Everything is on the table and nothing is beyond their imagination. You can play this game all day long and still not come up with a comforting answer that satisfies the subjective conditions.

"I can’t control expectations," Casey said. "I know who we are. I know what we have to do to be successful and I think the players do too. Nobody picked us to be where we are, so I like that part."

Indeed no one did predict this kind of success and the Raptors have handled their business this season as well as anyone could have expected. Their ultimate fate awaits in just a few weeks.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

The Cavaliers and Raptors may have locks on the first two playoff spots, but the rest of the Eastern Conference is such a mad scramble that teams can fall -- or rise -- from third to sixth and vice versa each and every day. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the race shakes out.

ATLANTA: After a February loss to the Warriors, the Hawks were 31-27 and sitting harmlessly in sixth place. Since then they’ve gone 13-3 games while playing near-perfect defense and have the look of a team that’s peaking at the right time. That’s in stark contrast to last season when Atlanta eased its way into the postseason and had an uneven run to the conference finals. Of all the teams nestled in the pack, the Hawks may be the most dangerous.

BOSTON: Just a few weeks ago the Celtics had third place all to themselves with a small cushion between them and everyone else. Then Jae Crowder suffered a high ankle sprain and the C’s lost four straight. They’ve recovered just in time for a five-game West Coast road swing and there are indications that Crowder may return at some point during the trip. We’ll have to wait a bit longer for a better evaluation of their prospects, health permitting.

MIAMI: What an oddly interesting team. The Heat have run through 14 different starting lineups this season, but they have finally stabilized with the addition of Joe Johnson. This is a much different team than the one that struggled through January. Goran Dragic’s play has picked up down the stretch and Luol Deng has excelled as a small-ball four. Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have also been phenomenal off the bench. There is no definitive word on Chris Bosh, so let’s just call them the X-factor team.

CHARLOTTE: The Hornets have been really good since late January with the fourth-best net differential in the league during that span behind only Golden State, San Antonio and Atlanta. For all the attention coaches receive these days, Steve Clifford’s work still remains largely unheralded. That will change with a deep postseason run. The Hornets are 27-11 at home and play nine of their final 12 games on the road, but the slate is heavy with the stench of the abandoned hope club including multiple meetings with the Nets and 76ers. It would be unwise to discount Charlotte in the playoffs.

EVERYBODY ELSE IN ONE SENTENCE: The Pacers should make it, and anything less would be a major disappointment. The Pistons are right there, but have a tough schedule down the stretch. The Bulls are imploding, but they own the Raptors so maybe they could still be a spoiler if they get back on track. We’ve been waiting for the Wizards to click all season, and it would be a kick to see John Wall take on Kyrie Irving in the first round. That’s four teams for two spots, assuming the rest of the pack doesn’t fall apart down the stretch. The East stays weird.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Of course it came up. I told them, at the end of the day, I’m worried about my health. If it happens, it happens. I mean, it’s going to take care of itself. If I think about, ‘Oh, well, I can keep playing with my knee and all this,’ I think that's just being selfish." -- Anthony Davis after electing surgery on his knee and shoulder.

Reaction: There’s a lot to unpack here with AD’s injury situation. First, there’s the issue of a torn labrum that has apparently been bothering him for three years. Second, is the fact that he will have to sit out this summer’s Olympics while he recuperates. Finally, there’s the reality that sitting out the rest of the season will likely cost him votes for the All-NBA team and thus jeopardize up to $24 million his contract would have paid if he had qualified for higher salary under the Rose-rule provision. AD’s right. Playing through this would have been selfish, but what a sad conclusion to this dreadful season in New Orleans.

"Yeah, they plotted that." So, why didn't they tell you? "I guess they was telling me, in their own way: ‘Take the three-year deal.’" -- Carmelo Anthony to Howard Beck.

Reaction: So many what ifs in Beck’s fantastic piece and the biggest is the idea that Melo could have joined LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami if he had followed their free agent plan. Let’s not lose sight of the role Chris Bosh played in Miami’s championships, however. Would they have happened anyway with Melo? Maybe, but Bosh was a huge component.

"Y’all better go look up the archives, man." -- Tony Allen after scoring 27 points like it was no big thing.

Reaction: Way back in 2011, Tony Allen topped the 20-point mark seven times and also filled in at point guard for the Celtics where he handled the job quite admirably. That’s part of the reason why he’s always resisted the defensive-stopper label as if it’s the only thing that defines his game. Regardless, the Grizzlies have found a way to out-Grizzle themselves down the stretch and it’s no surprise that it’s the Grindfather who is leading the charge.

"We kind of tried to cruise toward the end. This year, I feel like we’re just starting to play our best basketball. So, it’s good because we gain good momentum going into the playoffs." -- Hawks center Al Horford to Yahoo’s Michael Lee.

Reaction: I’m back on the Hawks bandwagon (see above), although I’m not sure they have enough to get back to the conference finals. With Horford facing free agency, their offseason will be fascinating.

"If we just come together like we're supposed to -- and it takes time, you know. It takes time. If we can just come together like we're supposed to and like we want to, then I'm telling you, we can win a championship." -- Dwight Howard to USA Today’s Sam Amick.

Reaction: Sure, Dwight.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

I’ve watched this 10 times and still can’t believe Emmanuel Mudiay got it to fall.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.