The NBA has recently announced that their 2019-20 season will continue amid Coronavirus concerns and social justice issues plaguing our world. With this, it’s time most NBA fans start making their predictions for the rest of the NBA playoffs and what will go down.
In the East, a majority of people are going to pick the Milwaukee Bucks to represent the conference in the championship or perhaps a dark horse team like the Boston Celtics. However, it seems as though not a lot of people are considering the reigning NBA champion from Toronto, Canada.
The Raptors were slept on coming into the season and they’re likely to be slept on heading into this year’s playoffs. Here’s why the Raptors will make the NBA Finals this year over the Bucks, Celtics, and every other team in the East.
The Raptors are one of if not the most versatile in the league defensively. They’ve got tons of defensive length with Pascal Siakam (7’3 wingspan), Serge Ibaka (7’3 wingspan), Marc Gasol (7’4 wingspan), OG Anunoby (7’2 wingspan), Norman Powell (6’11 wingspan), and several others.
This length helps them guard the best wing players on the opposing teams. This makes them a great match-up against a team like Boston who has a trio of great wing players in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. Toronto’s natural wings can defend them, and the bigger players like Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol can switch on to them as well.
They also have two great defensive guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Both of them are are 6’1 or under with a 6’2 wingspan, but they make up for that with sheer effort. Kyle Lowry is second in the league amongst guards in defensive win shares, and he leads the league in charges.
VanVleet doesn’t have the defensive prowess of Lowry, but he has a similar build, and he was fourth in steals per game this year. You can also find countless examples of VanVleet locking down two time MVP Steph Curry in last year’s finals.
Gasol was a huge reason why Toronto won the Finals last year, and he’s going to be a big difference maker this year as well. Although he’s not the center he was in Memphis, his defense has still been incredibly effective.
He held All-Star Nikola Vucevic to 11.2 PPG on 36% from the field and 23% from three in the first round. He also held Joel Embiid to 17.6 PPG on 37% from the field and 35% from three in the second round. Gasol is a defensive cog, and he contributes heavily to Toronto’s stellar defense.
Lastly, Nick Nurse’s defensive schemes have been absolutely brilliant. People laughed at his middle school box-and-1 in the NBA Finals last year, but it proved to be incredibly effective against a world-class Warriors team. His in-game adjustments and willingness to think outside the box has allowed for his team to be incredibly successful defensively.
The Raptors have a plethora of elite, versatile defenders that can match-up against anyone. They were statistically speaking the best defense in the regular season (held opponents to an average of 106.5 PPG, the lowest in the league), and they have a creative head coach who is willing to be unorthodox.
“Share The Love” Offensive Game Plan
The Toronto Raptors no longer have one dominant scorer in Kawhi Leonard to shoulder the offensive load, but they have a group of good scorers that can match their team’s production from last year.
Fans will simply argue that they don’t have Leonard, but that’s a pretty lazy argument. Several players on the Raptors have taken a step forward to make up for the loss of Leonard, and that’s why they’re still the second seed in the East.
Several Raptors have seen a jump in scoring production. Siakam went from 16.9 to 23.6 PPG, Lowry went from 14.2 to 19.7, VanVleet went from 11.0 to 17.6, and the list goes on. Several players have made up for the loss of scoring production from Leonard. Last year, the Raptors scored 114.4 PPG, and this year they are scoring 113.0 PPG – not a huge dropoff.
They no longer have one go-to guy they can consistently refer to but having multiple guys who can offer that at different times can be huge. In Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year, Lowry stepped up big time with a 26 point, 10 assist performance on 9-16 shooting. This overshadowed the fact that Leonard had a (somewhat) off night with only 22 points on 7-16 shooting.
Additionally, the Raptors are a great long-range shooting team. They shoot 37.1% from three which is tied for 6th best in the league, and they have several great shooters in Powell, Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka, Siakam, and VanVleet that defenses have to worry about.
Toronto is definitely more of a defensive-minded team, but don’t sleep on their offensive production. They consistently surprise people year after year and their lack of a top 10 offense will not be a huge issue come playoff time.
Why They Would Beat The Milwaukee Bucks
Stopping the great Giannis Antetokounmpo is certainly no easy task but the Raptors have proven that they can expose his weaknesses and neutralize him in a seven game series, and that’s why they would beat the Bucks.
I can dive deep into Antetokounmpo’s percentages in the series, but instead we need to look at how Toronto played Antetokounmpo. As mentioned previously, Nurse is one of the best defensive coaches in the NBA and is not afraid to get creative. In order to stop Giannis, the Raptors would have to form a wall in front of him using two or three different players and then have other players standing by to collapse in.
The Raptors decided that they are okay with allowing other players to take open shots provided those players are not named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Khris Middleton was pretty brutal in last year’s ECF by playing more like a role player rather than a second option. Eric Bledsoe was borderline unplayable in that series. The Bucks also lost Malcolm Brogdon who provided key shooting and scoring. Sure, George Hill and Brook Lopez stepped up but those two aren’t going to swing a playoff series.
The Bucks also have a defensive game plan that can be exposed pretty easily. Their plan is that teams can shoot as many threes as they want but they will not score in the paint. Now, this works in the regular season at times, but it’s not nearly as effective in the playoffs.
Teams like the Raptors and even the Celtics with their great three-point shooting can expose this by simply getting hot. Easier said than done obviously, but if teams get hot from behind the arc, the game is pretty much wrapped up.
In addition, Mike Budenholzer has never had significant playoff success before. The reason for that is because he fails (refuses) to adjust his regular season game plan and doesn’t bother to ever switch things up. Hence why the Bucks and the Hawks (his former team) have never made the Finals.
Last year, the Raptors were able to slow down Antetokounmpo using their wall strategy and they exposed that Middleton and Bledsoe are not ready to be a second and third best player on a championship team. Budenholzer also got outcoached by Nurse. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Why They Would Beat The Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics do pose a pretty big threat in the East as they have the star power and coaching to take down the Raptors, but ultimately, they would fall short as well.
First, it goes without saying that the Raptors have better depth, coaching, and more experience. Those are simply the undeniable facts of the situation.
The Raptors match-up very well against the Celtics. They have a starting lineup filled with great individual defenders that can effectively guard each of Boston’s top players. Either Anunoby or Siakam could guard Tatum, Lowry would guard Kemba Walker, and all the other match-ups can go anyway they want.
The Celtics are going to get exposed down low because they lack a great interior presence in the paint. Their two best options are Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. Theis has been good, but he’s extremely undersized and guys like Siakam and Anunoby could drive to the basket and score on him easily. Kanter is just a horrible defender who can’t guard anyone.
The Raptors have the defense to keep up with Boston’s offensive firepower and then they would be able to expose mismatches to keep things interesting when they go on offense.
The Celtics are a great team, but we’ve never seen Walker play serious playoff basketball, and I have serious doubts about their center situation. If Toronto is smart, they will be able to win this series by exposing Boston’s flaws and playing to their strengths.
The Toronto Raptors have everything you could possibly want in a playoff contender. They’ve got a plethora of versatile defenders, offensive production from a bunch of different players, great depth, and the best coach in the NBA in Nurse.
They’ve also got the Finals experience and they know what it takes to get there. People are still going to pick Boston or Milwaukee to make the Finals, but the Raptors have exactly what it takes to make it there (again), and that’s ultimately what I think they’ll do.
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