Earlier yesterday, I was freaking out. Work needed me stay late because a coworker was sick and I thought this preview was never going to get published. I texted Oleh my dilemma and forwarded him everything I had so he wouldn't kill me. Then I checked the schedule; the Raptors game wasn't till today. So thankfully I had time to get this up in time, although considering how bad I am at all things calendar-related, maybe you guys won't see this until November 2047. Here's hoping.
Anyway, I'm deciding to continue on my trend of making my game previews interviews I conduct with fellow SB NBA writers about their respective teams. I figure that's the best way of giving you, the audience, the best feel for New Orleans Pelicans opponents. Actually understanding who team X is, to me at least, a better read than some numbers attached to names. Plus, it makes my job easier because now instead of doing the heavy lifting myself, I can just bum it off on to somebody else...wait did I say that aloud? Pretend you didn't read that, I really need one of those Men in Black memory stick things. Anyway joining me today is Raptors HQ editor Daniel Reynolds; here's what we talked about.
1) Between being the current two-seed in the East and hosting All-Star weekend, how big of a year has this been for Toronto?
It's hard to talk to a Raptors fan about big picture perspective because we're all currently getting nervous about the first round of the playoffs. Taking a step back does help though, and I can say that this is easily the best season the Raptors have ever had. They're going to clear 50 wins, they're going to finish second for the first time, they're going to win the Atlantic Division again, and they can lay claim to two All-Star calibre players. To that end, the All-Star Weekend extravaganza really drove that point home again and again: This is a good team that belongs in the upper-echelon of the NBA. It's been a great time to be a Raptors fan. Let's enjoy it!
2) Toronto is only two back of Cleveland in the loss column. Will they catch them?
I don't think Toronto is going to get the 1-seed for a couple of reasons. First, I suspect the Raptors will look to get rest days for some of their players here and there (Lowry and DeRozan chief among them), and while they may welcome back DeMarre Carroll back into the lineup soon, the team will probably give away a few games down the stretch. Second the Cavaliers may be struggling, but I doubt the struggle that much to allow the Raptors to surge past them.
3) Last season the Raptors were swept out of the postseason. Why should we trust this team more than last year's bunch?
It starts with Kyle Lowry. Unlike last year, as the season has wound down he's gotten better. You could easily argue that these past couple of months have been the best run of basketball Lowry has ever played in his life. When he's on, the Raptors can beat almost anyone. The other big difference of course is the personnel. The Raptors have a stronger bench this season, more flexibility in their lineup, and, despite the young ages of some of their players, a tad more experience in the "big game" development. And this is before we even discuss the far, far stronger defensive identity the Raptors currently enjoy compared to last year.
4) DeMarre Carroll has been out since early Januray, but is expected to be back within two weeks or so. How much has Toronto missed him and what does he do for the team?
Carroll's injury and absence have been huge in the sense that we still don't quite know how much better this Raptors team can be. Admittedly, this feels strange to write since the team is on pace for a 55-win season. Still, Carroll was supposed to be the lockdown perimeter defender Toronto has been lacking since basically forever. He was supposed to provide some solid three-point shooting, passing and cutting. He was supposed to allow for flexibility in the lineups -- going big at the three or small at the four. If he can come back and be a force in the playoffs, it's exciting to think about how far the Raptors can go.
5) We all know about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. They're the best backcourt tandem in all of basketball. Where does Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan compare to the Splash Brothers and other backcourts across the league?
I think you have to consider Lowry and DeRozan as the second best backcourt in the league. They're the drivers of this Raptors team, the ones who take most of, if not all, the big shots and make most of the big plays. And while Lowry can't quite shoot like Curry (no kidding) his toughness and decisiveness as a two-way player makes him very valuable. Meanwhile DeRozan isn't quite the defender or shooter that Klay is, but his machine-like ability to finish at the rim or get fouled puts him in a class all his own. You can definitely feel comfortable going to war with Lowry and DeRozan. And that hasn't been something you've always said about the Raptors.
6) Let's say Toronto's finishing five are characters from Jurassic World. In their crunch time lineup, who's Chris Pratt the Alpha dog (err...dinosaur?) and who're Blue, Charlie, Echo and Delta?
Obviously, Lowry is Pratt. And the rest of the crunch time lineup will be DeMar DeRozan, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll (hopefully) and -- damn I have to hedge here -- some combination of Jonas Valanciunas (on offense) and Bismack Biyombo (on defense). I will not entertain Patrick Patterson as Bryce Dallas Howard comparisons.