Hey, hey, hey, as Kawhi would say:
The champs are here.
Well, they actually have been here all along, but few were paying attention.
The assumption was that the Toronto Raptors would flop after Kawhi Leonard cut and ran – after a championship run -- to the Clippers, but that neglected what he left behind, a squad that was almost as competent with him and without him. In fact, the Raptors will finish with a better record, in this truncated season, than they did to this point in 2018-19, which ended with the franchise’s first title.
And they are again, a two seed, this time drawing the battered but plucky Brooklyn Nets in the first round. This should be a tune-up, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and others missing for Jacque Vaughn’s Nets.
So how can the Raptors be pushed, even a little? Here are three keys…
1. Stopping Siakam:
Pascal improved upon his Most Improved Player season, but didn’t seem himself in the bubble, with his scoring average dipping to 16.9 on just 39.4 percent shooting through seven seeing. But he is Toronto’s unicorn, and if he’s on, Brooklyn – with its scarcity of big, versatile talent – has no shot. This should be an easy round for Siakam, who may be charged with guarding and shedding the skilled liked of Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antekoumpo in the next two rounds.
2. Shooter on a streak:
Two unheralded players with big paydays ahead, Toronto’s Fred Van Vleet and Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, have been on fire in the bubble, though Van Vleet cooled a bit in the second week. Harris has been absurd, the Duncan Robinson of the North, shooting close to 60 percent from three on tremendous volume. With leading scorer Caris LeVert not locked in from deep, Harris will get a lot of Toronto attention, with OG Anunoby likely assigned to him a lot. He still needs to make a lot of threes.
Honestly, that’s the big factor here. The Raptors have been in Orlando longer than any other team and have appeared on a mission. The Nets have been scrappy, but there’s just not enough firepower until the All-NBA reinforcements arrive next season. Nick Nurse isn’t the type to let his deep, versatile, hungry team slip, so it’s impossible to see more than one game slipping away.
Our pick: Raptors 4-0, quick work to prepare for the Celtics series.
Headline Photo Credit: NBA.com