After promising season, expectations for upstart Raptors only rise from here
Toronto in position to rely on growth, continuity for improvement in coming years
In the end, the Toronto Raptors dug themselves into too deep a hole.
For three days between Games 5 and 6, momentum seemed firmly on the side of the Raptors becoming the first NBA team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers was getting defensive over his spotty playoff record, MVP finalist Joel Embiid was questioning co-star James Harden's aggressiveness, and the plucky Raptors were one home win away from forcing Game 7.
It, rather emphatically, didn't happen. The 76ers ran away from the Raptors in the third quarter of Game 6 en route to a 132-97 victory. Embiid recorded 33 points and 12 rebounds, while Harden enjoyed his best game of the series with 22 points and 15 assists.
WATCH | 76ers throttle Raptors in Game 6:
Even still, it's tough not to view the Raptors season as a success.
Pascal Siakam regained the form that made him an all-NBA second-team forward prior to the pandemic. Fred VanVleet made his first all-star team. Fourth overall pick Scottie Barnes won rookie of the year, exceeding even the most optimistic projections.
The Raptors' win total was set at 35.5 by multiple sportsbooks before the season; they finished with 48.
By nearly any measure, Toronto beat expectations in its return home following last year's so-called "Tampa Tank," when the team spent the season playing in Florida due to pandemic restrictions and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
New era of Raptors basketball
The 2021-22 season, in some ways, marked the beginning of a new era of Raptors basketball.
Harden called the first-round series one of the "toughest" he's played in.
"Just because of their switching, athleticism, length," he explained. "They throw different defences at you, box-and-ones and zones and mess up the game. Credit to Nick Nurse, they're a resilient team."
Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby are key holdovers from the 2019 title team who have all grown into essential roles with the new iteration of Raptors. We already know they can form the nucleus of a champion, especially with head coach Nick Nurse still at the helm.
Still, it's Barnes who will ultimately determine the team's direction.
ROTY for 3️⃣ <a href="https://t.co/CWYH6FLbxh">pic.twitter.com/CWYH6FLbxh</a>—@Raptors
It doesn't take much imagination to see Barnes' ceiling: a six-foot-nine playmaker who can defend every position on defence and play every position on offence. He answered his biggest perceived weakness coming out of college — scoring ability — by averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting nearly 50 per cent from the field.
Respected basketball coach David Thorpe has, on multiple occasions, compared Barnes to Magic Johnson, and Magic himself even said he saw some "showtime" in the rookie.
Kawhi Leonard showed the Raptors what it means to have a superstar in the playoffs — and Barnes possesses that kind of ceiling.
Of course, it's a ceiling that's likely years away. In the near-term, the Raptors' Game 6 loss showed their most pressing need: shooting.
Toronto made only seven of its 35 three-point attempts in Game 6, and shot just 29.9 per cent from beyond the arc for the series while the 76ers wound up at 40.8 per cent.
It's not the sole reason the Raptors' season is over – you can't allow 132 points and blame offence — but it was the team's most consistent shortcoming.
By the trade deadline, when it seemed clear the Raptors would be in the playoff picture, an extra shooter seemed like the most obvious addition. Instead, Toronto acquired Thaddeus Young, a six-foot-nine forward who made a grand total of zero triples with the San Antonio Spurs in the first half of the season.
Young proved to be essential in the Raptors' pair of wins over 76ers, providing extra playmaking in the absence of the injured VanVleet.
He is also one of the Raptors' two notable pending free agents, alongside Montreal's Chris Boucher, who surely earned himself some money with an impressive series.
Increased expectations to come
The Raptors have enough room under the luxury tax to comfortably bring back both players. And given the experimental nature of the team — a bunch of six-foot-nine-ish dudes wreaking havoc everywhere on the court — continuity should help more than most.
"That's about as much building as we all want to do," said VanVleet, who missed Games 5 and 6 with a strained hip flexor. "We have the pieces and now how do you put those pieces together? Can you add a few pieces around the board and then how do you make it work?
"I think we can definitely get better within without adding anything."
Even so, a shooter who can hold his own defensively would be the ideal addition to round out the 2022-23 team.
However it shakes out, next season's Raptors will enter with more expectations.
Siakam rebuilt himself, but can he take the next step? VanVleet was an all-star, but can he maintain that level of play for a full season? OG Anunoby once again shone in the playoffs, but can he stay healthy over 82 games? And what's in store for Barnes' sophomore campaign?
Spirited first-round exits won't make successful seasons forever. The Raptors flashed their potential this year — it'll soon be time to make good on it.
With files from The Canadian Press