Can the Raptors handle the pressure of being No. 1?
Toronto's record-setting team still vulnerable in some places
This is uncharted territory for the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are the Eastern Conference's top seed for the first time in franchise history following a record-setting regular season. That means the road to the NBA Finals in the East officially runs through the obligatory Drake reference.
These aren't the same brash Raptors that couldn't overcome the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards in back-to-back first-round flameouts, and it's certainly different than the squad LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ousted in consecutive years.
Thanks to the continued efforts of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — as well as president Masai Ujiri's prescribed "culture reset" — the Raptors are well-positioned to make an impact in the playoffs. Toronto takes on the Washington Wizards in Game 1 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET at Air Canada Centre.
It's an exciting time for a team that's reached the post-season five years in a row following nearly two decades of frustration and futility — but with this success comes a new set of challenges.
Solid foundation — but cracks emerging
For fans, it's difficult to imagine the Raptors in the spotlight after feeling overlooked and neglected by pundits in the United States during this recent renaissance. But after this stretch of sustained success the chip on the team's collective shoulders should start feeling lighter.
Plus, Sir Charles Barkley believes in the team, so take that endorsement for what it's worth.
Toronto collectively improved its three-point percentage after the all-star break — a critical component of the current NBA — and is in the top 10 in field-goal percentage in the league. The Raptors' multi-dimensional attack makes them a difficult cover for opponents; the team is among the NBA's best in points in the paint and a viable fast-break threat.
Even though DeRozan is averaging fewer points per game this season than last year, he still leads the team in scoring while registering a career-high assists per game. Helping ease the burden on DeRozan is one of the league's most reliable second units led by guard Fred VanVleet along with Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.
Cracks in the team's foundation, however, have emerged down the stretch. Toronto rattled off an 11-game win streak that stretched from the end of February to mid-March, but went 8-6 the rest of the way.
Three of those losses came at the hands of the Boston Celtics and the Shakespearean Cavaliers (face it, LeBron has been equal parts Macbeth and Richard III this season) and wins against the Nets and Indiana Pacers hardly inspired confidence in the Raptors' ability to beat weaker teams.
Lowry has been mercurial at times this season, Norman Powell has battled inconsistency all year and Serge Ibaka — while automatic from two — becomes mortal the moment he steps behind the arc. The trio will need to step up in the post-season to avoid an over-reliance on a "bench mob" whose enthusiasm could be trumped by inexperience and a tightened rotation.
Don't underestimate the underdog
The Raptors have done well to mask their weaknesses this season, and it helps that there aren't many to begin with. But the history of the NBA playoffs features several top seeds falling in the first round to opponents who appear weaker on paper than on the hardwood.
Remember the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks? Dirk Nowitzki and Co. finished first in the West for the first time in franchise history before being upset by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors — and this was well before they were the NBA's gold standard.
The Mavs only shook off their reputation as playoff chokers in 2011 with an NBA title, a moniker that hits close to home for a team that was swept out of the post-season twice in the past four years. It's harsh, but hardly a secret for the Raptors — hence Ujiri's calls for a new mindset that's working so far.
The first test is Washington, a team that matches up well against the Toronto. The teams split the regular-season series 2-2, but the Wizards held the Raptors to just 29.6 per cent from three — well below Toronto's 35.9 per cent season average.
Washington's explosive guards and versatile forwards belie the team's low ranking. Bradley Beal emerged this season as a force to be reckoned with in John Wall's absence, while Markieff Morris and the Junior Duo of Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. can frustrate Toronto on both ends of the floor.
The Raptors' need DeRozan and Lowry at their finest — and for C.J. Miles to get hot at the right time — in order to gut out a series win against an abrasive opponent. Toronto's depth should also be an advantage, while Jonas Valanciunas could play more than just the first eight minutes of each half as he faces his Eastern European nemesis Marcin Gortat.
Even if the Raptors advance, the Eastern Conference is filled with potential challengers to top-seeded Toronto down the road… oh, hi Philadelphia.