After sloughing off a sleepy first three quarters on Tuesday to take care of business down the stretch and put away the lowly Orlando Magic, the Toronto Raptors sit at 53-18, a full five games ahead of the injury-wracked (but still quite scrappy) Boston Celtics in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs.
“Deep down, I’d be lying if I said [finishing first] wasn’t important,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told reporters before last week’s win over the Brooklyn Nets in New York. “It is important. I mean, it’s important to our franchise — where we’ve come from and where we’re trying to go to, what we’re trying to accomplish, to get that No. 1 seed.”
Where they’re trying to go is somewhere they’ve never been before — a place DeMar DeRozan firmly believes they can reach, as he told Marcel Mutoni in a new cover story for SLAM Magazine:
Before the photo shoot wrapped up, I had one final question for DeMar.
Can the Raptors, improbable as it may seem to those outside their locker room, win it all this season?
“Yes,” DeRozan responds. “If we didn’t think so, there’s no reason to be in this line of work. So, we definitely believe so.”
It’s a belief shared throughout the Raptors’ locker room, one that’s built over the course of a regular season in which Toronto has clearly established itself as the class of the conference — and one that, for DeRozan, has been unwavering since last summer.
“I knew that [we could be special] after we lost in the playoffs last year,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Understanding how hard I was going to work. Understanding how hard Kyle was going to work. Understanding how hard the organization was going to work to make sure we needed to be where we needed to be. You know, we always got so close. It was always right there. But I always had that confidence. Ever since that Game 4 in the playoffs last year. The next day.”
That Game 4 concluded a four-game sweep in the second round at the hands of the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers — the team that knocked off Toronto in six games in the conference finals one year earlier, the team that has represented the East in the NBA Finals in each of the last three seasons … and the team that the Raptors will face at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday night.
The Raptors enter the marquee matchup red hot, winners of 12 of their last 13 and 19 of their last 22, with the NBA’s No. 3 offense, No. 3 defense, and No. 3 net rating since the beginning of February. Third-seeded Cleveland, on the other hand, enters somewhat rickety.
The Cavs are just .500 since the All-Star break, ranking 10th on O and 17th on D since completely rejiggering their team in the second week of February. They’re missing five pieces of their shuffled-up rotation, with Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman all sidelined by injury, and veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver away from the team following the death of his younger brother. Head coach Tyronn Lue is away, too, taking time to address health issues that have plagued him throughout the season. All-Star power forward Kevin Love just returned to the lineup, which helps, but much about the three-time-defending conference champs remains unsettled and uncertain … except, of course, for the presence and persistent brilliance of James, who’s been as individually remarkable as ever of late, and who will still stand as the monster under the Raptors’ bed until they prove they can put him to sleep four times in seven games come May, if it comes to that.
“If they meet LeBron in the playoffs,” wrote Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star earlier this week, “well, as one team source recently put it, while emphasizing respect for James, ‘we don’t have to be afraid of that anymore.’”
They’re trying not to think that far ahead, though.
“One team at a time,” DeRozan told SLAM’s Mutoni. “Whoever we line up against, our job is to go out there and beat them,” DeRozan says. “I wouldn’t say we’re going out there looking to go against just one dude.”
They are, however, looking to go out there and make the rest of the NBA-watching world into believers, too. Like the James Harden and Chris Paul-led Houston Rockets, the most daunting foe the Raptors face over the season’s final weeks is the wait — the sitting around until the second season starts, until they can begin the process of proving that the excellent play that has carried them through fall and winter wasn’t just an empty-calories trick of the light. That it matters, that it mattered all along, and that it’ll matter against the very best the NBA has to offer.
“I think we’re more prepared for this year’s playoffs. But I can’t project what’s going to happen,” Casey recently told Ken Berger of Bleacher Report. “I wish I had a crystal ball. If I did, I wouldn’t be standing here. I promise you. I’d be on Wall Street, down the road a bit.”
He might not be able to see the future. But with two All-Stars in his backcourt who have bought into the system he’s selling, the league’s best bench, a defense that travels and experience in big games, Casey’s not stopping himself from envisioning a future.
“We’re one of the teams that I feel like can win it,” Casey told SLAM’s Mutoni. “Why not?”
We’ve still got a few weeks until opponents start trying to answer that question in earnest, and until the Raptors can begin responding in kind. For now, though, their confidence seems to be at an all-time high, led by an All-Star scorer playing the best ball of his career who believes his team’s time has come.
“Success during the regular season is great,” DeRozan said in Brooklyn last week. “But we’re playing for something bigger than all of us, and that’s to get in the postseason, win all the rounds and get that gold trophy.”
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