The Maple Leafs Stanley Cup aspirations were once again put on hold by the boys from Boston. The Blue Jays are content to live in the rebuild stage while putting all their promoting attention towards MLB's top prospect Vladdy Guerrero Jr. At a quick glance, the average sports fan may have the idea that Toronto sports are hitting a bit of a wall. Unable to break the drought and become champions once again. Lost in all the chaos, are the Toronto Raptors and their success in 2018/2019.
How did the Raptors success get lost in all the madness? Well for starters, they didn't drastically change their record (Finishing 2nd in the eastern conference). With them dominating the East again, it makes it easy to look and miss how differently their success came this year; how much more convincingly they were able to beat the elite teams, and even not lose to the terrible teams we were all so used to seeing.
Another factor that took the spotlight from the Raptors squad are names like Matthews, Marner, Tavares and even the aforementioned Guerrero Jr. During the same offseason that Kawhi was brought in, hometown boy John Tavares made an even bigger splash by signing long-term with the Leafs. Then the Matthews/Marner contract topic (which still remains unsolved for Marner). Just when we thought the Leafs momentum train coming to a crashing halt would finally leave the Raps to hold the attention of “The 6ix” loyalists, the Blue Jays organization threw the world a fastball and finally called up Vlad to the big club.
For those of you too focused elsewhere, it’s time to stop missing out on this amazing run to the NBA Finals. Recapping a little more on the season that was… Kyle turned out to be just fine in a system without DeMar, trading for Marc Gasol was the perfect complimentary piece to the team without damaging chemistry, and Kawhi was nothing short of spectacular. They won games by grinding away on the defensive side of the ball and trusting everyone wearing a Raptors uniform to score when called upon. If you don't believe me, just look at the huge jump Pascal made this season in his offensive game.
The Raps got off to an all too familiar shaky game one, losing on a last second three. But the boys from the north dug their feet in the sand so to speak, and took the next four games, and the series, in very very convincing fashion. Their ability to grind a very young and unproven Magic team helped them smoothly execute their winning game plan. The ability to match up different players throughout the course of a game gives the Raptors a versatility they've never known.
The Raptors player personnel may be the true secret to unlocking the championship kingdom. Kawhi neutralized young phenom Ben Simmons throughout the entire year and was even more of a task for the high flyer in the series. The rest of the starters were able to out grind and out muscle the competition. They exploited Philly’s poor defensive tendencies, moving the ball for good looks, rarely settling for a tough shot…. Unless the entire series is on the line.
When Toronto sees the Bucks in the ECF, they will have a variety of options greater than just Kawhi to throw at Giannis. They're able to match up better than any team to his height, strength, and length by deploying different Raptors defenders to defend the many aspects of his game that make him the Greek Freak. Their hard-nosed, gritty defense should leave the Bucks shooters with limited space to shoot the lights out. The second fiddle that is Pascal Siakam should use and abuse his size and above average handles for a man of his size to get himself into scoring situations. Lowry will no doubt give you every bit of energy he has in his body. And I fully expect the “Bench Mob” to get back to kicking names and taking ass……. Or something like that.
I’m in no way, shape or form saying that this will be a breeze for the Toronto Raptors. It will be an absolute dog fight to even represent the Eastern Conference this year, let alone the mammoth task of taking down the reigning champion Warriors (who I fully expect to make another Finals appearance). However, this team has provided fans with the confidence that they will be the best team on the court. Their players are going to work harder and fight further for every basket. And quite honestly, Kawhi Leonard has finally given the Raptors “the King” they've so long sought after.
This isn't just another Toronto team taking supporters into the playoffs in hopes of making it further than years prior. This is THE Toronto team, taking an entire country on a championship run.