The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Where were the Toronto Raptors?
Place: Second in the East
The Toronto Raptors entered this season intent on a formidable championship defense despite losing Kawhi Leonard to free agency, and they were well on their way to achieving that goal. Pascal Siakam followed his Most Improved Player campaign with an All-Star leap, and his production replicated much of what Toronto lost in Leonard. Likewise, Fred VanVleet rode the momentum of his playoff success into this season. Supporting cast members Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell were enjoying career years, and the Raptors unleashed even more versatile wings on a depth chart anchored by Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol.
Even more remarkable than their second-place standing is the fact that they reached that perch while everyone in the rotation but OG Anunoby missed significant time. Gasol had missed 16 of Toronto’s final 17 games before the break with a hamstring injury. He returned to training camp healthy, with a slimmed-down physique, and the rest should serve everyone on the roster well after last year’s deep playoff run.
Who’s in and who’s out?
The Raptors expect to have a full roster for what feels like the first time all season. Even rookie center Dewan Hernandez, out since December with a severe ankle sprain, has been cleared to play in Orlando. Toronto’s expected starting lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam and Gasol had appeared in just 17 games together this season. They are outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions.
NBA Finals odds: +800
Championship odds: +2200
Norman Powell would be worthy of serious Sixth Man of the Year consideration had he not missed a third of the season with shoulder and hand injuries. In 44 games this season, he averaged 16.4 points on 50/40/84 shooting splits in 28.8 minutes a night, nearly doubling his production year over year — yet another example of Toronto’s collective ability to mask the losses of Leonard and Danny Green on the wings.
Once wildly inconsistent, Powell has shown a steadier hand when healthy this season while continuing to do what he does best — attacking the rim and knocking down open shots while bringing energy off the bench on the defensive end. He unlocks any number of lineup combinations. Remove Lowry or VanVleet from the starting lineup, replace either with Powell, and those five-man units have destroyed opponents. Coach Nick Nurse also has a three-guard lineup card up his sleeve that he has yet to seriously employ.
(All times Eastern)
Aug. 1: Los Angeles Lakers, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Miami Heat, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 5: Orlando Magic, 8 p.m.
Aug. 7: Boston Celtics, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 9: Memphis Grizzlies, 2 p.m.
Aug. 10: Milwaukee Bucks, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 12: Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 14: Denver Nuggets, TBD
The question is whether Siakam can properly replicate Leonard’s excellence as a finisher last season. Leonard approached a Michael Jordan level of execution in the playoffs, and that is where a collective replacement falls apart. The Raptors have a number of capable creators, including Lowry and Powell, and all have performed exceptionally in the clutch during the regular season, but they will look to Siakam’s length and athleticism to generate looks in the final possessions of close playoff games. If he answers that call, there is every reason to believe Toronto can win an improbable second straight title.
The Raptors will not be tested in the first round, where either the Orlando Magic or Brooklyn Nets await, but a second-round series against an equally well-rounded Boston Celtics team would be a considerable test. It may well come down to whether Siakam or Jayson Tatum is better prepared to be the alpha on a legitimate contender. The Celtics took two of three from the Raptors this season, but Siakam missed the Christmas Day loss, and the division rivals will meet once more in Walt Disney World prior to the playoffs.
Few teams are better equipped to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the returning MVP had his way with the Raptors in their only two head-to-head meetings this season. That may be where Toronto will miss Leonard most, as he often drew that short straw in their six-game Eastern Conference finals set last season. Relying on Siakam to dominate both ends of the floor in crunch time opposite Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks may be too tall an order, but the Raptors have made a living exceeding expectations.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Second in the East
Finish: Eastern Conference semifinals loss
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