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Toronto should be taken seriously.
That’s just the truth.
A lot of people don’t realize that, despite the fact Toronto enters Wednesday’s game at Cleveland in first place in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors are 53-18, five games better than the Boston Celtics. LeBron James and the third-place Cavs (41-29) are 11.5 back and the best they can do is hold on to that spot. Barring a monumental collapse from someone else, they won’t be moving up.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have a lot of things going for them. Mostly, they have been through the playoff wars — and with largely the same cast.
Standout guards and team leaders Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have seemingly been together forever. Jonas Valunciunas has been the center. Serge Ibaka has been the power forward for a full season now. And coach Dwane Casey is the mastermind who brings it all together, a steady and smart man who has his team’s respect.
“They’ve struck with it” and not made any massive changes, said former Cavs big man and current radio analyst Jim Chones. “I respect that. That’s not easy to do.”
Unlike so many other contenders, the Raptors don’t typically make noteworthy signings in free agency or headline-grabbing trades. As Chones noted, they just sort of go about their business.
Their biggest move last offseason? Acquiring former Cavaliers guard C.J. Miles in a trade with Indiana. Miles has been an excellent fit, offering instant offense off the bench.
Granted, the Raptors have been unable to get out of the East and play for a championship. FOX Sports analyst Skip Bayless said “they shrink” when they see LeBron and the Cavs.
But NBA history tells us teams typically have to go through hard times before getting to the top. NBA history tells us good teams that stay the course eventually break through. In the NBA, rarely do teams go from worst to first. You have to pay your dues. The Raptors have done that.
Now, these are typically the type of games that James loves — and the Cavs can shine. It’s late in the season. The Raptors are viewed as the new beasts of the East. The Cavs are viewed as a team that still has to get its act together.
In these situations, James often flourishes, occasionally more than ever.
Still, the Raptors seem to feel as if they’re in control. They have talent, they have familiarity, they have confidence.
And for the first time during the modern era, the East is theirs to lose.