The San Antonio Spurs have won 50 or more games in every season this century and they’ve already done it again this year, but the Toronto Raptors have only hit this milestone once in franchise history, so going for 50 wins again this year is a bit of a bigger deal for We The North.
After a hot 22-8 start to this season, the Raptors lost their mojo and were a slumping 10-16 the day before the All-Star break. DeMar DeRozan made what could only be called a cry for help as his team was sliding from second best in the East to a place that wouldn’t even have a home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year, the current situation was demoralizing.
President Masai Ujiri had rolled the dice at the start of this season by keeping all of his players on rookie deals from the past two drafts and adding three new rookies to the roster. The team was young and inexperienced if anyone in the anticipated rotation got hurt and then, of course, their free agent acquisition Jared Sullinger broke his foot in preseason. It wasn’t going to take much to force head coach Dwane Casey to start playing a lot more youth than is usually found in a 50 win rotation.
Led by DeRozan and Kyle Lowry this team could score, but starting a rookie at power forward for most of the season and relying on youth to fill in for the inevitable injuries meant this team was giving up a lot of points.
Ujiri responded at the trade deadline by making the significant veteran additions of power forward/ center Serge Ibaka and forward P.J. Tucker. Both players significantly upgraded the Raptors defense and Ibaka provides an offensive presence at the four spot this team hasn’t seen since Chris Bosh left town for Miami.
These moves were all about giving the Raptors a chance to get back to the East Finals and a shot at getting past the heavily favored Cavaliers. There was plenty of time before the postseason to integrate them with Lowry and DeRozan or so it seemed.
At the time, Ujiri couldn’t have known Lowry was about to go under the knife to relieve pain and swelling in his wrist. Fortunately, the new additions were ready to become integral in saving the Raptors chances at 50 wins in the regular season. If Ujiri had stood pat at the trade deadline, the Raptors might have been fighting to stay above .500 without Lowry.
Thru 57 games before the All-Star break Toronto was outscoring teams 108.5-104.3, but they were allowing opponents to shoot 45.4 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three. A solid defensive team last year, this group was finding ways to lose close games and were 4-7 in games decided by three points or less.
Things changed in a hurry after the break. A 10-point win over the surging Atlantic Division leading Boston Celtics where the Raptors held their high scoring opponent (averaging 107.8 points a game) under 100 points.
In the first seven games since Ibaka and Tucker arrived in Toronto, the 5-2 Raptors have held opponents to 99 points on 43.1 percent shooting and 33 percent from three-point range. Both players have been superior at guarding the perimeter and making their presence felt in the paint, something Casey has been in an either or situation prior to their availability.
A split in the home-and-home versus the Wizards and a loss on the second half of a back-to-back on the road to Milwaukee are the only blemishes for the upgraded roster and that’s without the services of their All-Star point guard.
The current ESPN Eastern Conference Prediction has the Raptors finishing at 50-32.
50 wins will require Toronto take at least 12 of the remaining 18 games and if this team is as good as they hope they are, that’s a mark they should be planning on beating.
Their remaining opponents, 9 home and 9 away, include:
@ Hawks (5th place, 35-29)
@ Heat x2, Heat (9th place, 31-34)
Mavericks, @ Mavericks (10th place, 27-36)
Thunder (7th place, 35-29)
@Pistons x2 (7th place, 31-33)
Pacers x2, @Pacers (6th place, 33-31)
Bulls (8th place, 31-33)
Magic (13th place, 24-41)
Hornets (11th place, 28-36)
76ers (14th place, 23-40)
@Knicks (12th place, 26-39)
@Cavaliers (1st place, 42-20)
It isn’t going to be easy. At least 12 of the remaining games are going to be against teams with playoff positioning on the line, but these are exactly the types of games a team hoping for a deep playoff push needs.
Getting to 50 wins for the Raptors is more than a symbolic gesture. 50 wins or more without their All-Star point guard for the stretch drive would indicate this team is ready to make some noise in the postseason with him.