While the elite teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference—a.k.a. Indiana and Miami—are concerned about possibly facing the Chicago Bulls in the second round of the playoffs, the team they should truly be the most concerned about is the Toronto Raptors.
On paper, the Raptors don't look like much. Critics say that their record is inflated due to the awfulness that is the Atlantic Division and that they don't have the bonafide star you usually need to advance deep into the playoffs. As a team, they don't do anything exceptionally well. They play good defense, ranking 7th in the league in points allowed per game (97.6), but they don't overwhelm you with it.
However, this balanced attack is exactly what gives opponents major headaches. Because they don't do anything exceptionally well, there's nothing teams can really try to take away that dismantles Toronto's attack. But they are good enough at everything that sometimes their team identity changes on a nightly basis—one night they might hold an opponent to 80 points, and the next they might hit 12 threes.
Yet they're still a team that was planning on tanking before the season started, but started coming together and playing well after trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento. And because the East was so bad, the Raptors decided they might as well go for it. In any other year, this team would be fighting for a bottom-seed in the playoffs.
But in 2014, they have a chance. Can they make any noise?
We can talk about the Raptors balanced attack and how great it is all we want, but winning playoff series usually comes down to the team's best player, and DeRozan is that guy for Toronto. He doesn't have to be world-beater every night, but he has to play like an All-Star for the Raptors to make any serious noise in the postseason.
He's taken a huge step in his development this year and has become Toronto's go-to guy, averaging 22.8 points per game. DeRozan still is not an efficient shooter (29.9% from long range), but he's become more aggressive in driving the ball and taking it to the rim where he is much more effective. As a result, he's getting to the line a lot more, which gives him easy points, gives his team momentum, and gets the other team in foul trouble.
DeRozan is a rising star in the league, but he needs to make this his breakout postseason in order for the Raptors to have a chance at beating Indiana or Miami.
The Wizards nabbed the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, meaning Toronto wouldn't face them until the conference finals. While highly unlikely, this would be nice for the Raptors, who have dominated Washington in the regular season, winning the season series 3-1 with their only loss coming in triple overtime.
Kyle Lowry has an ability to neutralize John Wall (to a certain extent, of course), but no one on the Wizards has been able to match up with DeRozan, who has absolutely killed them this year. Washington might be able to win a game, but Toronto should breeze through this series if they were to meet in the first round.
The Heat are a bad matchup for just about everyone, but they're especially tough for a team like Toronto. People love the Raptors for being successful playing team ball and not having any superstars, but you need superstars to effectively guard superstars. Toronto just has no answer for the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, and that showed as Miami swept the season series between the two teams.
Toronto youth and athleticism is too much for Brooklyn, winning the series in five games. From there they get a still struggling Indiana team, avoiding Miami. The Raptors then face the Heat and give them a few problems, but fall in six games.
A surging Brooklyn team overpowers Toronto with all of their stars and wins in five or six games.
The first round series between Toronto and Brooklyn will be really entertaining and have several storylines - young vs. old, fast pace vs. slow pace, etc. However, the Nets are playing at a really high level right now and are determined to face the Heat in the second round, and I think manage to get past the Raptors in six or seven games.
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