A regular season journey that began way back on October 30th, 2013, with an unconvincing win over the Boston Celtics, comes to a close against the New York Knicks tonight at MSG.
And what a journey it's been.
There will be plenty of time to look at the big picture -- to make sense of the entire season in greater detail -- but just going by the numbers, this has been the most successful regular season in Raptors history. The team has already won a franchise record, 48 games, and will go for number 49 tonight. Heading into tonight's tilt the Raps also find themselves 15 games above .500, and top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. These are heights the franchise has never scaled before.
Yesterday Adam argued that it's tough to crown this group as the best Raptors team ever. The 2000-2001 edition actually won a playoff series and came agonizingly close to the Eastern Conference Finals. I agree with that sentiment, but as far as the regular season goes, these guys might just be the cream of the Raptors historical crop.
Of course, before the season began, even the most optimistic of Raps fans would have had a hard time imagining this team winning close to 50 games. 34-36 wins, were most people's prediction for this group; 42 wins was seen by many as this team's ceiling.
But out went Rudy. Out went soul-destroying iso-ball. In came something resembling a bench. In came a change of style on the court, backed up by an elusive, intangible culture change, introduced by Masai Ujiri and finally embraced by guys like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Usually -- for myself, at least -- an 82-game regular season is a slog. I would be all for reducing the length of the regular season, maybe even radically so. However, the fact that the Raps have had something to play for, post-All Star break, which has not been the case very often, has given the last quarter of the regular season an exciting edge -- there's been ups and downs, but it hasn't been a slog.
The Raps secured their playoff place a few weeks back, but even game 82 of the regular season is important, both for playoff seeding, and for the team to iron-out issues that could be problematic once the playoffs roll around this Saturday.
The pressure will continue to grow, the fan-base's anxiety will rise. We will question Dwane Casey's rotations, the team's defense; and after tonight's game, we'll worry about match-up issues with the team's first-round opponent. It's mid-April and we have things to get anxious about. That's refreshing.
Big picture, this has been a great season. But on to some immediate concerns...
With the Nets' loss to the Knicks last night, the Eastern Conference playoff seeding picture is still very much undecided. I won't muddy the waters any further, but you can check out Josh Lewenberg's breakdown of all the potential scenarios tonight.
Casey, and every player that's been interviewed on the subject, says that they don't care which team they face in the first-round. While I still think the team, deep-down, would prefer to face the Wizards or Bobcats, over a veteran laden team like the Nets, it makes sense that the identity of the Raps' first-round opponents should not be their immediate concern. Defense and controlling the glass -- things the Raps have faltered at, as of late -- should be their immediate concerns.
Tonight's game against the Knicks, win or lose, should be about playing the type of basketball that has been so successful for the Raps this season. It should be about gaining some momentum as the team heads into the playoff weekend. I've written and thought a lot about seeding, and first-round match-ups, but at this stage let the chips fall where they may. It's more important to work on the things the Raps can control. Scoreboard watching is not one of those things.
The Knicks have little to play for tonight, but they have played spoiler over their last couple games, beating the Bulls and Nets. Carmelo Anthony didn't play in last night's game, and he won't play tonight. But the Raps, as they found out recently, should not take their opponent lightly. Phil Jackson is watching, and there are a lot of underperforming players on the Knicks roster playing for their NBA futures.
For the Raps, a new chapter -- their NBA future -- begins this weekend. A strong finish to tonight's regular season, however, will help transition the team to the new, and infinitely more challenging, stage of the NBA journey.