If you're a Raptors fan, you're feeling pretty good right about now. Toronto is riding a franchise record-tying nine-game win streak, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are playing at levels they've never before reached, and the team just (sort of) avenged last April's playoff embarrassment with a tidy regular season sweep of the Wizards.
Thing are rosy. Unless catastrophe strikes, the Raptors will be headed to the playoffs for a third straight time in a couple months, most likely with home-court advantage for at least a round.
But as we've come to learn from the likes of Joe Johnson, John Wall and Paul Pierce (ugh, especially Paul Pierce) over the last two springs, the playoffs can be a frightening and unforgiving place.
Logic seems to suggest that the Raptors, who are top-10 in both offense and defense, stand a better chance of advancing past the opening round this season for the first time since the days of Vinsanity. But as is always the case - someone is going to emerge to make that easier said than done.
In this series of posts, we'll scroll through some of the prime candidates to make the Raptors' lives miserable come springtime. Thankfully, barring some cruel twist at the trade deadline, Pierce is in the Western Conference this season, unable to crush Jurassic Park's spirit.
Here's the first man who could take Pierce's place as Raptor Hunter No.1: Jae Crowder of the Boston Celtics.
Why Jae Crowder should scare you
Crowder, even down to his hairstyle, is like DeMarre Carroll if Carroll took up the needle-in-the-butt-cheek workout plan. They both shoot the three well and are the best perimeter defenders on their respective teams. And while Crowder lags behind Carroll in terms of off-ball cutting, heady passing and overall offensive ability, he more than makes up for it with his defensive tenacity. His Basketball Reference-recognized nickname is literally "The Beast" for a reason.
The Raptors got a glimpse of what Crowder is capable of during January 20th's 115-109 shootout win over the Celtics. The Celtics defensive anchor scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-5 on threes) and added five boards and four assists. But it's not Crowder's offense that should worry Raptors fans should the Celtics come up north for a playoff series. On that end of the floor, while he's effective, he's just one member of the point-scoring committee led by Isaiah Thomas.
Nope, it's on the defensive side that Crowder has the potential to give the Raptors night sweats in April. He showed exactly why that is in last week's meeting.
In that January 20th game, DeRozan went off. He punished the platoon of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to the tune of 30 points in the first three frames, including a dazzling 18 point third quarter. Bradley and Smart are slightly undersized, and while they relentlessly pestered DeRozan throughout the evening, he managed to snake his way out of trouble without forcing many - if any - bad shots against that tandem.
When DeRozan entered with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter though, things got real. Brad Stevens deployed Crowder as his DeRozan-stopper, and it worked.
First, Crowder snuffed out this attempted action between DeRozan and Lowry and quickly rotated back to DeRozan before covering a ton of ground to close out on an open Terrence Ross in the corner. The Raptors could have used defensive activity like this in last year's playoffs...
Next up Crowder forces one of DeRozan's only ugly shot attempts of the night. We've seen this kind of shot from a different version of DeRozan in the past:
Here, Crowder snuffs out a DeRozan-Patterson high pick-and-roll before it even has a chance to materialize, then hassles Patterson into throwing an errant pass. He's everywhere:
And here ,Crowder goes under a pair of screens to stay in front of DeRozan before denying him a driving lane - one of the first times any Celtic accomplished that all night. DeRozan was able to make him pay thanks to his vastly improved abilities as a passer. The Celtics will surely live with a contested Lowry three as opposed to a DeRozan lay-up, though.
DeRozan attempted 10 shots at the rim during the game against Boston. Only one of those came in the fourth quarter when Crowder was smothering him.
Stevens waited until the game was in the balance late to unleash Crowder on Toronto's leading scorer. If that's any indication of who he'll trust to guard DeRozan when it really matters in the playoffs, the Raptors may need to rely heavily on their secondary options on offense.
How scared should you be?
Fear Level: 2 Combo Guards out of 5.
As imposing a defender as Crowder is, he isn't some magic elixir to the scoring problem that still pervade the incomplete Celtics. While Crowder is a foundational piece of the league's second-ranked defense, Boston remains one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA, ranking in the bottom ten in both True Shooting Percentage and three point percentage.
Crowder may be able to contain DeRozan, but the Raptors should be potent and versatile enough to outgun the Celtics over the course of a series. Isaiah Thomas has to guard somebody.
Chances Crowder scares you in the playoffs?
A match-up with the Celtics will in all likelihood come in the first round. Boston's surging a bit of late, currently finding itself in the fifth seed in the East. We really don't know where the Celts will end up after 82 games thanks to the jumbled nature of the East. That said, both teams are playing some of the best basketball in the conference right now.
If both teams keep up this pace, a 2-7 first round seems pretty unlikely, but it is definitely in the cards.
Does Jae Crowder scare you?