As one of the leading optimists at this site throughout this season, it's been terribly weird putting together the recurring "Why the Playoffs Should Scare You" series over the last couple months. Mainly, the series has been about tempering expectations while maintaining a healthy respect for the factors that could potentially derail the Raptors in the playoffs.
I'm done with the charade. These Raptors have earned the confidence and trust of the fan base with what they've accomplished over the course of the best regular season in team history. If the Raptors can get over the first round hump, we'll be able to remove the "regular" qualifier from that last statement. Anything beyond a round one win is gravy for the Raptors considering preseason expectations.
Even though the Indiana Pacers are a solid team with a great coach and one of the best two-way players in the game, there are a multitude of reasons why you should have no fear at all heading into this year's playoffs. As it turns out, this Raptors team is really good.
This simply isn't the same Raptors team that has fallen short in two consecutive springs. In 2013-14, Toronto was a surprise, emerging after the Rudy Gay trade as one of the least flawed teams in an Eastern Conference at the height of a depression. Even though the Raptors were a three-seed that year, it was entirely reasonable to predict their eventual loss to the veteran-laden Nets. Reaching a seventh game was almost as pleasantly surprising as the post-Gay surge that year.
Last April, despite being slight favourites over the Wizards, the mood surrounding the Raptors was notably somber heading into the playoffs. Kyle Lowry's body was crumbling, the defense was non-existent, the team couldn't compete with the league's best teams, and stumbled to a sub-500 record after a roaring 24-7 start.
Raptors-Wizards is going to be the saddest series. Both fanbases hoping their team loses to trigger offseason changes— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) March 26, 2015
Getting swept was jarring at the time; in retrospect, though, it was understandable given the faultiness of the Raptors roster.
While it's easy to draw on those past disappointments when evaluating the Raptors' odds of advancing deep into this year's playoffs, it's important to look at the 2015-16 team as its own entity. This team is unquestionably the best of the Dwane Casey era - and probably already stands above any other team in franchise history.
Winning 56 games and maintaining the sort of wire-to-wire consistency the Raptors exhibited this year is immensely difficult. There were no prolonged stretches of poor play. Typically, whenever there was a bad loss (usually to the Bulls), the mass paranoia was smothered instantaneously by a three or four game winning streak. As opposed to last year, the Raptors excelled against stiff competition. Toronto's 32-17 record against teams over .500 ranked third in the NBA, first if you consider Golden State and San Antonio to be in a league of their own. Every Eastern Conference playoff team lost its season series to the Raptors, and Casey's squad earned at least a split against six of the eight Western teams in the dance as well.
In addition to a glowing top-five offense, Toronto jumped from 23rd to 11th in defensive efficiency. The team boasts two bona fide All-Stars at their respective peaks, one of which is a virtual lock to make an All-NBA team; there's a potential coach of the year candidate and not one but two players who have reasonable Sixth Man of The Year cases.
Teams with regular season resumés that long just don't falter at the hands of inferior teams in round one all that often. Upsets happen, of course, but history is on the 56-26 Raptors' side this year in a way in has never been before.
Looking at the Raptors and Pacers rosters should ease any fears you may have about this match-up for the most simplistic and reductive reason there is: Toronto has more talent on hand than the Pacers.
Paul George is undoubtedly a problem for the Raptors. On top of having the size to smother opponents defensively at four positions, George is the motor of the Pacers offense. He's an above average shooting from long distance, ranks in the top-15 in free throws attempted per game and has the size to shoot over most defenders.
That said, if you're assessing the Eastern Conference players who have made the biggest impacts this season, George probably comes in behind Kyle Lowry. Lowry's been efficient, consistent and devastating all season long. He was the biggest reason this Raptors team was able to obliterate its preseason projections. Without Lowry, the Raptors are somewhere in between average and miserable. With him, the Raptors are capable of the things listed in the above section. Toronto outscores the other team by 6.0 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the court, a mark that drops off by exactly six points when Lowry sits.
If you cancel out George and Lowry bumping up the class average, the Raptors still probably hold the edge in overall ability. DeMar DeRozan is the third-best player in the series' player power rankings by a significant margin. And while you can probably debate where Jonas Valanciunas, Monta Ellis and George Hill land in that pecking order, there is no doubt that Valanciunas is the best big man in the series. As an imposing roll man, a terrific rebounder and improving defensive anchor, Valanciunas will have every opportunity to shine in this series.
When you scroll down each team's respective rosters, past the headline-grabbing stars, you uncover where the Raptors' real advantage in this series lies. Four through 10 (or even 11 and 12), the Raptors have a collection of role players who fit as snugly as a shirt from H&M. Everyone serves a purpose and, for the most part, can hold their own on both ends of the court.
Patrick Patterson is a plus-minus machine thanks to his vastly improved defense both in one-on-one situations and within the team concept. Beyond that though, Patterson forces would-be help defenders to make an unenviable choice between smothering a driving Raptors guard, or surrendering an open look from three-point range. Cory Joseph is a slashing maestro, who also alleviates the defensive load on Kyle Lowry with his tenacious on-ball defense. Terrence Ross is a deadly spot up threat whose defensive contributions are an added bonus. Normal Powell ... you know what he's done since snagging a starting job. Luis Scola brings random, often delightful offenses flourishes and dependable work on the defensive glass. And we haven't even mentioned Bismack Biyombo's fear-imposing rim protection or DeMarre Carroll's widespread impact when he's feeling right. Toronto is rich in functional depth.
Indiana isn't exactly the Pelicans; there are some nice supplementary pieces once you get past George, Hill and Ellis. Ian Mahinmi in particular has been the spine of the league's third-best defense, while becoming a usable offensive tool for Frank Vogel. Myles Turner has ranked among the most pleasant surprises in the NBA this season as well. But the prevailing theme when it comes to the Pacers depth is that most of the roster is filled out with players who noticeably lack a crucial skill. Because of the makeup of the roster, Indiana is often forced to sacrifice one thing in order to excel at another, as James Herbert pointed out on The HeadQuarters yesterday.
C.J. Miles is one of the sharpest shooters on the roster (and his 36.7 percent shooting from deep won't even puncture most hides), and is utilized as a small-ball four when Indiana needs shooting threats on the floor. The trade-off? Indiana's defense plummets in that configuration because Miles doesn't have the physicality to defend the position effectively. Vogel's third-most used lineup of George Hill, Ellis, George, Miles and Mahinmi has a 107.2 Defensive Rating and -6.7 NET Rating in 333 minutes together this season.
Solomon Hill provides Indiana switchability and physicality at the four that Miles can't match, but his shooting doesn't exactly hold up the latter half of the "pace and space" mantra Larry Bird pushed entering the season. It remains to be seen if the George Hill, Ellis, George, Solomon Hill and Mahinmi combination can sustain the impressive +24.4 NET Rating it's achieved in 105 minutes together.
Toronto's roster resembles a completed jigsaw puzzle. Indiana's on the other hand is more like a collection of different colored Lego pieces being used to build a weird-looking, sometimes awkwardly-fitting block house - it usually gets the job done, but it's not seamless and definitely not pretty.
Because of the blend of skill sets on the Raptors roster, Casey is afforded an endless supply of lineup combinations that he can experiment with. It truthfully is the most encouraging thing about the team heading into the playoffs. Two point guard looks, three-wing switching nightmare lineups, dual big-man combos: all of these are in Casey's utility belt. Beyond that, Casey has interchangeable parts at multiple positions that allow him to use different renditions of those base lineup structures. Is a small look with Lowry, Joseph, DeRozan, Carroll and Valanciunas struggling? No problem -- Casey can slide in Biyombo at the five or one of Ross or Powell for extra shooting at the two and still maintain a four-out style. In need of rebounding? Sticking Jason Thompson alongside Valanciunas will probably do the trick.
Vogel has flexibility, too, and he's continually willing to try different things. But he's also hamstrung by his lack of traditional big men and the dearth of reliable long distance shooting on his roster. If Vogel wants a three-point heavy lineup on the floor, he really only has one five-man combo that will appease that desire. To tilt the rebounding edge in his favour, he'll probably have to rely heavily on Mahinmi and Jordan Hill. He has a bunch of guys who can amicably play as a small-ball four, but as mentioned above they all come with their own little foibles.
If there's one reason, aside from the regular season dominance, the top-end talent and the exceptional depth, that the Raptors should have instilled faith among its fan base, it's that the team is capable of playing many different ways. Last season Randy Wittman was able to check-mate Casey with one move when he unleashed his small-ball look. Casey didn't have the pieces to counter and the rest is another sad footnote in Raptors history.
If the Raptors are going to bow out at any point in this year's playoffs, it won't be because Casey ran out of moves to make. Ujiri has done too good a job crafting a malleable roster for that to be the Raptors' pitfall this year. Could they be purely outplayed by an opponent, or have a few guys get a case of the playoff yips? Sure, that's always in play at this time of year. But as constructed, the 2015-16 Raptors can hang and match styles with anybody. The playoffs can be a scary place -- especially in this town -- but Raptors fans should have no fear this time around.