When’s the last time you can remember an NBA team holding a players-only meeting and it turning out to be a good thing? I hesitate to even investigate. Often there’s a certain element of self-destruction about those meetings, guys so angry they can’t bite their lips anymore, or a coach called out. It takes a strong team made up of individually sound players to sit, listen and, if need be, constructively criticize. But all of that means nothing unless the team also responds.
The Raptors gave up on Thursday night, played about as badly as they could play for the final three quarters against the Thunder. (And, in truth, they were just hanging on in the eye of the storm that is Russell Westbrook for most of the first as well.) Everyone was upset, disappointed, let down. We were trying to figure out where the Raptors were at. And apparently the players were too.
So, a players-only meeting, people taken to account, and then, beautifully, a positive response — back-to-back wins, done in different ways, against beatable opponents. The Raptors responded, stepped up, call it whatever you want. Every win counts for a lot now. And so we turn to the Power Rankings — how did the Raptors fare?
First up, Marc Stein of ESPN, our champion, is here to give us some encouragement:
8. Toronto Raptors
2016-17 record: 41-29
An 8-5 record since the All-Star break, with an offense than has ranked in the league's bottom third in that time while Kyle Lowry has been sidelined with wrist issues, can't sound so bad to the Raptors. They obviously had much higher goals coming into the season than coming away with a No. 4 seed in the East, but they've found a way to keep themselves in range in case Washington falters while keeping the fifth-seeded Hawks at bay. It's probably the best they could have hoped for sans Lowry, along with a pretty manageable schedule for the rest of the regular season until Toronto gets its point guard back.
Yes, we’re into managing expectations mode as the season wraps up. It was always going to be thus, sans Lowry. Fortunately, as Stein notes, the Raptors have found a new gear with respect to their defensive identity, and are still winning more than they lose (which could not be said pre-trades).
Next we get to the whipper-snapper takes of Jeremy Woo of SI dot com:
9. Toronto Raptors (41–29)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: +4.6
The Raptors hit some degree of rock bottom in a blowout loss to the Thunder this week, but bounced back with two convincing defensive performances against the Pistons and Pacers. They're starting to look like a team that could be a massive thorn in someone’s side in a month or two. Even better: they might be the deepest team in the East when Kyle Lowry gets back.
Not sure which name I’ll settle on for the Raptors as they rumble into the playoffs, but "massive thorn" works for now. If I’m any team in the East, I’m not sure I want a locked in and fired up Raptors team to deal with. You don’t think Kyle Lowry is going to be cheesed the hell off he had to miss all that basketball?
We’re starting to get fired up here, so let’s get Dr. John Schuhmann’s take on the situation:
10. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 12)
Pace: 97.3 (22) OffRtg: 109.8 (4) DefRtg: 105.2 (11) NetRtg: +4.6 (5)
The Raptors have indeed improved defensively with the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. They rank third on that end of the floor since the break (to move within a hair of ranking in the top 10 on both ends of the floor for the season), having held the Mavs, Pistons and Pacers to 16-for-68 (24 percent) from 3-point range in their three wins last week. Though "Lowry + bench" is on hiatus and the rotation seems to be relatively fluid, Tucker has held the second unit together. Sunday's win over Indiana was big in regard to holding onto the 4 seed and, with only three of their 12 remaining games against teams with winning records, a move back up to third in the East isn't out of the question.
I don’t mind telling you that I get physically excited when I look at the Raptors’ recent defensive numbers.
Wait, did I just say that out loud? Er, uh...
Finally, with a grand flourish to take us to the poll, our pal Matt Moore of CBS:
10. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 13)
The Raptors had a good week to stabilize as they wait for Kyle Lowry's return. They need to take advantage of a soft stretch of schedule; there's still a chance for them to steal a top-3 seed and avoid Cleveland in the first round.
This is one of my favourite blurbs from Moore in some time. The mistake at the end (mentioning the Cavs and Round 1) is so firmly on Toronto’s mind right now it still scans as correct. The Raptors want to get to the 3-seed because they want (hopefully) the Celtics in the second round (a team they’ll easily crush). And then, on to Cleveland for an ECF rematch.
Guys, I’m turnt.
Let’s get to the poll.