As the clock ticked down on another disappointing post-season for the Raptors, Toronto was forced to reckon with an idea we’ve all be dancing around for some time: does this team even have the juice?
On paper, as you’ll find across the internet, most acknowledged the Raptors’ talent and depth. They have two All-Star guards (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan), a level-headed coach (Dwane Casey), some established third and fourth options (Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas), and a plethora of versatile young talent (the Bench Broskis and OG Anunoby).
All this, yet the Raptors just got crushed, embarrassed, destroyed by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There are a lot of people now saying “I told you so,” as if to imply they never bought into the 59-win, first place, Raptors. And, frankly, that’s somewhat fair. This team had to prove they could put up more of a fight against their ultimate nemesis, LeBron, in the playoffs. That they didn’t do it feels — I won’t sugar-coat it — pretty bad.
So then, let’s try to figure out who brought it on the Raptors in the playoffs, and who ultimately dropped the ball. It’s the 2018 Juice Rankings for the Raptors. Let’s go.
(An aside: We’re going to discount Alfonzo McKinnie and Malachi Richardson, who didn’t dress for the Raptors in the playoffs, and Malcolm Miller, who wasn’t on the playoff roster.)
13. Lorenzo Brown
Look, the few times Brown played in non-garbage time minutes were mostly when Casey got a little too cute with his rotations and tried tossing the reigning G League MVP out there to see what would happen. Godspeed to him, but I wouldn’t have put Brown in that situation.
12. Norman Powell
Norm had almost zero impact on the Raptors’ post-season fortunes this year, which feels wild to type out given how big of a role he’s played the last two years. I opted not to rank him last here. You know, out of respect.
11. Lucas Nogueira
As is always the case with Bebe, you have to take the good with the bad. For Nogueira’s post-season, the good represents that wild fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Wizards, during which he came in and changed the mojo for the Raptors. It was the first feel-good story Toronto had had in the post-season in... some time.
But then Nogueira came into Game 4 against the Cavaliers and helped trigger a massive run going to the other way. The Raps’ season was toast, it was the absolute end — and we may never see Bebe again.
10. Jakob Poeltl
My son Jak definitely did not have the juice for most of the playoffs. He was routinely getting out-muscled by guys like Marcin Gortat and Tristan Thompson, and by the end of the Cavs series, Casey wasn’t even playing him. The Bench Mob had a great run during the regular season, but it says something when you’re the weak link of that five-man unit who ends up sitting out the end of the season.
9. Serge Ibaka
Speaking of weak link: here’s Serge Ibaka! The Raptors’ most veteran playoff performer had, hmmm, an awful post-season? Is that too harsh? The truth is, Ibaka was great in Game 1 against the Wizards, solid in Game 2, and then almost unplayable for most of the rest of the Raptors’ run.
Ibaka responded to his benching in Game 2 vs. Cleveland and his move to the bench in Game 3 with a stronger defensive effort. But man, when the ball was tossed his way the entire city of Toronto cringed. (And Serge dribbling? Yikes.) Whatever juice Ibaka once had (remember, he was once a fearsome playoff warrior) is now mostly gone.
8. Delon Wright
If nothing else, Wright got the last word on noted loud-mouth Kelly Oubre Jr. He was largely forgettable against the Cavs, but the Wizards are probably still having nightmares about his long-limbed forays into each and every one of their passing lanes, along with his late-clock deep threes. It was a big post-season for Delon, and, well, he mostly handled himself.
7. Pascal Siakam
Siakam got off to a rocky start in the opening round of the post-season, essentially his first. It wasn’t until Fred VanVleet returned in Game 6 that we finally saw the blazing Siakam of old. Sure, the Cavaliers made him expend a lot of useless energy, but at least he was trying. Guarding LeBron is impossible, but, yes, Siakam did try.
6. DeMar DeRozan
On the surface, the numbers look good. DeRozan led the Raptors in playoff scoring with 22.7 points per game, he still managed to dish out four assists per game, and he grabbed 3.6 rebounds too. His shooting percentages could have used some work — 44 percent from the field, 29 from three, with a true shooting percentage of 51 — but DeRozan (mostly) worked hard to generate offense.
But then there’s this: the two most remarkable fourth quarters of the Raptors’ post-season run (Game 6 vs. Washington, Game 3 vs. Cleveland) came with DeRozan on the bench. That he got ejected from Game 4 against the Cavs is also, uh, not great. Not saying anything, just saying.
5. C.J. Miles
Miles shot when he could, and when he couldn’t, and when maybe he shouldn’t have. He was run off the line and he tried to drive down the lane. He was asked to guard Kevin Love and LeBron, he was moved around in the lineup and tasked with playing together with anyone and everyone who had their sea legs.
There were times when Miles bent, but he did not break — and I’ll give him some credit for that. Welcome to Toronto, C.J.
4. Fred VanVleet
Some perspective on FVV: the dude was not supposed to be here — both in a broad context and when you consider the nature of his shoulder injury. (FVV’s on his way this to a specialist this off-season to make sure he didn’t do any more damage to it.)
All VanVleet knew was that the team needed him, if for nothing else than the dose of calming swagger he could give to his teammates. FVV missed some big shots down the stretch of Game 1 against Cleveland, shots that could haunt a lesser player. But I do not worry about Fred in that way. He was fine, and he’ll be fine.
3. Jonas Valanciunas
About the only real complaint you could have with Valanciunas is that he’s still just a bit too slow. He’s not a trainwreck anymore, but when team’s (like the Cavs) go small, it can be tough for him to keep up.
Still, hoo boy, did he ever give all those small lineups a run for their money. Valanciunas went to work, stayed professional throughout, and did all the things you could ask for from him (even some things we didn’t know he could do). As the last game of the season slipped away from Toronto, all I kept thinking was: it was definitely not JV’s fault.
2. OG Anunoby
Sing me a song of OG Anunoby, the bright shining light of Raptors present and future, tasked with guarding the best players in two series, and actually rising (yes, rising!) to the occasion more than once. By the end of the Cavaliers series, as everything was crumbling around him, there was Toronto’s rookie testing the limits of his own game — unblinking, unflinching, unrelenting.
1. Kyle Lowry
Put the “Lowry is a choker” narrative to bed. Yes, his Game 4 production was not great, but when the Raptors needed something from him, they got it. In fact, most everything good Toronto got — be it on the court, or in a more ineffable psychological way — Lowry was there to provide.
We’re likely going to spend a bunch of time this summer trying to decide what kind of role Lowry has with the Raptors going forward, but remember: the idea of Playoff Lowry as a failure is deader than dead.
I felt alive watching him play.