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Toronto Temperature: The Raptors reclaim the East Throne

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Toronto has lost just one (embarrassing) game in 2019 and look to be rounding into form. Time to take the team’s temperature.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hi, hello, the Raptors are riding a five game win streak and have only lost one game since the calendar flipped to 2019. Have all those wins been pretty? No, definitely not. Was that one loss an embarrassing disaster for all involved? Indeed it was, but at least Toronto got it out of its system.

Today the Raptors are 33-12, riding a wave that has seen them off the Wizards (in 2OT; one of those ugly games we don’t necessarily need to reminisce on), the Hawks, and Nets. (They also put away the Bucks and Pacers, but that’s none of my business.) In short, they continue to handle business more often then not, and while injuries are still a bit of a problem (Fred VanVleet is likely out tonight, Jonas Valanciunas is still off), the starting lineup is coming together and rounding into form.

All of which is to say: it’s time to take the Toronto Temperature.

Who’s Hot

Kawhi Leonard (again)

This could just be a standing entry every week. Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA and there really is no room for debate on this issue. He just won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week (again). And Kawhi did it with such all-consuming force that it starts to feel impossible to separate out each individual element. There were game-saving steals and blocks, clutch (clutch) shot-making, and just the overall will to win. Leonard wanted to go 3-0 over the past week: and he did it.

One more specific bit here: Toronto 100 percent loses last Sunday’s game to the Wizards if not for Kawhi just willing them through both OT periods. Obviously we don’t want the Raps to find themselves in situations like that (especially against the dang Wizards), but having Kawhi goes a long, long way to ameliorating our frustration in the moment.

Lowry and Green: Plus/Minus Kings

Despite the odd ups and downs of their respective seasons, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green are still ranked second and third, respectively, in plus/minus for the season. (They’re behind only Steph Curry, who is, uh, good.)

Now, Green has been hugely consistent for the Raptors. He’s only missed two games for Toronto, and has been on the floor for most every key moment. He’s also hit at least one game-winning shot (and made other game-saving buckets), and come up aces when Toronto needed to lock in on D.

Lowry’s story is a bit more complicated. He was on literal fire for the first few weeks of the season, cooled down, got hurt, and has now been working his way back into form. Lowry’s performance down the stretch against the Wizards was not great, but he still makes the Raptors better just by being around. I take some solace in that (even if Lowry’s offensive game is still a bit off).

Serge Ibaka’s Clutchness

My friends, in double overtime against Washington, with the Raptors inexplicably down two (despite leading the entire game to that point), the ball found itself in Serge Ibaka’s hands. This dude looked to Kyle Lowry, the best three-point shooter on the team, faked the pass, opened up a huge window in which he could shoot, took said shot, and drilled it. Ball game (mostly) over — Raptors win.

Now, I’m not saying I want the Raptors to rely on shot-making from Ibaka all the time, but it’s a nice thing to have in the team’s back pocket. We forget sometimes that Serge has been around quite a bit in the NBA, and been involved in some real on-the-court wars. Maybe last season’s collapse was just an aberration and Ibaka’s back to being a clutch monster? We’ll see.

Who’s Not

Kyle Lowry’s Back

An OK performance against the Hawks, light work against the Nets, and a dramatic fade down the stretch against the Wizards — it wasn’t all bad for Lowry this week. I mean, the Raptors did win all three of those games. Still, this back situation for Kyle has really got me on pins and needles (not unlike the ones he may or may not be feeling — or putting? — in his back).

TL;DR: the Raptors need Lowry at 100 percent in April, May, and June to have any shot of making it as far as they want to in the playoffs. We’ve seen this story before (when Lowry was not 100 percent) and it’s not a great thing to contemplate. Moving on!

The Bench

Much like Lowry’s week, it’s not all bad for the bench. But it does say something that this year’s model isn’t blowing away teams like the Hawks without even trying. Meanwhile, despite heavier minutes in a blowout against Brooklyn, there was a moment in the fourth quarter when the try-hard Nets almost managed to claw their way back in the game. Delon Wright calmed things down (he’s been solid as of late), but it’s a bummer to see. Good things aren’t meant to last, but we may have just taken for granted how good (and singular) that Raptors’ bench mob from last season truly was. Ah well.

Pascal Siakam’s All-Star Campaign

According to the second round of voting results, Pascal Siakam is ranked ninth among Eastern Conference forwards. He’s behind extremely deserving names like his teammate Kawhi Leonard, superhero Giannis Antetokounmpo, and fun Joel Embiid. But he’s also in there behind Vince Carter (say what?) and Gordan Hayward (hello, what games are you watching?).

When you add in the votes for guards, Siakam is coming in with the 17th most votes across all players in the East. Obviously some of those names ahead of him will drop off (Carter and Hayward for sure, and probably Zach LaVine too), but that still puts him on the bubble for a selection to the team. At this point, Siakam’s best bet may be to make it as part of the Skills Challenge, where he would definitely do well as one of the most electric big men in the league.