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HQ Roundtable: When will the good times start to roll for the Raptors?

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Let’s be clear: the Raptors are good. And yet, it still feels like Toronto is leaving something on the table. With the recent injury to Kyle Lowry, the panel discuss the team’s health and more.

NBA: New York Knicks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Just when things were looking great for the Toronto Raptors, something bad had to happen to bring fans back down to earth. Still, things are still looking good for the Raptors — they just won 50 games for the fourth consecutive season, sit comfortably in second place of the Eastern Conference, and have Kawhi Leonard. But: Kyle Lowry suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter in Monday’s game against the Knicks. The Raptors won by 36, but it took the air out of our sails knowing how close Toronto was to having a fully healthy team for the first time in a long time.

With that, we welcome you to a sombre edition of the HQ Roundtable. Welcome! I’m Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly column. Here to discuss Lowry’s injury, and other NBA news, is Josh Kern and Conor McCreery.

Let’s jump in!

On the Raptors

1) For the first time in a long time, the Raptors were so close to having a full and healthy roster. Then Kyle Lowry injured his ankle. When the team (hopefully) gets back to full strength, what can we look forward to, improvement-wise?

Sully: There are ten games left after tonight so I’m not sure how many improvements are left for the Raptors to make. The one thing the team needs is just more chemistry. Throughout the season, the Raptors have used so many different starting lineups and had so many different/inconsistent in-game situations, they’ve often looked out of it. It’s resulted in some blown winnable games. The hope down the stretch here is for the Raptors to play together consistently while coach Nick Nurse gears up the playoff rotation. Admittedly, I don’t think there is actually much time for it all to come together — but the playoffs could be a different story.

Josh: I think I’ve given up hope of seeing this team fully healthy! But, if it happens, and if they can get a few games together to work out the kinks, this team is very well-suited to postseason play. They have an eight-man group that can play every night (Lowry, Leonard, Siakam, Green, Gasol, Ibaka, Anunoby, VanVleet) and then enough “ninth men” that Nick Nurse can mix-and-match depending on opponent. I think that’s their biggest strength: a really damn good rotation.

Beyond that, I think it’s the defence that will most improve with that rotation, and with a little more time to gel. The team may not have much in the way of rim protection, but length, awareness, ability to help-and-recover — that eight-man group has that in abundance. And I do still suspect Kawhi Leonard has another gear that he’s saving for the playoffs, and that will most likely manifest itself on the defensive end.

Conor: I’m not sure if you can quantify that. The Raps have been really good all season long. Part of that is the excellent depth the team has built through drafting and development. One hopes they’ll find an eight-nine game run to really lock down this whole “chemistry” thing. But I think it’s unrealistic to expect some major improvement. Especially given the fact they’ll be largely be playing bottom feeders.

The bottom line, for me, is simple. If the Raps get KLOE Lowry in the playoffs they have the tools to beat anyone. They might not, but they can. Everything else — aside from Kawhi and Siakam’s health — is playing with the margins.

2) The Pistons swept the Raptors in the regular season. A first-round series between the two remains possible. Does this sweep matter?

Sully Akbari: Yes and no. Yes, because it proves that a Raps-Pistons playoff series would be an ugly, grind-it-out series in which I can see the Pistons taking a couple of contests. Although the Raptors weren’t fully healthy for two of the games played in March, given how much it took to try to pull out a win, it does concern a tad bit.

That said, in a potential playoff series, the Raptors would still have the overall higher level and deeper pool of talent and would likely not play some of the lineups we saw in the recent losses. For example, in the team’s most recent contest from last Sunday, the Raptors played without Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka, and spent chunks of the game with Eric Moreland logging minutes with combinations of Jeremy Lin, Patrick McCaw, and Norman Powell. These last four names will likely not see the floor much in the post-season. Through that lens, the three-game regular-season series sweep will mean absolutely nothing.

Josh Kern: I really, really want to say no, because the Raptors were not at full strength in any of the matchups; Serge Ibaka missed the first (and that was pre-Gasol trade) and third, Kawhi Leonard missed the second, and Kyle Lowry missed the third.

But, I think it does, because the Pistons are a hungry team. They haven’t tasted much playoff success recently, and Dwane Casey has a lot to prove, as do his players; a season sweep gives them confidence. And besides, given Toronto’s health issues, can we assume a full roster in the playoffs?

Either way I don’t think the Pistons can beat the Raptors in a seven-game series. But it will be closer than it otherwise should be. And my stress levels will be higher than doctor-recommended levels.

(I do think it’s worth pointing out: In 2014-15 the Raptors went 3-0 against the Wizards in the regular season... and the Wizards swept the Raptors in the first round. So if you’re on the “the regular-season sweep means nothing” train, there’s your evidence!)

Conor McCreery: Only in the sense that it gives Detroit confidence. I suppose that’s not completely insignificant, but the fact of the matter is the Pistons are a solid team. If they’d lost the three games by a total of ten points, I wouldn’t sit here and say the Raps would roll. Dwane Casey has a very good idea of what the Raps want to do on both sides of the court, because it’s not too fundamentally different than what he had them doing. Blake Griffin is playing at an All-NBA level — and we’ve seen in the past two years that when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are right, the Pistons are more than solidly in the league’s middle-class.

Having said that, the Raps only played with Kawhi and Kyle together once - and it took a bizarre fourth-quarter collapse to lose that one. The Pistons will also need a full series of Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway hitting their shots to make it a series.

Could Detroit beat Toronto? Sure. But the odds and results still rightly point to Toronto being a significant favourite. (For what it’s worth, I think the Pistons going to end up in the sixth seed, where I hope they do all the good stuff they need to do against Philly.)

3) With the BucksMalcolm Brogdon’s possibly not at full health in the playoffs, do you think the Raps are now clear-cut favourites to advance to the Finals or will it be a tough 7-game Milwaukee-Toronto series?

Sully: Nothing is guaranteed here. The Raptors and the Bucks have to make it past the first two gruelling rounds of the post-season in order to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. If that does happen, the Raptors have a much better chance to win that series if Brogdon is not fully healthy, that’s for sure.

Still, I believe the series will go the distance regardless. The Bucks are indeed a good team (even with Brogdon not at 100 percent), but the Raptors have the manpower to punch their own ticket to the NBA Finals. Easier said than done, of course, but in Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, they have the players to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo, the key to beating Milwaukee, and the offensive and defensive strength to contend with the rest of the Bucks.

Josh: Given the way the regular season has unfolded, I don’t see too many people picking against the Bucks — whether Brogdon’s healthy or not. They’ve played so well — and more importantly, so consistently — all season long, that they seem like the clear-cut Eastern favourite, no matter who they have to play in the postseason.

That doesn’t mean I think they’ll win. I think any one of Toronto, Boston or Philly can beat them in a seven-game series; I think all four teams have a legit shot. :

Conor: If Brogdon can’t go at all? Maybe. I think Brogdon is incredibly important to what makes the Bucks go. I’d argue he’s maybe their third most important guy. He shoots it well, can attack off the dribble, rarely makes a bad play. He’s also big — which, now that Delon Wright is gone, could be a major advantage against Lowry and VanVleet. Brogdon has shown that he can attack the rim and finish over both of them. Losing Brogdon certainly would hurt the Bucks.

Even still, this Bucks team has the 16th best point-differential in NBA history! Unless Giannis gets hurt, there is no one piece that can capsize what Milwaukee wants to do. The Raptors can beat Milwaukee with or without Brogdon — but it’s not going to be easy regardless.

Around the NBA:

1) What two teams in the East do you most want to see in a seven-game playoff series? What two teams in the West?

Sully: For the East, the obvious choice is a series between the Celtics and Sixers given that it could go either way with every game going down to the wire. That said, I’m going with something different: gimme a series between the Sixers and Pistons.

Those who have been closely watching these two teams play know that Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond went at each other in all three games. On top of that, both have talked their talk throughout. The two dominant big men would provide high entertainment value just by their play alone and would revive the centre position battle that has gone almost extinct — especially in the playoffs. Looking at their numbers, Embiid has had the upper hand, averaging 32 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, 12 rebounds, 2.3 blocks per game to Drummond’s 14.3 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field, 14 rebounds, and two blocks per game.

The two teams are vastly different since the last time they met on December 10, 2018, as the Sixers revamped their team adding Tobias Harris to go along with Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and some solid pieces. Still, I do think Drummond and Blake Griffin can both go off and steal a game or two. Also of note: Griffin scored a career-high 50 points to go with 14 rebounds and six assists in the first meeting back on October 23, 2018. It could be a very fun series!

In the West, I’d take a very underrated series even though it looks unlikely to happen in the playoffs: the Nuggets versus the Trail Blazers. The two teams have two more games to play against each other but so far their games against each other have been barn-burners. The Nuggets won the first meeting by a score of 113-112 and the second 116-113.

When healthy, this match-up would feature excellent backcourt players in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris vs. Damian Lillard vs. C.J. McCollum. Both backcourts are highly-skilled and can light it up on offense. Then you have the centre battle between former teammates Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. Jokic is the better player and is having a great season but Nurkic can hold his own, too. Then we can add both teams’ benches. For the Nuggets, they have Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Mason Plumlee, and Juancho Hernangomez. To round out the Blazers’ star core, they have Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner. I should note that the Nuggets’ depth does out-weigh the Blazers’, but anything can happen in the playoffs!

Josh: In the East, well, I can’t pick any series with the Raptors, as watching the Raptors in the playoffs generally causes me great distress and it’s barely enjoyable at all. So I’ll take seven games of Boston and Philadelphia, two teams that have had up-and-down seasons but are loaded with talent. Joel Embiid has had a tough time with Al Horford and Aron Baynes, and no one on Philly can stop Kyrie Irving. But Philly’s starting unit is stacked, and that goes a long way in the playoffs. And since this is a rematch from a year ago, these teams already don’t like each other. So it should be great. Of course, as a Raptors fan, you just have to hope Indiana does the impossible and takes the third seed, so these two teams meet in round one... otherwise it’s bad news for Toronto.

In the West, give me seven games of Oklahoma City and Golden State. OKC’s size, strength and defensive toughness make things tough for the Warriors, and of the course the Warriors have ridiculous offensive firepower. You’ve got star power galore. Paul George vs. Kevin Durant is a heck of a battle. Add in the Durant-Westbrook drama, and the general dislike these two teams have for each other... it would be a heck of a series.

Conor: East? Boston and Philly, please. Preferably in the first round.

West? Whew, until a couple of weeks ago it was OKC-Warriors, but now? I kinda want a second helping of Dubs-Rox.

2) There have been a total of 11 different players who have scored 50+ points this season, making it an NBA record. What do you think has led to the many 50-point outings? Today’s offensive game drastically going up or the drop in defence being played?

Sully: It’s the offense that has gone up. Teams are playing at a faster pace and are more efficient with how they want to play their offense. Put those two together with highly-skilled players and you not only get high-scoring individual performances, but also high-scoring team performances as well.

You could argue that there’s only so much a defensive scheme can do to stop entire teams bombing from three over and over again — which has led to team defenses looking “worse” — but really that just proves how good and fast basketball has gotten these days in the NBA.

Josh: It’s all about the offense. The way teams shoot and use the three-point line to create space (and score more points per shot) has changed the game on that end, and the defences haven’t figured it out... yet. These things are usually cyclical, and the defence usually takes a little time to catch up. In this case, it’s hard to see what can be done on D when Stephen Curry is shooting from the logo and James Harden is firing stepbacks, but I’m certain smart coaches are looking at the types of schemes and the types of players needed to extend defences effectively.

In the meantime, though, I suspect the offensive explosions will continue as players across all positions continue to extend their range.

Conor: It’s definitely the offense. Right now all the major innovations in the game are coming offensively. Shy of changing some rules (hand check?), that’s not going to change. Remember, the first wave of kids inspired by the Curry-era Warriors are just starting to filter in through the high-school and college ranks. Shooting is becoming the must-have skill, and that’s going to lead to more and more offensive explosions.