The Raptors will never lose again — sorry, wait, what were we talking about? I know last week there was much concern that Toronto was due to sail into the seas of the unknown, and into inevitable defeat. But I’m here to reiterate what is now plainly known: the Raptors will never lose again. They were 3-0 this week alone!
How’s that for a lede? If I may settle down for a moment, let’s take stock of where we stand. We know of course that Toronto will lose more games — they have 18 left and are not going to go 18-0, sorry to say. Yet, suddenly things feel much better. This could just be the sunshine, the longer days, the coming end of winter. Or it could be because the Raptors saw Serge Ibaka return this week, and Marc Gasol — with Fred VanVleet sure to be close behind. The team is almost whole.
That’s cause enough for celebration, even before we account for those three wins and the security that comes along with them. The Raptors are a top five team in the NBA right now, and strong contenders to arrive once again in the Eastern Conference Finals. Could things break better (or worse)? Sure, but we can have faith in Toronto. Now let’s see what this week’s Power Rankings have to say.
First up, as always, we give ESPN the first word. To Mr. Andre’ Snellings, I say good tidings to thee:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 4)
The Raptors snapped their three-game losing streak with wins over the Suns and Warriors that allowed them to become the second team in the NBA this season to clinch a playoff berth. Despite all of the injuries they have dealt with this season, head coach Nick Nurse has kept them on the winning path, and they maintain a 2.5-game lead over the Celtics with a month left in the regular season.
Oh wow, just like that the Celtics are back 2.5 games. Amazing. This was the squad that had managed to draw even with Toronto behind the usual winds of hype for one or more of their young players (and their baby-faced coach). Yes, sure Jayson Tatum is quite good, and Brad Stevens is dang smart, and so on and so forth. But still: the Raps are back up 2.5 games for second place.
Coming up perhaps three or more games behind ESPN, it’s the Athletic’s Zach Harper. Here we go:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 8)
Did the expectations change? Expectations definitely rose for the defending champs.
When Kawhi Leonard leaves, you’re supposed to take a big step backward. I’m not sure if anybody expected the Raptors to not make the postseason this year. In the Eastern Conference, you have to be especially bad to miss the playoffs. While the Raptors were supposed to take a hit in the wake of Kawhi leaving, they still had a good roster with plenty of intelligence and the ability to win games. They were going to live off their defense and make life miserable for a lot of teams on random nights. But the expectations of the Raptors have risen significantly. Some believe they’re a threat to make the Finals again, and I can’t imagine anybody felt like that when the season was starting.
Why this ranking? The Raptors had a softer spot in the schedule this week and they took advantage of it. That’s not a disparaging remark about their week either. They played the teams in front of them, and they took care of business. They probably should have beaten Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento by more, but a long West Coast road trip can mess with your psyche. The Raptors continue to show that championship knowhow.
Look at that slingshot. Last week, after a rough couple of losses, the Raptors were dropped all the way to eighth in Harper’s judgment (which reads like the title of a 70’s legal thriller). Now, after handling business as they’ve done all year by the way, Toronto is deserving of its spot back in fourth. Yes, those games were tight — but Toronto knows how to win in the clutch. And Harper’s right in that there were not these expectations for the Raptors. We just happen to very much believe in them now. (Also, there for sure has to be a 50’s family drama titled Harper’s Rite; no I will not be looking this up.)
The temperature runs cold and we welcome the analytical mind of Dr. John Schuhmann from the NBA’s main laboratory:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 7)
As you ponder the number of games a player should have to play to win the Rookie of the Year award, do it for the Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player awards as well, because Norman Powell would be looking like a candidate for both depending on the (imaginary) threshold. With Kawhi Leonard no longer in the Raptors’ wing rotation, Powell has averaged 29.5 minutes per game, up from just 18.8 last season. But his points per-36 minutes are also up from 16.5 to 20.5. A career-high usage rate (21.0%) has come with career-best marks in effective field goal percentage (59.4%) and true shooting percentage (63.0%). Powell is one of three players — Seth Curry and Karl-Anthony Tows are the others — that have shot 50% or better on at least 500 shots from the field and 40% or better on at least 200 3-point attempts.
Powell has averaged 31.3 points, with half of his 32 buckets coming (on just 19 attempts) in the restricted area, as the Raptors have followed a three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak to take back control of the 2-seed in the East. He’s averaged more than 39 minutes in five games as a starter upon returning from a nine-game absence, but will likely return to the bench when Fred VanVleet returns from his shoulder injury (likely Saturday against Detroit).
Much like the Raptors’ ranking this week, Norman Powell is on the come-up. Seeing those numbers lined up like that — thanks John! — really do bring this point home. For years, Raptors fans have been trying to will Norm into become the kind of force he’s been for most of this season. Right now he’s doing everything right: knocking down 3s, finishing with confidence, and playing in transition as an unholy terror. Team this version of Norm up with a healthy Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, and look the hell out.
Finally, let’s turn to CBS Sports and the man of the hour, Colin Ward-Henninger:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 7)
The Raptors bounced back from a rough week by taking care of the Suns, Warriors and Kings, who have been extremely hot. Serge Ibaka returned to the lineup for the latter two games, while Fred VanVleet looks like he’s closer to a return. As has been the case all season, Raptors step up when other players go down. This week it was Norman Powell, who averaged 31.3 points in three games this week, including a career-high 37 in the win over Golden State.
The symmetry of these four 4s in a row soothes my soul. In truth, it’s fair to say the Raptors are a step behind the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks — the top three teams across the board — owing purely to their combined starpower. That doesn’t mean the Raps can’t still play spoiler though — or give those teams a hell of a tough time. We’ll see what the future holds, as both the Bucks and Lakers are due in Toronto in coming weeks. Until then, it’s fo’ fo’ fo’ fo’ and out the door.
Now, onto the poll.
Are the Raptors being ranked fairly in Week 21 of the Power Rankings?
This poll is closed
No, the champs are still better
Yes, now we just need to get rid of daylight savings and this week will be perfect
No, I agree with the above — but prefer darkness, obvs
Yes, 4, 4, 4, 4 is how many wins it takes to secure a championship FYI