Considering everything — with a huge emphasis on the word everything — it feels plenty strange that the Toronto Raptors are set to resume NBA basketball in just 14 days. That’s when they’ll take the court for a scrimmage against the Houston Rockets, the first real bit of five-on-five basketball for the team since suspending play in March due to the coronavirus.
That game will set up a mad dash to the finish of the 2019-20 season, if all goes according to plan for the NBA. We know the virus is poised to derail all of this, as the U.S. continues to break records for new daily cases on a disturbing pace, with Florida (including the county Orlando is in) as one of the hot spots. There hasn’t been any sign of slowing down the bubble plans yet, though, so we have to assume it’s all systems go.
So, if basketball is just a fortnight from taking place, what should we consider when it comes to the Toronto Raptors?
I’ll admit, as of writing this piece, my perspective has very rarely focused on the actual nuts and bolts of the basketball being played. I’m still in the Charles Barkley camp of “I’ll believe it when I see it” when it comes to the NBA season.
When I get into the weeds, though, there are obvious questions to be asked that specifically pertain to the Raptors. Let’s go through four of them.
Will everyone get to the season start?
As of yesterday, all 22 teams participating in the season’s end have arrived in Orlando and have entered the bubble — the Raptors roster fully intact. What awaits the team now is two weeks of self-isolation and avoiding possible contact with the virus before they can begin five-on-five practices and the aforementioned scrimmage games.
The question hanging over this last stage of bubble preparation is, obviously, will everyone be able to avoid coronavirus and any positive tests until then? How will it look for the other participating teams, and will there be enough of an outbreak for the NBA to pull the plug on the whole venture?
This is really the crux on which the entire ship could sink, and it’s not a question that’s possible to answer. Needless to say, though, every other question on this list depends on the ability for NBA players, coaches, and officials to stay healthy in large numbers so the season can proceed.
How will the team play as a whole, and can the injury woes take a break?
Before the season stopped, one of the themes of the Raptors’ year was their inability to field a full roster due to injury — and winning in spite of it.
A four-month layoff isn’t ideal for a lot of reasons, but it did give everyone on Toronto’s roster the chance to fully heal from their injuries — the biggest name being Marc Gasol, who had played just 15 minutes in his return from a hamstring injury before basketball was shut down. You may have also forgot that Norman Powell was fresh off injury before a torrid stretch of games, where he earned the reigning quarter-year title of Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
All season, we were wondering what kind of potential the Raptors could unlock if they had their full roster available to them. Right off the bat, the bubble will be an opportunity to see how the team’s exceptional depth will be utilized by Nick Nurse.
Early in the season, we know Nurse wasn’t quite ready to trust the new players in his bench unit — thinning the rotation and avoiding extended minutes for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, and Stanley Johnson. Now, at least three of those guys have proven themselves to be trustworthy and able to throw true curveballs at opposing second units. Whether that be scoring bursts from Davis, three-point blocks by Boucher, or missed layups, rebounds, and made layups from Hollis-Jefferson — the guys from eight through ten on Toronto’s bench have shown they can handle the spotlight.
This is what makes the seeding games so fascinating. How will Nurse settle a rotation with the playoffs only three weeks from starting? Who will look rusty, and who looks game-ready as the schedule progresses? Who can stay healthy during this time, especially considering the long layoff and the accelerated schedule?
Seeing the entire Raptors roster healthy and answering rotation questions will be key before the playoffs begin.
Can the Raptors hold off Boston for the second seed?
Rotation aside, the singular goal of the seeding games is to lock down the second seed in the East. With a precipitous drop-off from the sixth seed (Philadelphia, tied in the loss column with Indiana) to the seventh seed (the very shorthanded Brooklyn Nets), the Raptors make their road back to the NBA Finals much easier if they can maintain their three-game lead on the Celtics.
With only eight seeding games, they’re definitely in the driver’s seat. The Celtics and Raptors only meet once during the playoff lead-up on August 7, giving Boston just one chance to make up significant ground and vault into the second seed.
Of course, nobody is playing an easy schedule and predictability is out the window. Boston also comes into the bubble the beneficiary of a full, healthy roster. Toronto has one of the more difficult bubble schedules, which includes matchups against both the Lakers and Bucks, the latter on the tail end of a back-to-back.
Nothing is assured, but it really doesn’t get more black and white for the Raptors. Lock down the second seed and you’ll have a better shot at answering the last question.
Can they survive a Milwaukee matchup in the playoffs?
Ask around NBA circles and it seems like many are ready to believe that the Raptors have the best chance as Eastern Conference disruptor. The Bucks have returned from losing last year’s conference final an even better team. Despite missing one of their key playoff pieces in Malcolm Brogdon, their offensive and defensive systems have only improved — resulting in one of the most impressive statistical regular season teams in league history.
We know from last year’s playoffs, though, that regular season stats can be a mirage when it comes to production in crunch time. The Raptors proved to be a foil for Milwaukee’s system, sweeping them after going down 0-2 and earning a berth in the NBA Finals.
This time around, a potential matchup with the Bucks would undoubtedly be tougher. While the role players were more prominent in that series when compared to Kawhi Leonard’s workload against the Sixers, Toronto is still missing a superstar’s ability to get baskets when the action is bogged down. Not having that half court assurance will hurt.
On the other end, though, they still have the tools to make Milwaukee’s life tough. OG Anunoby has only improved as a defender and would earn much of the Giannis Antetokounmpo assignment. Off-ball sequences would make life a little more difficult for the Bucks’ shooters. Nick Nurse is a creative guy.
Circumstance will affect this potential matchup too, but it’s not crazy to look ahead at a Eastern Conference Finals rematch with hopes that the Raptors can repeat their underdog victory.