Toronto Raptors are the NBA’s mystery contender

The Toronto Raptors have the second-best record in the NBA and are one of only three teams with a top-10 offense and defense. The Raps are tough to beat at home, strong on the road, and have been remarkably consistent outside of a few isolated hiccups in November and December.

They check all the boxes one looks for in a contender. They have a superstar in Kawhi Leonard, a complementary star in Kyle Lowry, productive vets in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and an emerging force in Pascal Siakam. The role players offer an intriguing blend of youthful energy and experienced savvy. The defensive rebounding could be stronger and the 3-point shooting a tad more consistent, but there’s not much to not like about this team.

And yet, something about them still seems to gives people pause.

This isn’t like previous seasons, when the Raptors strong regular season resumes were offset by the backdrop of a nerve-wracking playoff history. There’s a new coach and half the roster has been turned over. They are not those Raptors.

Rather, this version is more of a blank slate. They could win the East or get knocked out in the second round and neither outcome would be terribly surprising. Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of them and I don’t think I’m alone in that estimation.

No one personifies this Raptor team more than Kawhi Leonard, man of mystery.

When the Raps traded for Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, it fundamentally changed their prospects. No offense to DeMar DeRozan, who was a beloved member of the organization, but Leonard is simply a better player. You can win a lot of games with DeMar as your best player, but you can dream about championships with Kawhi.

After the injury-plagued weirdness of his final campaign in San Antonio, Leonard has once again proven to be one of the handful of elite two-way players in the league. He’s averaging career highs in points (26.9) and rebounds (7.6), while providing lockdown defense on the wing.

Thanks to what’s been termed “load maintenance,” Kawhi has missed too many games to be in the MVP or Defensive Player of the Year conversation. But on any given night, he’s the best player on both ends of the floor. There aren’t many players who can make that claim.

His transition to Toronto has been fairly seamless, yet there are still times when the other Raptors don’t quite know what to do with him. With a startling combination of quickness, strength, and skill, he can score whenever he wants. With that comes a natural tendency to give him the ball and get the hell out of the way.

That hasn’t always been the best strategy for Toronto, and it will be doubly hard in the playoffs when opponents double and key their defense toward stopping his straight-line drives to the basket. The word ‘cohesion’ seems to come up a lot with the Raptors, especially at the end of games.

Beyond that, no one has any idea where Kawhi will play next season. The rumor mill has been insistent that he’s headed to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers next season, but even that assurance is tempered by a shrug about the NBA’s most inscrutable star. Would any outcome be more fitting for this franchise’s history than Kawhi taking this team to the Finals and then splitting for the west coast?

Take note, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant: inscrutability has its benefits. No one bothers Kawhi about his future because no one expects a response. This dynamic hasn’t seemed to affect his teammates this season, beyond management taking great care to keep him rested and healthy.

As an aside, we need a better term than load management.

Can’t we just be grownups and call it rest and recovery? Load management makes him sound like a cargo truck hauling tons of steel.

It’s not just Kawhi. Half the rotation was turned over.

Danny Green came over with Leonard from San Antonio and helped settle the off-guard position, in typical Danny Green fashion. His shooting, defense, and experience are all for the good come playoff time.

Green and Leonard alone make this Raptor team a different proposition, but Masai Ujiri continued to shuffle the deck at the trade deadline with a major deal for Marc Gasol. Out went Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles, all all key members of Toronto’s elite second unit, but ultimately replaceable.

In addition to Gasol, veteran Jeremy Lin signed on after his release from Atlanta. Those two, along with a handful of familiar faces — currently injured Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, and Norm Powell — form yet another deep pool of reserves. On paper this all looks very good, but there isn’t much time left to work out the transition.

Oh, and the coach is new too. Nick Nurse has acquitted himself reasonably well in his first season in Toronto, but no one has any idea how he’ll do in the hothouse pressure of the postseason. Again, that word “cohesion” seems to come up more often than it should with a team on pace to win 59 games.

The frontcourt is the X-factor.

Pascal Siakam has been a revelation this season with his array of spin moves, competent outside shooting, and boundless energy. He’s the pivot point around whom the Raps can play big or small and one of the rare big men who can guard up and down the lineup. He’s the answer to various matchup problems Toronto might face, and he causes a few of his own with his length and athleticism.

Siakam wasn’t an All-Star this year, but he could have been. It doesn’t take much to envision him holding down a major role in whatever roster configuration the Raptors emerge from this offseason. He’s the future, or at least a significant part.

Adding Gasol was an interesting move because the Raps were already well stocked in the frontcourt with Siakam and Serge Ibaka. While neither is a classic center, Ibaka excelled as a small-ball five before the Gasol deal. The trend is for teams to downsize during the postseason, and Siakam and Ibaka are ideal for that approach.

Gasol is a center, full stop. He may have lost a step but he’s still a wonderful player and a fantastic passer who offers more than just a second-team anchor. Gasol is an upgrade over Valanciunas, certainly, but one wonders how content he’ll be coming off the bench. The frontcourt rotation is a classic second-guess waiting to happen at the first sign of trouble.

Matchups, matchups, matchups.

Toronto is essentially locked into a top-two seed in the East along with Milwaukee, which leaves them looking at an easy first-round series against one of the dregs of the playoff chase. While no one should ever take anything for granted with Toronto in the postseason, the real intrigue takes place in round two.

No matter the opponent, they will be favored in any potential matchup. The Raptors took three out of four from the 76ers and are 2-1 against the Pacers. The super intriguing possibility is a series with the Celtics. They have somehow avoided each other in recent postseasons, so we are beyond due for a knockdown, drag-out semifinal series.

The C’s took both meetings in Boston this year in dramatic fashion, but they haven’t won in Canada in almost four years. They get one more shot on Tuesday night (8 p.m., TNT).

With that comes Toronto’s final game against one of the other East contenders for the rest of the season. After playing Boston and Portland this week, 15 of their final 19 games are against teams with losing records. If you’re looking for any clarity down the stretch of the regular season, you’re not going to get much.

As Kyle Lowry goes …

We’ve been down this road with Toronto so many times, and it inevitably leads back to the question of whether Lowry will be effective in the postseason. To be fair, Lowry was awesome last spring, but few noticed after a tricky six-game first-round series win over a collapsing Washington and an embarrassing sweep at the hands of LeBron JamesCavaliers.

When Lowry is on, there are few better playmakers in the league. Lowry’s numbers have been generally fine again this season, and he still does so many things that don’t show up in the box score. But there are a few worrying trends: lower 3-point shooting, along with a continuing drop in usage and rebound rate.

He’s also had stretches where he’s appeared disconnected and out of the natural flow of things. K-Low is one of the smartest players in the league and it’s only natural that he picks his spots as he ages. It’s also fair to ask which version of Lowry we’ll see in the postseason. There’s a thin line between cantankerous and creaky.

So, we’re right back where we always are with the Raptors. Give them home-court advantage, a healthy Leonard, and an engaged Lowry, and there’s no limit to how far they can go this spring. Mess with any of that and the whole thing could implode before the conference finals.

These are not the same old Raptors, but the old plot points remain. They deserve an open mind, if not the full benefit of the doubt. Make of them what you will.

But they may only have one chance to get this right.

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