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Toronto Raptors are proving they are NBA title contenders again

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam asks for a review of a play in which he was called for a foul during a game against the Nuggets on March 1, 2020.
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam asks for a review of a play in which he was called for a foul during a game against the Denver Nuggets on March 1.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Despite what happened Friday in Los Angeles in a game seemingly more important to the Lakers than to Milwaukee, the Bucks are entering the on-ramp to the postseason without much traffic in front of them.

They’ve got the presumptive most valuable player, the reigning coach of the year who has his team moving to the doorstep of 70 wins as well as depth, shooting and defense up and down their bench.

But what if Friday’s game between the Lakers and the Bucks wasn’t an NBA Finals preview? Not because the Clippers might be better then the Lakers. What if there was an opportunity for another Eastern Conference team to crash the NBA Finals?

What if there’s one team that’s proved how much it loves a good opportunity?

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The Toronto Raptors, the league’s defending champions, have been defined by that quality all season. After Kawhi Leonard left in free agency for Los Angeles, he created a massive void in Toronto, with shots, minutes, points and responsibility up for grabs.

The Raptors had a handful of players hellbent on grabbing it.

“Obviously, with the moves that we made, everything was on the table. Whoever wants to get it can get it,” Raptors All-Star forward Pascal Siakam said. “I think that’s our mentality. And everyone has it.”

Toronto has the second-best record in the East behind the Bucks, and after Milwaukee failed to put them away after having a 2-0 lead in the conference finals last season, the Raptors might still have a mental edge.

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Leonard, the Finals MVP, obviously commanded so much credit for the first title in Raptors history. And while it was his team, he wasn’t the team — a distinction Raptors staffers knew their players would be eager to prove.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he sensed it as soon as the team reconvened, the sparkle from the championship seemingly permanently tattooed onto the players who helped earn it.

“We didn’t spend much time worrying about what we were losing. We quickly went to what opportunities there would be and for whom,” Nurse said. “… I kind of felt that when they came back, and it’s not college, but they came back to campus like totally different guys — just in their approach, their movement and the confidence.”

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While the opportunities would be there for everybody, Nurse and the Raptors’ front office knew the bulk of improving would have to be done by Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, each moving up the offensive hierarchy with Leonard in Los Angeles.

Siakam, who was selected last season’s most improved player, moved from really good to great as smoothly as one of his spin moves. His scoring has jumped to 23.6 points a game from 16.9 while he’s taken twice as many three-point shots per game as he did last season.

VanVleet, who rebounded from a rough start last postseason to finish the year as one of the hottest players in the league, has excelled as a full-time starter, his scoring, minutes, rebounds, assists and steals higher than they’ve ever been.

Then there’s Powell, the former UCLA Bruin, who led Toronto with 37 points in spoiling Stephen Curry’s return to action in Golden State on Thursday. Powell has almost doubled his scoring average, going from streaky scorer to consistent contributor.

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“I definitely saw an opportunity. And, I wanted to seize it,” Powell said. “I would do anything I could to show that they could trust me and that I could take advantage of the opportunity.

Paul George was in his third season in the NBA when he led the Indiana Pacers to a win over LeBron James’ Miami Heat in Game 2 of the conference finals.

“… We loved it. All the guys love it. Any given night, anybody can step up and anybody’s name can be called. And I think everybody’s had their moments throughout the season.”

The Raptors have done it without a healthy roster, with almost every key player missing at least 10 games. They were missing a pair of starters in VanVleet and Marc Gasol against the Warriors and it never felt like a factor.

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Whether it’s been to prove that the Raptors’ chances didn’t immigrate to Los Angeles with Leonard, whether it’s been a group of hungry young players excited for the chance to do more, or whether it’s a combination of both, Toronto might be the team that’s ready to step in if Milwaukee stumbles.

It’s what they do — run through the door when there’s a chance presented to them.


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