BUENA VISTA LAKE, Fla. – The scene was different, the virtual fans replaced the real ones, the silence of an almost empty arena broken only by hip hop music and the noise of the digital crowd pumped through suspended speakers. But for Masai Ujiri, everything seemed familiar.
A year ago, in Las Vegas, Ujiri begged Raptors fans not to panic. “Don’t lose a second of sleep,” said Ujiri, a few days after Kawhi Leonard packed his bags for Los Angeles. “We will be fine.” Now here is Ujiri, the president of the Raptors, a few meters from the NBA branded floor, in a hooded sweatshirt watching the batter of Toronto Orlando, his likely opponent in the first round.
For the Raptors, a 3-0 win and restart.
For Ujiri, perhaps, further claim.
Magic are just recovering from treating Dwight Howard. Cleveland has cratered twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but that took a season of history from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick first-round exit. The story isn̵
Toronto won’t be anyone’s first round forage, and really—Such as it happened? Leonard was an All-Star, one of the five best talents, the final MVP in charge. And after beating the magic, Toronto’s hit rate (.731) is the best in franchise history.
There is no voodoo for the Raptors’ success, no secret salsa. Probe one by one and she comes towards you with a series of empty looks and collective shrugs, as if you it’s the fools who think they shouldn’t be here.
“We don’t spend any energy making this” sports talk, “Marc Gasol told me.” It’s a nice bar talk. We understand that the media must do it. We know that we are not easy to beat. We believe in ourselves. We have many tools, many great players and, for me, the best NBA coaching staff. “
Indeed. Birds of prey are good because they have Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player and the breakout star of the 2019 playoffs, who took his game to another level. There are traces of Leonard in Siakam, embers of an education that lasts for a season. Teammates describe Siakam as a workaholic, led by a grown man, empowered by head coach Nick Nurse to be the director few saw when Siakam was an underpowered center in the state of New Mexico. Siakam built a breakthrough in season three, becoming a more available three point shooter.
They are good because of Fred VanVleet, the fourth year guard who enjoys a dizzying season. Defense contributed to Toronto’s success and VanVleet emerged as an integral part of it. Once a sort of responsibility, VanVleet leads the NBA in detours and ranks among the top five in thefts. Inside the Raptors locker room, everyone knows: if you don’t defend, you don’t play.
“You’re sick when you’re not playing defense,” said VanVleet. “You lean like a sore thumb … you don’t want to be that boy.”
Birds of prey are good thanks to Kyle Lowry, the stalwart, Mr. Raptor, probably the greatest player in the history of the franchise and the setter tone of this group. A competitive fire still burns inside Lowry, the same flame that pushed him over the roofs of North Philadelphia to Villanova, to the NBA, to an eventual NBA championship. With 16 points against Orlando, Lowry barks against Evan Fournier on the free throw line. Double-digit in the last few minutes, Lowry is fighting Nikola Vucevic on the offensive glass.
Before the season, the nurse met Lowry. We need more scores, Said the nurse. Lowry agreed. “It was a short meeting,” said the nurse YES. Lowry responded by increasing his six-point average, scoring his three-point percentage up to 36% this season.
Ujiri saw this talent, this technical staff and any idea of bringing down the team was fleeting, at best. For months, the Raptors were full of commercial calls, with rivals probing whether Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Lowry were available. Ujiri has no bite. The choices of the first round are precious, of course, but the Raptors believe they can find talent everywhere. Siakam and O.G. Anunoby was picked up at the end of the first round, Norman Powell in the second while VanVleet and the emerging rookie Terence Davis were free agents. The drafts of resources, Ujiri reasoned, were not worth breaking this core.
Months later, Toronto is firmly rooted as seed no. 2 in the Eastern Conference and, really – are we sure anyone can beat them? The Raptors stomped on the Lakers, surviving the Heat and causing a 10 point loss over Orlando. LeBron James himself declared them true contenders. Milwaukee will enter the postseason as a favorite of the conference, but the Raptors have already beaten the Bucks previously and have the size to crown them. Siakam and VanVleet will have to go one step further and hit bigger roles, but they have a championship race to count on.
“We are an apology-free team,” said Gasol. “I don’t need someone to tell me to believe in something. Go out and compete and you can beat anyone. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have many pieces. I don’t need someone to tell me” you guys can win it. ” really difficult, and it’s a different year, obviously, but on a certain night we can be one of the best teams “.
Here comes Toronto, impossibly, unlikely determined to defend his title from the start, armed with the staff and the confidence now to do so. The four-month heal healed persistent injuries, giving the nurse the deepest and most talented role she has had throughout the season.
A few minutes after beating Orlando, Ibaka emerged from the Raptors’ makeshift locker room, wedging up the stairs to the weight room, eager to squeeze in 15 minutes on the available treadmill before the last bus came out. Behind him, Stanley Johnson, eager to do the same.
“You played 25 minutes, Serge,” said Johnson. “Let me go first.”
“Five minutes,” replied Ibaka, before disappearing on the steps.
For Ibaka, for Toronto, the work has just begun.