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The Raptors Are Really for Real This Time

Toronto looks like the best team in the NBA. Will this postseason be different for the league’s tortured Northern hub?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

They say winning cures all ills, but that’s not quite true. Winning the whole thing might. But plain ol’, garden-variety, middle-of-December winning? That doesn’t cure anything. It just kills time.

The Toronto Raptors killed time on Wednesday by routing the Golden State Warriors. Two weeks ago, after the Raps survived a 51-point Kevin Durant barrage to earn a three-point overtime win in Toronto, Bay Area faithful and unaffiliated observers alike were quick to point out that Golden State had entered the potential NBA Finals preview without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. But Curry and Green both played in Wednesday’s rematch at Oracle Arena while Kawhi Leonard didn’t, sitting out his second straight game to rest a bruised right hip. Toronto won 113-93.

It was a performance that showcased everything we’ve been saying about this year’s Raptors—that they’ve got everything they need to compete for a title, that they’re the league’s most complete team, and that they’re bona fide members of the NBA elite. They hung 113 points on the Warriors despite making only nine 3-pointers. They clamped down on the vaunted Golden State attack, forcing Golden State into a dismal offensive night—86.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—despite the Dubs’ four incumbent All-Stars all suiting up. They did all this on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, after dusting the deep and damn good Clippers at Staples Center.

With apologies to a Bucks team that’s had Toronto’s number thus far, the Raptors are the best team in the East, and they just beat the best team in the NBA twice in two weeks. And there’s still a sense that all of this data doesn’t really matter.

Toronto is the NBA’s ultimate “wait until the playoffs” team. No matter what changes the Raptors make in July, or how well Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka perform in November and December, or how fervently they themselves believe that this is the year, the NBA-watching world at large mostly rolls its eyes and says, “We’ll believe it when we see it in May.” It’s hard to blame all those skeptics, because after several credible iterations of The Best Team in Raptors History, we still haven’t seen it.

Nobody doubts the overall quality of these Raptors, or the potential psychic balm of finally looking at a playoff bracket that won’t require them to defeat LeBron James to make the Finals. But if you found yourself nodding along as you read the quote that Curry gave Yahoo’s Chris Haynes after Wednesday’s walloping—“The [Raptors’ regular-season] sweep doesn’t mean nothing in terms of when the lights are the brightest on the biggest stage in the playoffs. Everything’s different [...] they don’t get any extra points if we were to face them in the Finals”—well, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot.

This season, our standard suspicion of the Raptors and the typical wait-and-see anxiety that surrounds them comes with an extra kick: Leonard’s impending free agency, which adds layers of uncertainty and intrigue to an already-complicated moment in Raptors history.

While Leonard still might not be entirely healthy—had the hip injury not kept him on the bench, the Raps surely would’ve sat him out of one half of their road back-to-back, as they’ve been doing all season (perhaps strategically)—he’s been nothing short of sensational in Toronto. He’s averaging 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.9 steals in 34.7 minutes per game, while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from 3-point land, and 85.9 percent from the free throw line, utterly dismissing questions about whether he could still be an elite force after last season’s bout with quadriceps tendinopathy. (Those worries about whether or not he’d show up in Canada seem pretty silly now, too.)

Leonard has been the immediate two-way upgrade over beloved former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan that president Masai Ujiri hoped for, putting Toronto in position to make the deepest postseason run in franchise history. Trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green (who has been great for Toronto) wasn’t just about turning the page on last season. It was about seizing the opportunity to leverage what’s left of the primes of Lowry and Ibaka, to catch Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet on the upswing, and to package it all up for a title swing. A league-best 23-7 record and those two wins over Golden State suggests that this strategy is working so far. But “so far” only matters so much.

When you’ve come as far as the Raptors have during this golden era, all that’s left that matters is whether you can go any farther. If, once again, they can’t … well, Leonard can opt out of the final year of his contract and hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and even the most well-sourced NBA insider can’t presume to tell you what he’s going to do once he gets there. All we know for sure is that plenty of suitors will be waiting—hell, the Clippers apparently aren’t even waiting—to scoop him up and leave the Raptors superstar-less, right back where they started.

This all makes for a weird collision: a team so evidently soaring, yet still somehow stuck. The Raptors have been better than just about everyone this season, but they’ve still got so much up in the air, and none of that can change until the summer. All they can do is keep waiting and winning.