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There’s Something About These Toronto Raptors

When Kawhi Leonard left town, most (cough) assumed the team’s chances at another title went with him. But the doubt has just fueled the reigning champions, who are currently riding a historic run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

So much of our punditry and discourse, in sports and elsewhere, revolves around looking not at something that’s happening, but past it—trying to find a way to “spin it forward,” to discern whether it’s a small-sample mirage or something legitimately projectable, and to figure out what, if anything, it means. That can be useful, and informative, and a totally reasonable way to construct and consume coverage. It can also be a hell of a way to miss the forest for the trees.

The championship is what every NBA team is chasing, of course, but it’s not the only thing that matters. That which is cool, kicks ass, sparks joy, and captures attention on a nightly basis matters, too, and if you’re lucky, you can recognize that sort of thing as it’s happening. And holy shit, is it ever happening with the Toronto Raptors right now.

Wednesday marks one full month since the Raptors’ last loss, at the hands of old pal DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs. Since that one-point defeat, Toronto has ripped off 15 consecutive wins—the longest streak in franchise history, the longest streak ever by any Canadian professional sports team, and the second-longest streak in the NBA this season, trailing only the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks’ 18 wins in a row through November and December.

It must be said that Nick Nurse’s squad has benefited from a friendly stretch of schedule: The only teams with winning records whom the Raptors have faced in the past month are the Thunder, the perma-glitching 76ers, and a Pacers team struggling to integrate an understandably rusty Victor Oladipo into the fold. It must also be said, though, that Toronto has handled that soft spot in the calendar as a truly good team should—by rampaging through it, with the NBA’s no. 1 offense and no. 3 defense in that span, according to Cleaning the Glass—despite having to do a fair amount of shuffling due to injuries.

Marc Gasol, the organizing principle of Toronto’s defense and a massive key to its half-court offense, missed the past seven games with a balky left hamstring that’s bothered him since December. Yet the Raptors kept winning. Norman Powell, in the midst of a career year as a 3-and-D accelerant, missed the past four after breaking the fourth metacarpal in his left hand, an injury that could keep him on the shelf until mid-March. Yet the Raptors kept winning.

Serge Ibaka, who manned the middle with Gasol out and stepped up his scoring in Powell’s absence, missed Monday’s game against Minnesota with flulike symptoms. (The next fashion artistic evolution: antiviral scarves?) Without their top two centers, the Raptors started 6-foot-6 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (with plenty of weakside help from Pascal Siakam) against Karl-Anthony Towns; he proceeded to throw his body around, sprint the floor, and outwork the All-NBA 7-footer en route to 21 points, six rebounds, and three steals. The team focused on gang rebounding—OG Anunoby grabbed a career-high-tying 12 boards to go with 25 points, three assists, and three steals—and swarmed defensively in the second half, forcing 13 turnovers that led to 21 points. When it was time to settle up, Siakam showed why he’s an All-Star starter, scoring 14 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter—many of them coming by torturing new Wolves guard D’Angelo Russell on switches generated by screens from malevolent fire hydrant Kyle Lowry—to put the game to bed.

Siakam has raised his game since the departure of Kawhi Leonard, leaping from Most Improved Player to arguable top-10 player as the Raptors’ new max-salaried star and no. 1 offensive option. When he missed 11 games with a groin strain, though, Toronto still went 6-5. That was due largely to Lowry, his fellow All-Star, who remains the heartbeat of everything the Raptors do on both ends. Yet when he missed 11 games earlier this season with a fractured thumb, Toronto still went 9-2.

Without Fred VanVleet, who has been tremendous as a starter and is in line for a massive payday in free agency this summer? Toronto is 7-3. No Ibaka? 9-2. No Gasol? 13-6. The Raptors enter Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets at 40-14—2.5 games up on Boston for second place in the East, and two games better than their record at this stage last season, when they still employed a certain fun guy—because, no matter who they don’t have, they never seem to be out of a game (just ask Dallas or Indiana) and they always seem to have enough to win.

“I think these guys have proven enough that they can win,” Nurse told reporters after Monday’s victory, no. 15 in a row. “We’ve had a lot of injuries this year and everybody just keeps stepping up and playing, so I think we’re kind of used to it. I think one thing you gotta do is, you gotta at least go out there and give a great effort. Right? Give yourself a chance to win. Don’t let them play harder than you. If you think you’re undertalented or undersized or whatever, maybe take your level of energy and toughness and all that stuff up a notch. I think we do that most nights.”

Too few of us outside the GTA gave these Raptors enough credit for that heading into the season. And I do mean us: While I tabbed Toronto as one of the most interesting teams in the league after free agency, I also slotted them in among playoff teams with big questions rather than as legit conference finals contenders, and I didn’t include them in my big preseason look at the 2019-20 championship race. (Though, if I may cop a plea, the teams included in that preview were picked based on Vegas odds; if you plunked down a few bucks on an 80-to-1 title bet back in July, here’s hoping you picked Toronto and not Sacramento.)

Yes, Toronto lost Kawhi and Danny Green in free agency, but it returned a top six that ran the playoff gantlet and hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy—plus Anunoby, who missed the entire 2019 postseason after an emergency appendectomy, but who was waiting in the wings to step into Leonard’s spot as a starting small forward and perimeter-defending menace. His hand forced by injuries, Nurse found the rest of his rotation along the way, with ex-Nets first-rounder Hollis-Jefferson and former G League MVP Chris Boucher providing energy and defensive versatility, and Terence Davis—a big, tough, talented guard who leads all rookies in player impact plus-minus and ranks second in value over replacement player—looking like Toronto’s latest non-lottery steal.

Sprinkle in former Warriors swingman Patrick McCaw and designated shooter Matt Thomas, and the Raptors go 12 deep with dudes who can contribute something to a good team. They’re all put in positions to succeed by Nurse, as adept a coach as there is when it comes to leveraging his players’ intelligence and versatility to call audibles on the fly, scramble defensive coverages, and adjust his team’s tactical approach between and during games. Perhaps even more importantly: Those dozen players all play their asses off.

This is not a happy accident. This is by design, an expression of the culture Masai Ujiri has been working to build and extend during his tenure as Toronto’s personnel chief. Yeah, we reached the top of the mountain last June, but that doesn’t mean we have to climb back down. Let’s make the rest of the league get up here and throw us off, let’s make it an absolute pain in their asses to do it, and hey, while we’re at it, let’s win the whole goddamn thing one more time.

“We’re going to die trying [to win another title], that’s for sure,” Ujiri told reporters last month. “I know those guys, and they’re going to die trying. You see them, you see the attitude. I know nobody, not one person here in this place, would tell me that they thought we’d be competing now to be second in the East. … There’s not one person that thought that with a championship player like Kawhi leaving. These guys have stepped up, and we appreciate what they’ve done.”

Ujiri said that a couple of weeks before the February 6 trade deadline; in a deadline preview podcast shortly thereafter, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski speculated that Toronto’s activity, if there was any, would focus on trying to add pieces to make a run at the East-leading Bucks. This time around, though, there was no bold deadline move on the order of last year’s deal for Gasol. The Raptors stood pat, finding nothing on the market worth disrupting what’s worked so brilliantly, and trusting that healthy returns from Gasol and Powell will give them everything they need to trade haymakers with anybody, even a foe as imposing as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.

We could find out soon enough whether that trust was warranted. Toronto and Milwaukee square off three more times during the regular season, with the next meeting coming the Tuesday after the All-Star break. Regular-season matchups can tell you only so much, of course, but it’s worth noting that the first time they played this season—a rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, minus the guy who defined them—both teams were healthy, and while the Bucks scored a 10-point home win behind a rampaging Giannis, it was a four-point game with two minutes to go.

Even against a historically dominant favorite, I wouldn’t bet on the Raptors to flinch. They believe. They’ve got reason to, because they’ve given it to themselves, night after night, possession by possession, and maybe that’s why they stood pat at the deadline. It’s plain as day every time you watch them: The Raptors didn’t have to go all in. They already are.