The Toronto Raptors defeated the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday by a score of 122-95. It was an impressive victory to say the least. Point guard Kyle Lowry led the way scoring 22 points to go with 11 assists and 11 rebounds, notching the eighth triple-double of his career. With the effort, the Raptors now sit at 2-1 following the All-Star break and trail the Cleveland Cavaliers by just three games for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Despite all of the team's success and the expectation that this year's finish to the regular season will be much better than last year's, and that the playoffs will see the team get past the first round for the first time since 2001, it's going to be a tough to do just that. If the Raptors are going to do just that, there are certainly a few keys to success, especially when it comes to challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for a spot in the NBA Finals, an opportunity which if it presents itself, would undoubtedly surpass the expectations of even the most optimistic Raptors fans.
1. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
Dubbed as the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons, Lowry and DeRozan earned the right to be named All-Stars again this year. With Lowry coming into training camp looking like a rebuilt ninja turtle and DeRozan driven to prove that his team can win (and that his soon-to-be brand new contract is going to be worth the money this summer), the tandem is going to need to push hard for the rest of the regular season and prove that the nucleus of the team is indeed a playoff contender. There's plenty of reason for the pair to be motivated right now, especially considering general manager Masai Ujiri decided to stand pat at the trade deadline while other teams below the Raptors in the standings opted for deadline day upgrades.
2. DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson
After signing a four-year, $60 million deal with the team in the off-season to become the team's defensive stopper at small forward, DeMarre Carroll has played just 23 games this season thanks to arthroscopic knee surgery. While the Raptors don't really need him for the regular season, the fact is the team will be counting on him to make his money in the playoffs, especially if the Raptors find themselves up against LeBron James and the Cavs. Should Carroll be operating at less than 100 percent the rest of the way, which nobody will know for sure until he plays, it would mean that James Johnson would have to step up. It puzzled most Raptors fans last year that Johnson was highly underutilized against Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards. This season however, if Carroll isn't performing, coach Dwane Casey likely won't have much of a choice but to depend on JJ.
3. Terrence Ross
Unlike his small forward counterparts, Terrence Ross won't be counted on for his defense as much as he will his offense this postseason. Many questioned the Raptors' decision to hand him a three-year, $33 million extension a few months ago, especially because of the way he started the year, with shooting percentages that would be labeled inconsistent at best. T-Ross however has found a way to turn things around. The question mark now is whether or not he can play relaxed in the playoffs. The Raptors are going to need him to score when Lowry and DeRozan are tightly covered, which will happen a lot, especially once the team moves beyond the first round. This year's postseason will prove once and for all whether Ross's game and his nerves have matured enough to match his level of talent.
4. Avoiding the Chicago Bulls
Outside of King James' Cavaliers, the toughest potential playoff matchup for the Toronto Raptors this coming spring will come in the form of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. Sure Rose isn't necessarily the player he used to be thanks to multiple knee injuries, but the fact is that at least during the regular season, the Raptors have failed to find a way to stop both Rose, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler on separate occasions. The trio is backed by a solid bench too, so even with Joakim Noah's chances of returning for the playoffs looking slim thanks to a shoulder surgery earlier this year, the Raptors would be best served to steer clear of Chicago. An ugly 0-3 regular season record against the team this year and a regular season sweep last year should tell you all you need to know about the Raptors chances of succeeding in the Windy City when it counts.
It's certainly been a fantastic season for the Raptors so far. The team's All-Stars are playing at a high level, the rest of the roster looks to be considerably more stable than the one that sputtered in the second half last year, and the majority of the competition in the Eastern Conference doesn't appear to stack up.
That said, every Raptors fan and basketball pundit in the city of Toronto knows that the real season starts in the playoffs. That's when the team will have to prove to the league and to its own executives that the re-tooled roster is worthy of sticking together for the long haul. Should Lowry, DeRozan and the rest of the team's leaders fail to do just that, it could mean the extinction of the team's present day philosophy once and for all.