TORONTO – If the playoffs started this coming weekend, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse believes that his team would be ready to go.
You can understand where that confidence is coming from. These past couple months have been a crash course in playing meaningful basketball. They’ve dealt with adverse circumstances, gone toe-to-toe with some of the league’s elite, and grinded out unlikely wins in tough, competitive atmospheres. That’s as battle tested as it gets for a young and, in some cases, inexperienced team.
“I feel like we’ve seen enough and we’ve been through enough close games and coverages and planning against this kind of guy and that kind of guy,” Nurse said earlier this week. “I feel like we’ve experienced enough and we’re ready.”
Their NBA-best 10-5 record against the top-three teams from each conference speaks to how they’ve fared when punching above their weight class, something that they would need to do as a lower seed in the playoffs. The only thing is, they need to get there first, and they took another big step in that direction on Thursday.
After last year’s disappointing campaign in Tampa, and coming into this season with modest expectations, the Raptors are heading back to the post-season. With a big 117-104 win over Cleveland, they guaranteed their spot in the play-in tournament, at the very minimum. However, they’ve got their sights aimed higher than that.
At 41-32, they matched the Cavaliers’ record and moved into a virtual tie for sixth place and the final guaranteed playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Chicago’s loss in New Orleans later in the evening meant they also pulled within one game of the fifth-place Bulls. While Cleveland and Chicago both own the tiebreaker with Toronto, by way of winning the season series, the Raptors’ hopes of avoiding the play-in and controlling their own playoff fate are very much alive.
There was plenty at stake on Thursday night, enough for Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff to reference the game’s “playoff-type feel” roughly 90 minutes before tip off. Interestingly, the Raptors downplayed it.
When it was all said and done, Nurse admitted that he could feel a bit of an atmosphere at the start, as both teams fought through some early jitters. Once things settled down, he didn’t think it matched the intensity or the physicality of their recent road wins over first-place Phoenix, or a couple of MVP frontrunners – Nikola Jokic in Denver and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. And maybe that was the difference. They were prepared for it.
“It was a big game but I think every game is a big game,” said Pascal Siakam, who was brilliant in the victory, leading all scorers with 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting, which included a career-high tying six three-pointers. “All these games count, so when we go out there that’s our mentality: try to win every single one of them.”
In a game between two of the league’s most promising young teams, which featured a couple leading candidates for Rookie of the Year in Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, it was the Raptors’ poise, polish and experience that came through.
The club’s longest tenured players provided the steadying hands. Siakam picked the Cavs’ defense apart, attacking mismatches around the rim, finding open teammates on the perimeter, and shooting off the dribble. Fred VanVleetwho’s been dealing with a nagging knee injury, managed the game quietly until Siakam went to the bench with four finals early in the fourth quarter, at which point he took over. chris butcher‘s energy helped them recover from a slow start, and OG Anunoby – returning from a 15-game absence due to a fractured finger on his shooting hand – knocked down four threes, scored 14 points and gave them a boost defensively in his 26 minutes.
Meanwhile, Thaddeus Young – the 15-year vet who was acquired at the trade deadline with games like this in mind – showed his value in 15 quality minutes off the bench.
The Raptors went on a 15-0 run to take the lead late in the first quarter, and while the Cavs made a push in the second quarter and then again early in the fourth, Toronto never relinquished control. This is a young team, and they have moments almost every night where they look it, but remember, they’ve got guys that have played in plenty of important games at the highest level of the sport. They’re led by NBA champions.
With nine games left in the regular season, seven of which will come at home, that’s where the Raptors feel like they could have an edge over a couple teams with far less experience on their rosters, teams that are both trending in the other direction.
The Cavs have lost 11 of their last 17 games. The Bulls have dropped 10 of 13. Injuries have undoubtedly played a part in their recent misfortune, but as these games become increasingly important, their youth could hold them back. Combined, Cleveland’s young core of Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen has nine games of playoff experience under its belt. At 32, DeMar DeRozan is Chicago’s oldest player.
Having won seven of their last nine contests, the Raptors are well positioned to close out their season strong. They’ll host the 25-49 Pacers on Saturday night as the Cavs and Bulls face each other in Cleveland, a chance for Toronto to continue making up ground. Getting Anunoby back is crucial, even if his finger is still causing him pain. Gary Trent Jr., who missed Thursday’s game with a toe injury, isn’t expected to be out long, and they’re hopeful that they can manage VanVleet’s ailing knee to the point where he’s closer to full health come playoff time.
Guys like VanVleet and Siakam can speak to what those valuable post-season reps meant to them early in their careers, and the team wants that for Barnes, Trent, Precious Achiuwa and the rest of the young guys on this roster.
“I really hope this team gets in the playoffs,” Nurse said. “I really, really think we need to experience that. A series, the prep and the toughness and all that stuff, I think it’d be a really big building block for this team to be able to go through that.”
After their latest win, they’re one step closer to making that happen.
“We’re sitting here in a position I don’t think anybody thought we’d be in,” said Nurse. “We were picked well, well back, 11th, 12th in the East and we’re not there. We got ourselves in position to play ourselves in if we want to, so I think we’re continuing to grow and build and just keep competing and fighting and we’ll let it fall where it may.”