Now that all regular season games have concluded for the 2013-14 season, scenarios that were running wild in the minds of Toronto Raptors fans, critics and apologists have come to light. As I have spoken about continuously in my columns over the season, it’s tough to measure success this season in the Eastern Conference. A playoff berth seems diminished in its value, and even a first round victory may come with a serious asterisk depending on the opponent (or who you ask).
The talk was dizzying: The third seed would allow the Raptors to avoid the Brooklyn Nets and give them a better first round match up, but they would draw the Miami Heat in the second round; the fourth seed would make for a harder first round series but the Pacers seem to be more beatable as a second round opponent. Does a first round victory qualify as a successful season? Does a second round victory? Do the Raptors actually think they can win the East? I cannot speculate on how the Raptors view this variable-laden picture; they would most certainly claim that they are trying to win every game and are more focused on themselves than any potential future matchup. I can respect that, even if it’s with a wink and a smile.
Unfortunately, it appears that an even worse scenario was realized last night. While the Raptors, in a loss, secured the third seed, the crafty Nets, who I claimed should be avoided at all costs in the playoffs, slipped to the sixth seed. I hadn’t considered it. I will wait to analyze all this for my next column; it may be filled with mini-tanking conspiracies within a playoff race. For now, though, a little regular season review is in order.
Regular season record: It was the best regular season in the history of the Raptors franchise (48-34). I don’t think that can be swept under the rug. Regardless of the state of the conference, this version of the franchise’s 19 seasons has been the most successful. There have been some pretty good players to come through Toronto, so I see this as something to build on, especially considering the youth and core of this team. I can’t make assumptions about how free agency is going to go this summer, but there should be nothing but optimism regarding the direction of this group.
DeMar DeRozan proves me right: I’ve waxed poetic about this a few times but allow me to do it once more before the bigger stage. I said before the season that I expected a big jump from DeRozan this season as I continued to see a little Tracy McGrady in him. The start of the season was a least-efficient battle between him and pseudo-elite black hole Rudy Gay. I’ll admit that even though I was thrilled at the trading of Gay, I was concerned that DeRozan would challenge himself to carry the team on his back, not through smart, efficient, well-rounded play, but through volume scoring and empty isolation possessions.
Instead, DeRozan took it as a different challenge. He was fed up with losing and was committed to making the playoffs this season. The stats are still there but the empty stats are fewer. It is two-way basketball for DeRozan now, with an inside-out game that has validated himself as a cornerstone player that GM Masai Ujiri doubted would come to fruition. Just earlier this season, there was talk that DeRozan could be the next moved in a conciliatory move that they needed to take the next step with draft picks and not a volume scorer. The Raptors’ success this season has to be hitched to DeRozan, and I would be shocked if he is not viewed as a franchise pillar moving forward in their attempt to rise in the East.
How do I know what to expect, Jonas?: Speaking of franchise pillars, this was supposed to be the unquestioned one for the Raptors. After a big finish to the season last year, the expectations for Jonas Valanciunas were big. Not only was I buying that, I was going even bigger. I was touting him as a potential All-Star this season and a truly great center within 2-3 years. I’m not going to rehash the complacent stretches vs. the aggressive stretches here as that has been analyzed to excess throughout the season.
My prediction for greatness may have been a bit premature, but I don’t think it’s wrong. I still expect huge things for the Lithuanian, and I have some measured optimism that it may be on display in these playoffs. Valanciunas is not only on one of his aggressive runs, but he is playing the best basketball of his career right now. My shouting from rooftops has apparently been heard, as Valanciunas has 11 straight games in double figures and is averaging 11 shots a game in April. Frankly, it could be higher, and we wish it was, but I’ve been frequently asking all season, so this is a great sign. In April, Valanciunas is averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds a game.
There’s plenty more, too. For now, though, the playoffs need to do the talking. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have high expectations, but considering the Raptors drew the Brooklyn Nets, my enthusiasm is tempered a little. It still pains me a little to write that after all the mocking that’s been written.