Apr 16, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks center Cole Aldrich (45) drives to the basket for a dunk during the second half against the Toronto Raptors at Madison Square Garden. New York Knicks defeat the Toronto Raptors 95-92. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Toronto Raptors: Underdog Mentality Needed In Playoffs

The 2013-14 NBA season reads like a fairy tale for the Toronto Raptors.

At the outset, they looked like a team that, at least on paper, was capable of playing somewhere in the neighborhood of .500 basketball. In the current landscape of the Eastern Conference, as we all know, that would surely have meant a trip to the playoffs.

A 6-12 start derailed that line of thinking for me to some extent, but not entirely. My biggest concerns early on were watching a roster that suffered from duplication with Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan and a lack of chemistry overall. Even still, I thought that roster had enough talent to overcome those issues and get back on track.

Then came the trade in early December that steered their fortunes in a rather unexpected direction.

Dec 13, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez (21), forward Patrick Patterson (54) and guard Terrence Ross (31) stand on the court against the Philadelphia 76ers at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 108-100. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve said before, I believed that the end result of moving Gay would benefit the Raptors immediately in several ways.

It would be a classic case of addition by subtraction. One that allowed DeRozan to step into the role of primary scorer as well as for Terrence Ross to get an opportunity to develop on the fly as a starter. And furthermore, that the move to acquire Patrick Patterson and Co. from the Sacramento Kings would bring the kind of depth that had been lacking in Toronto for many years.

Having said that, I never would have imagined back then that the Raptors would finish out the season 42-22, clinch the Atlantic Division crown, and win a franchise-record 48 games.

Amid calls from some corners to position themselves for a lottery pick rather than a berth in the postseason, the Raptors proved to the fans and, perhaps more importantly their general manager, that they wanted to win now. Once their playoff hopes and even the notion of winning a round entered the conversation, the team was kept intact and given the green light to continue on its improbable journey.

Of course the Raptors’ success this season was more than a fluke.

The play of DeRozan, which earned him an All-Star nod, and the play of Kyle Lowry, which earned him the distinction of an All-Star snub, certainly kept the line moving. So did the sophomore campaigns turned in my Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Enough good things can ever by said about Amir Johnson.

Really, up and down the roster, this was a team that bought into coach Dwane Casey’s system and made the commitment to play as a unit with the common goal of winning.

After all of this, the Raptors appear to be entering the playoffs with a healthy dose of confidence, but I hope they are equally determined to prove that they will not be pushed aside simply because of their lack of postseason experience as a group.

The Brooklyn Nets may or may not have taken steps down the stretch of the season to encourage a first-round meeting with their division rival, but the mere concept should be a launching point for the Raptors’ approach to the playoffs. If it is true that the Nets view a series with the Raptors as their best shot at advancing, then the Raptors should embrace that and use it as motivation.

There is no harm in taking on the underdog mentality, even though the Raptors are the higher seed. In fact, I think that mindset would actually improve the chances of coming away with a series victory.

Veterans with championship experience such as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are intimidating, as are the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. However, I think the Raptors possess the athleticism and toughness needed to counter that veteran savvy.

Feb 19, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Tyler Hansbrough (50) is restrained by forward Amir Johnson (15) after receiving a foul against the Chicago Bulls at Air Canada Centre. The Bulls beat the Raptors 94-92. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Garnett likes to talk and disrupt his opponent with words. In that respect, the Raptors have Tyler Hansbrough to push back and bother the Big Ticket.

Pierce has been known to struggle with his shot until the last few minutes of the game when he finally regains his 3-point touch. Perhaps the youth and athleticism of T-Ross will tire Pierce out to the point that he won’t have any energy left to knock down those clutch buckets.

These are just a couple examples of the kinds of things the Raptors could do to bother a more experienced group.

More than anything though, the Raptors can bother and maybe even annoy the Nets by taking command of how the games are going to be played. That is, pushing the ball in transition, attacking the basket, and playing hard-nosed, high-energy defense.

The Raptors may not be favored in this series, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win it.

They have spent the entire season proving what they are capable of and something tells me they aren’t done just yet.

Tags: Toronto Raptors

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