This time of year, many Canadians are jacked about the playoff run, wondering which team will carry our nation’s hopes, as we chase an elusive championship.
Of course, for the first time since 1970, there’s no Canadian-based team in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s Mug. However, we do have another pro team that’s very much alive, and looking for a title of their very own. Not on the ice, but on the hardwood, as the Toronto Raptors are off to the NBA’s Eastern Conference Final, for the first time in franchise history!
It’s been one heck of a year for the Raps, and it ain’t over yet.
First, in February, Toronto played host the NBA’s best, as All-Star Weekend was held north of the border for the first time. Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan represented the Raps in the showcase game, and were popular hosts for the weekend, which was highlighted by retiring Laker legend Kobe Bryant’s final all-star appearance, along with a fantastic slam-dunk contest between Minnesota’s Zach LaVine and Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.
To cap off the regular season, the Raps won their third straight Atlantic Division title, and compiling their first 50-win season, on the way to a franchise-record 56-26 mark, and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, heading into the postseason.
First up, the Raps drew Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. In a series that probably went longer than it should have, Toronto made good use of home court advantage, eventually needing the full seven games to eliminate the Pacers, and advance to Round #2.
After their first round test, Toronto faced another battle, with Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat. Of course, the heat were without one of their biggest weapons, former Raptor star Chris Bosh, who has missed most of the season, with potentially dangerous blood clots.
Things started off well, with the Raptors taking Game One. But then, a big problem reared its head…
Losing Jonas Valanciunas was a major blow, but, as always the rule of thimb is “next man up,” especially in the postseason. Enter Bismack Biyombo.
While the Raptors struggled with consistency, the big man from Congo was a force at both ends of the floor – a beast on the defensive end, blocking shots and snagging rebound after rebound. While Big Biz was doing his thing, Lowry and DeRozan, along with DeMarre Carroll (who had an injury scare of his own), found their games are the series wound on, and in the end, they proved to be to much for the Heat.
Yesterday afternoon, the Raptors faced a Game Seven on their home court, for the second time in two weeks. And, just like they did against Indiana, Toronto got the job done, putting together their most complete game of the playoffs, dismantling Miami, 116-89. The win sent hungry Canadian hoops fans, from coast to coast, to coast, into a frenzy…
Now, the job gets much tougher.
It’s #1 versus #2, as the East’s top-seeded team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by superstar LeBron James have home court advantage, as they welcome the Raptors to Ohio for Game One, tomorrow night.
The Raps actually took two of three from the Cavs during the regular season, but the playoffs are a totally different game, and Cleveland is peaking at the right time, having won each of their first two series in four straight, sweeping Detroit and Atlanta.
The Cavaliers are a big challenge, with King James backed up by star guard Kyrie Irving, and forwards Kevin Love and Canadian Tristan Thompson.
The continued absence of Jonas Valanciunas will be a big story in this series, however, if the Raptors maintain their intensity at both ends of the floor, I think they have a much better shot than most “experts” believe.
It has been a wild ride with the Raptors, and Canadian basketball fans aren’t ready for it to end yet!
The action starts tomorrow night, and as they head into the Eastern Conference Final, the Raptors have 35 million strong behind them! Let’s go get it!