Masai Ujiri could hear a loud, fiery conversation outside his office this week as the Toronto Raptors prepared for the NBA playoffs. It was music to his ears.
The team president heard recently added players Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in the thick of a heated discussion with assistant coach Rex Kalamian.
Just then, coach Dwane Casey walked by and happily enlightened Ujiri: “Those guys are talking about defence.”
Ujiri shared the anecdote to illustrate the increased intensity the Raptors added by trading for Ibaka and Tucker. After making it to the Eastern Conference final last year – where they were outplayed by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the Raps wanted to add more defensive toughness before the playoffs.
The team landed two focused defenders it had long coveted. Ibaka filled the gaping need for an elite power forward. Tucker added veteran leadership, defensive versatility and a knack for aggravating opposing stars.
They bolstered an already strong Toronto roster. DeMar DeRozan had his best season and Kyle Lowry had a hot first half before injuring his wrist. With Lowry now healthy again and all the pieces assembled, this appears to be the best-built team in franchise history. The only way to prove that is by making the team’s best playoff run.
“On paper, it all looks good when you make trades, but you hope they all gel. It worked out fine for the regular season, but now the second season starts,” Ujiri said. “The last 15 games, I think we were 12-3, so you like that momentum.”
These Raptors could start by extinguishing a long-standing hex when they open the postseason on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Raps are 0-8 in the opening game of first-round playoff series, and 1-10 overall in Game 1s. The last time Toronto won the first game of any series was in 2001, against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.
The postseason began the same way for the Raps the past three years. Each featured an early afternoon game in Toronto before thunderous crowds inside and outside the Air Canada Centre.
Whether the players were inexperienced, overhyped, underwhelmed, or outplayed, an inexplicable Toronto loss resulted each time.
The Raptors were relieved to learn this week that the NBA didn’t, for a fourth straight year, give them the earliest start time.
“Well we have changed it from a 6 a.m. game to a 5:30 p.m. game,” Ujiri said with a laugh. “Oops, I might get fined for that [comment].”
The Raptors-Bucks series certainly won’t be the sexiest matchup in the NBA playoffs, but it will feature plenty worth watching.
It will be Tucker’s first NBA playoff appearance, an opportunity to see why many experts describe him with words like “sandpaper.” It’s a chance to see if Ibaka can duplicate the sort of postseason play that helped the Oklahoma City Thunder to the 2012 NBA finals. It could feature Jonas Valanciunas tangling with Greg Monroe. A host of Raptors – including Tucker, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson – will try to smother one of the league’s most dynamic talents, Giannis (the Greek Freak) Antetokounmpo.
Toronto’s two all-stars both had career bests in scoring this season. But both have had their playoff struggles, particularly early in last year’s playoffs. Game 1 of their opening round against the Indiana Pacers had Raps supporters in a panic as Lowry made 3 of 13 field-goal attempts while DeRozan made 5 of 19. The pair went 1 for 10 from three-point range and 8 for 15 at the free-throw line.
Now Lowry will try to resume an all-star level of play with just four games under his belt after wrist surgery. DeRozan will try to play through a web of defensive schemes that Bucks coach Jason Kidd always plans for him.
“The biggest thing DeMar did this year, I think he’s more composed,” Carroll said. “He understands being a great player sometimes you’re going to draw a lot of attention and sometimes you’ve got to get other guys involved. He’s not the type of kid now that guys are going to double team and he’s still going to shoot it. He’s like ‘let me get this guy involved, that guy involved.’
“He doesn’t mind scoring 10 or 12 points and winning the game. I think two or three years ago he would’ve minded that.”
Toronto, the No. 3 seed in the East, will be heavily favoured against No. 6-seeded Milwaukee, especially after taking three of their four meetings this season and going 13-2 against them over the past four seasons. Round 2 could feature a Raptors-Cavaliers showdown. While most never gave Toronto the slightest chance in that series last year, the additions of Tucker and Ibaka (not to mention the late-season slide of Cleveland) make it far more intriguing this year.
“If you’re looking at a series that goes seven games, you’ll get a couple of those dirty, nasty games where neither team catches a rhythm and makes shots, and the defence catches up to what you’re doing and they take away your top option and it’s like a 92-91 game,” said TNT analyst Kevin McHale on a teleconference with NBA writers this week. “Tucker and Ibaka give Toronto the edge in that kind of game that they didn’t have before. I think [the trades] were huge for Toronto. They now have so much more versatility on the defensive end.”
Chatter about the Cavs will no doubt intensify over the next week, and the Raps will face the challenge of tuning out that noise to focus on Milwaukee and the present. The first dragon to slay is that 0-8 opening-game curse.
“Game 1 has always – I don’t want to say haunted us – but it is what it is,” Ujiri said. “Records are made to be broken so hopefully we break this one this time.”Report Typo/Error