Sullivan: Raptors mounting impressive, under-the-radar title defense

Jerry Sullivan

There’s a wonderful sports story unfolding up the road in Ontario, one that many basketball fans and media in the United States have been a little slow to pick up on.

The Raptors. Remember them, the team that won its first NBA championship eight months ago? They’re still pretty good. In fact, the raw numbers say they might be even better than a year ago, despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard.

Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto won its 14th consecutive game, rallying in the fourth quarter to beat the Brooklyn Nets, 119-118. The Raptors are now 39-14, two games better than at this point a year ago and the best record through 53 games in franchise history.

Sure, this is no guarantee of postseason success, as the Raps discovered when they kept losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers after fine regular seasons in the recent past.

The playoffs are a different animal. There are questions about their ability to score effectively in the half-court, which becomes more vital in April, May and June. They’re a little too reliant on 3-pointers, and while they’re second in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage, they’ll miss Leonard’s gift for guarding the top offensive guys in the playoffs.

But it’s amazing what they’ve done this season under head coach Nick Nurse, who will coach the East in next weekend’s All-Star game (the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer is ineligible because he did it last year). Nurse should be a lock for NBA coach of the year — if anyone is watching.

“People are so out to lunch on the Raptors, it’s not even funny,” said Raptors TV analyst Jack Armstrong, the former Niagara head coach. “ What they’ve accomplished this year is nothing sort of remarkable.”

As Armstrong pointed out, the Raptors have done it despite a siege of injuries to some of their top players. They beat Brooklyn on Saturday without three key players: All-star point guard Kyle Lowry, center Marc Gasol and shooting guard Normal Powell, who was having a breakout season before suffering a broken arm.

Only one man who was in the starting lineup in Game 6 of the Finals at Golden State last June was starting: power forward Pascal Siakam, who has blossomed in his fourth NBA season (23.4 points, 7.6 rebounds) and will start for Team Giannis in the All-Star Games.

Fred VanVleet, who scored 22 points in the deciding game of the Finals, has come into his own as a starter in his fourth season, averaging 18 points and 7 assists in 43 starts. VanVleet has missed 10 games, Siakam 11, Lowry 12, Powell 15, Gasol 18. Veteran Serge Ibaka, averaging a career-high 15.9 points at age 30, has missed 10 games.

Terence Davis, a rookie guard from Mississippi, is averaging 20 points and shooting 60 percent in February. Matt Thomas, another rookie out of Iowa State, scored a career-high 15 points off the bench Saturday against the Nets. They’ve had to dig deep into the roster at times.

Somehow, they’re on pace to win 60 games, which would be a franchise record. Two years ago, they won 59. It’s a tribute to Nurse, an innovative defensive coach who gets the most out of a lineup, and team president Masai Ujiri, one of the most respected and sought-after executives in the sport.

Ujiri has been a target of Knicks owner James Dolan for years. Rumors flew again last week when Dolan fired Steve Mills as general manager. But Dolan couldn’t wait on Ujiri and went with a noted player agent, Leon Rose, instead.

That’s great news for Toronto fans. Rose is expected to deliver top talent to a Knicks franchise that has become an undesirable destination. But Ujiri’s genius is for finding and developing talent, for identifying the sort of players with the talent and character to evolve in their careers.

The Raptors were quiet at last week’s trade deadline. In the end, it was a seller’s market. Armstrong felt Toronto could have used another versatile wing or post defender to compete in the Eastern playoffs. But that was only if other teams weren’t making ridiculous offers.

Ujiri has assembled a deep, talented and young roster. He wasn’t in position to swap bloated contracts because the Raptors have a manageable salary structure. Plus, they’ve developed a strong chemistry, without any diva superstar.

They’re good and capable of beating anyone in the playoffs. If the sports media is more interested in seeing LeBron James and the Lakers, or James Harden and the Rockets, or the Celtics or Sixers or Zion Williamson, well, that’s something they’ll have to deal with.

“It’s lazy journalism,” said Armstrong, who can see Canada out the back window of his home in Lewiston. “It’s sensationalism. Really, when I have to see the New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks on ESPN and Turner more than the Raptors, and the Raptors have a great team, is this a sport or is this like TMZ here?”

It’s not the sexiest show the NBA has to offer. But if you’re a fan of the game, these Raptors are a joy to watch. Lest we forget, they are the defending champions, and it’s their trophy until someone takes it away from them.

Toronto winning again and bringing a second title to Canada — without last year’s Finals MVP — would be a fabulous story. Imagine if they wound up in the championship against the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard.

Now THAT would get people’s attention.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at

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