How High Can The North Rise?
How High Can The North Rise?
by James Schofield
Rewind the clock to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the eventual champions Cleveland Cavaliers were pushed to six games by the second seed Toronto Raptors, after the Raptors had earlier beat both Indiana and Miami in seven games. They did this with a Demar DeRozan who had averaged, in the regular season, 23.5 PPG, 4.0 APG, 4.5 RPG, while shooting 33% from three and 44% from the field, in a season which led both DeRozan and teammate Kyle Lowry to their second All-Star appearances.
Fast forward to present day and, after nine regular season games, Toronto are again the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 7-2, and the Demar DeRozan who has come to play for them, thus far, is the same who has achieved the feat of being the first NBA player to score 30+ points in 8 of the 9 opening games since Michael Jordan. Averaging 34.0 PPG, to go along with 4.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 SPG and 52.8% shooting, Demar DeRozan has been an offensive force for the Raptors in these early stages of season 2016/17. A further fact in the favour of DeRozan’s historically good start? He makes one of only seven players in the last 50 years to have reached 300 points on a season in the first nine games. Add that the fact that DeRozan is shooting a terrible 21% from three, and it’s not hard to imagine that DeRozan’s PPG numbers may be, somewhat, maintainable for the 27 year old star continuing on this season. Provided, of course, that he is capable of improving his long range game as the season progresses, enveloping it into his, otherwise, extraordinarily solid numbers. At the very least, it’s not unrealistic to hope that DeRozan may be able to match the 3P% of previous years. He can’t do it all alone for Toronto, however, but shouldn’t have much to be concerned with, as his teammates appear poised to rise to the occasion.
DeRozan’s fellow All-Star teammate Kyle Lowry has shown up every bit as gritty and mature as ever, with 17.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 6.8 APG and 1.7 SPG, proving a steady force throughout Toronto’s season so far, which has seen victories over teams such as Charlotte, Miami and Oklahoma City. Likewise, players such as Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross have shown up to play. Though none of these four may have stats that jump out from the box score, necessarily, it is clear on the court that the chemistry between the team as a whole is at a high level, and each of them are playing some of their best basketball as a result. Then there are the youngsters playing far beyond their years, such as second year player Norman Powell, who the Raptors have relied upon multiple times this season to offer a calm head off the bench in crunch time. Or rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poetl, both of whom have had to step up when the (slightly) older Valanciunas was injured, or off the court, and with surprising results. Or even longtime Raptor project Lucas Nogueira, who has appeared in four of the Raptors’ nine games, and turned in an impressive cameo to seal Toronto’s most recent win against New York.
Norman Powell also turned in a solid contribution against the Knicks, stepping up to score 19 points, grab 5 rebounds and shoot an even 50% from three point land. Better still, however, Powell was called upon multiple times to guard the dangerous Carmelo Anthony throughout the game, and particularly shone in the role in the final quarter when the game still hung in the balance. Though Anthony would finish with 31 points on 47.6% shooting, he was made ineffective for the game’s final quarter, and the Raptors were able to run away with an 11 point victory. Considering Powell was called into the starting lineup, and handed considerably more minutes, with DeMarre Carroll’s absence from the Raptors at home on Saturday night, it is looking increasingly as though Carroll may be expendable and could make an appearance towards the end of the trade period as a potential piece for the Raptors to use. This is crucial to make a note of going forward, and it would be hoped Carroll may think similarly and rise to the occasion, but only time will tell.
Of course, the season hasn’t been without its blemishes for Toronto, so far. But Toronto may have lost to Sacramento last Monday, the rookies Poetl and Siakam both showed promising signs in their battle against league star Demarcus Cousins, while Valanciunas was on the sidelines. Though Cousins finished with 22 points to go along with 14 rebounds, his numbers show that he suffered somewhat as a result of the pressure applied by the rookies, shooting 7-21 for the game. Meanwhile, Poetl and Siakam turned in 6 and 10 points, respectively, and gave Toronto enough stability and maturity at the Power Forward and Center positions so as to not collapse entirely against Cousins and his offence. For the record, DeRozan turned in easily his worst offensive game so far this season against the Kings, scoring a season low 23 points on 7-20 shooting, in only their second loss from eight games. But then that only goes to further show the tremendous start he has had this season to be able to call 23 points a rare shortcoming by the offensive weapon.
Collectively, the Toronto Raptors look good to maintain their position as the second seed in the otherwise open East, and push teams such as Golden State and the Cavaliers with their DeRozan/Lowry led offence. But it’s fair to consider that the Raptors haven’t yet reached their ceiling for what they can achieve in season 2016/17, and may yet prove to be greatly dangerous in the postseason. People are forgetting, after all, that they still have the newly acquired Jared Sullinger waiting in the wings to play his first game in a Raptors uniform. Signed in free agency before the season began, but struck down by a foot injury which required surgery, Sullinger could yet prove to be the wildcard that may help Toronto elevate to another level. Capable of turning in games of 20 total rebounds (which he has done on two occasions with previous team Boston, including once against Toronto in 2014), Sullinger is still only 24 years of age with no shortage of potential that he can either reach or squander with the Raptors. Naturally, the concern will be the nature of the injury he is coming off, with foot complaints commonly taking some time for NBA players to fully recover from, and carrying a risk of being a recurring issue going forward. Toronto will be hoping this won’t be the case for Sullinger, and that he can come into the lineup later in the season as a spark for the team.
Add Sullinger’s anticipated eventual return with the fact that the aforementioned Poetl, Siakam, Joseph, Valanciunas, Powell, Nogueira and Ross are all aged 25 or younger, and the Raptors look good to improve even further as the season goes on. Especially with the new and improved Demar DeRozan, who can still improve on his impressive numbers through a better showing from long range, and Kyle Lowry still turning in games worthy of All-Star attention, the Toronto Raptors should be able to maintain their position as the second seed in the East – and perhaps even better. The Toronto Raptors have never won a Conference Title, let alone a Championship, despite having had such names as Vince Carter, Harlem Olajuwon, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, Antonio Davis and Damon Stoudamire pass through the doors. Perhaps behind the play of DeRozan and Lowry, and the continued progression of their young core, this could be their season to finally change that. Is it time for the North to really rise?