It was a battle of the top two teams in their respective conferences on March 9. For one team, the Houston Rockets, this game meant continuing their season-high winning streak of 17 games as they looked to secure the top spot in the Western Conference. For the other team, the Toronto Raptors, it was a battle for recognition.
The atmosphere of the game had the whole city buzzing. It was wire-to-wire; the Raptors were able to go up early in the contest, which gave the Rockets some adversity as they weren’t accustomed to playing from behind. As expected, the Rockets were able to get it close in the final minutes of the game, but when it was all said and done, the Raptors beat Houston 108–105. Kyle Lowry scored 30 points, and DeMar DeRozan scored 23 points. When the buzzer sounded, the arena was euphoric. It was almost as if the NBA title was won on that night. From the head office to the coaches and right down to the players, this matchup was more than just another game.
The Raptors improved to 28–5 at home, the best record in the NBA. They have hit the 50-win mark faster than any other time in franchise history and are currently riding a ten-game winning streak, as of March 17.
It seems like only yesterday that ESPN projected Toronto to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference with 43.4 wins. Projections like that and comments about the Raptors being solely a regular season team are what sparked the changes that led to the team’s current success. In an exit media session last year, Raptors president Masai Ujiri made it clear that the Raptors needed a “culture reset.” At the time, nobody knew what that meant. Would they fire the coaching staff or make a blockbuster trade? While there was pressure from every Raptors fan about what to do next, Ujiri decided to stick with the roster he had and instead administered an entire revamp of their offense.
That decision is now paying its dividends and then some. The Raptors are firmly ahead in the Eastern Conference with a five game lead over the second-place Boston Celtics and a 12.5 game lead over their rivals, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Raptors were criticized for having a heavy isolated offense that ranked dead last in assists per game last season at 18.5 per game. This season, they are ranked sixth at 23.9 assists per game. Another important change for them was the production from the bench. Last season they were ranked 26th out of 30 teams in bench scoring, but this season they jumped to sixth.
All of these improvements bode well for a title run. In past years, when Lowry or Derozan struggled with their shot, the entire Raptors offense stalled. This year, they have more weapons, and this will make their offense much harder to guard.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe the Raptors are serious title contenders or not. They’ve had that chip on their shoulder all season long. They have the best record in the East and are the only team in the NBA in the top five in offensive and defensive rating.
For the Raptors, it’s about reaching new heights, and that starts in the playoffs. This team has a legitimate shot at the title, and it’s time for the rest of the league to pay them their dues.