Watching the Toronto Raptors play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals has turned nonbelievers into believers.
This is the first time Toronto has advanced in the playoffs since 2001 and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the last. At best, the Raptors were a quasi-contender – a team that would rarely make the playoffs, and even then would be assumed to be weeded out in the first round. After a few minor blips on the radar of being a competitive team with Vince Carter and then Chris Bosh, it seems the Raptors are emerging into a new era. DeMar DeRozan has become the face of the Raptor Nation, and along with Kyle Lowry the pair have brought great change to the franchise.
Toronto, as a city, is experiencing a cultural renaissance right now. It currently has two top-10 music artists (The Weeknd and Drake), is extremely hyped over Drake’s album Views that is dedicated to the city, and now has a chance to watch it’s NBA team compete in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals. The Raptors currently have a 2-1 lead over the Heat, and its future looks promising.
The question is, do the Raptors have what it takes to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals? Let’s be real, either the Raptors or the Heat are going to get absolutely obliterated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the next round if the Cavs continue to play at their current pace. But that doesn’t mean a victory here wouldn’t be absolutely huge for not only this Raptors team, but for the entire Raptors franchise.
Very rarely will you see a team’s fans staying outside the stadium in such large crowds. The city is hyped up. Being from South Florida, I remember watching our Miami Heat fans leave the stadium in the closing minutes only to later try to get back in as the Heat started making a comeback. (Ray Allen would then make one of the greatest shot in NBA history.)
The point is, DeRozan and Lowry have won their city over. Playing an away game in a stadium with a fired-up Toronto crowd is no easy feat, and the Raptors are finally able to boast that advantage.
In Game 3 of the series, Kyle Lowry played to his All-Star reputation, dropping 33 points to lead his team to a 95-91 victory over the Heat. Except for his buzzer-beater half court wonder shot in Game 1, Lowry’s post-season shooting was awful until this performance. Hopefully for the Raptors, Lowry has shaken off his post-season rust and will be playing at the same level for the remainder of the series.
The Raptors lost their 7-foot big man Jonas Valanciunas in the third quarter to a rolled ankle and are not fully able to take advantage of Heat center Hassan Whiteside’s knee injury. To beat the Heat in the playoffs in Miami is a big win for Toronto. The most impressive part was Dwyane Wade, the beating heart of the Heat, dropped 38 points – and the Raptors were still able to pull out the win.
Whether or not the Raptors can advance comes down to a few key issues. Can DeRozan and Lowry stay injury-free? Is Valanciunas going to come back? Will Lowry be able to play at the same level as he did in Game 3? The Heat are a weakened version of themselves. One of their highest-paid players (and former Raptor) Chris Bosh is wearing a suit on the sidelines for the remainder of the post-season due to blood clotting.
As long as the Raptors can successfully employ damage control on the tenacious superstar D-Wade and keep Goran Dragic at bay, they should be able to leapfrog this hardened team to the Eastern Conference Finals. If Toronto can pull this off, they will likely face LeBron James and the Cavs who have been cruising past the Hawks, dropping an NBA record 25 3-pointers in Game 2, but just reaching that stage will represent a huge milestone for the Raptors.