The Raptors topped 50 wins for the first time with a team-record 56 victories. They hosted their first NBA All-Star Game and claimed their third straight Atlantic Division crown. All notable achievements, but the bigger goal now is to win the franchise’s first seven-game playoff series.
Toronto opens the postseason Saturday by hosting the Indiana Pacers.
After losing a Game 7 heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round two years ago, the Raptors were swept out of the playoffs by Washington last year.
‘It really ate away at me all summer, even into this season,’ All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan said.
The day after their season ended last spring, DeRozan and fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry started discussing what they needed to do to avoid another early exit.
‘Sometimes you’ve got to fail to understand what you have to do,’ DeRozan said. ‘No matter how hard it is, you know you don’t want to feel that same feeling we had last year.’
Last year, Lowry missed nine of 10 games down the stretch with a sore back, and Toronto struggled after the All-Star break before being swept.
‘We was trash,’ Lowry said bluntly.
This year, the Raptors aren’t just healthy, they’ve also avoided any hiccups: Toronto hasn’t lost more than two straight since mid-November.
‘I think we’re in a better mental place,’ coach Dwane Casey said. ‘The confidence level is higher. Guys have accepted their roles much more. That’s a huge difference. We’re in a much better place defensively.’
Toronto’s lone playoff victory was a five-game triumph over the Knicks in 2001. In that series, and the six other first-round series they’ve played, the Raptors have never won Game 1.
Still, Indiana star Paul George doesn’t take any consolation from Toronto’s poor playoff history.
‘That’s the scary part about it,’ George said. ‘They haven’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs in a while, so it could be a situation where they’ve not been in a while and they may be ready to move forward.’
Toronto won three of four against the Pacers this season, but needed overtime to win at Indiana on March 17.
Here are some other things to watch in the series between the Raptors and Pacers:
WHAT WILL CARROLL CONTRIBUTE?
Toronto’s marquee acquisition last summer, when he signed a four-year, $60 million contract, forward DeMarre Carroll had right knee surgery on Jan. 6. He missed 41 games before returning April 7 and playing limited minutes in three of the final five games. The Raptors signed Carroll hoping they could count on him to be a lockdown defender and outside scoring threat, but he’ll likely come off the bench against Indiana. Despite his lengthy layoff, Carroll insists he has no lingering physical issues. ‘I’m good, great,’ he said. ‘Basically, you see me in a fight with a bear, you better help that bear.’
BIG PLANS FOR POWELL
Raptors rookie Norman Powell, a second-round pick, became a starter down the stretch and looks likely to retain that role in the playoffs. Powell scored a career-high 30 points in Toronto’s season finale at Brooklyn, making 5 of 6 from 3-point range, and was chosen Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April.
FAIR OR FOUL
A vocal critic of the officiating earlier this season, George acknowledged it’s up to the Pacers to avoid calls they don’t like against a Toronto team that shot a franchise-record 1,702 free throws this season. The Raptors averaged 35.3 free throws per game in four meetings with Indiana. ‘This is the playoffs and hopefully they don’t reward cheap fouls,’ George said. ‘Usually in the playoffs they call hard fouls. But we have to keep our hands in the right position because if we reach into them, it’s a foul, regardless of whether (the Raptors) are good at drawing them.’
THE MEN IN THE MIRROR
Given their shared taste for physical defense, Casey sees plenty of similarities between his team and Indiana. ‘When we look in the mirror, we see the Indiana Pacers,’ he said.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made headlines, and drew a combined $75,000 in fines, for using profane language in pre-series speeches to fans in 2014 and 2015. This time around, Ujiri insists he won’t need a swear jar. ‘I’m 0 and 2 in that regard, so I think I’ll stay away,’ Ujiri said. ‘I also just had a baby boy and he eats too much, so I don’t know if I have enough money.’