LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The scene was different, virtual fans replacing real ones, the silence of a near-empty arena broken only by hip hop music and digital crowd noise pumped through hanging speakers. But for Masai Ujiri, it all felt familiar.
A year ago, in Las Vegas, Ujiri implored Raptors fans not to panic. “Don’t lose one second of sleep,” said Ujiri, just days after Kawhi Leonard packed his bags for Los Angeles. “We’re going to be just fine.” Now here was Ujiri, the Raptors president, a few feet from the NBA branded floor, in a hooded sweatshirt watching Toronto batter Orlando, its likely first-round opponent.
For the Raptors, a win, and a 3-0 restart.
For Ujiri, perhaps, further vindication.
History isn’t kind to NBA teams that lose superstars. It took New Orleans years to dig itself out from the Chris Paul trade. The Magic are just recovering from dealing Dwight Howard. Cleveland has cratered, twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but that took a history-making season from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick first-round exit.
Toronto won’t be first-round fodder for anyone, and really—how did that happen? Leonard was an All-Star, a top-five talent, the reigning Finals MVP. And after beating the Magic, Toronto’s winning percentage (.731) stands as the best in franchise history.
There is no voodoo to the Raptors success, no secret sauce. Probe for one and you are met with a string of blank stares and collective shrugs, as if you are the crazy one for thinking they shouldn’t be here.
“We don’t spend any energy in having that ‘sports talk,’” Marc Gasol told me. “It’s good bar talk. We understand the media has to do that. We know we’re not easy to beat. We believe in ourselves. We have a lot of tools, a lot of great players and, to me, the best coaching staff in the NBA.”
Indeed. The Raptors are good because they have Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player and 2019 playoffs breakout star, who has ratcheted his game to yet another level. There are traces of Leonard in Siakam, embers from a season-long education that remain. Teammates describe Siakam as a workaholic, driven to be great, empowered by head coach Nick Nurse to be the playmaker few saw when Siakam was an undersized center at New Mexico State. Siakam has built upon a breakthrough third season, becoming a more willing three-point shooter.
They are good because of Fred VanVleet, the fourth-year guard enjoying a breakout season of his own. Defense has keyed Toronto’s success, and VanVleet has emerged as an integral part of it. Once something of a liability, VanVleet leads the NBA in deflections and ranks in the top five in steals. Inside the Raptors locker room, everyone knows: If you don’t defend, you don’t play.
“You look bad when you don’t play defense,” said VanVleet. “You stick out like a sore thumb … you don’t want to be that guy.”
The Raptors are good because of Kyle Lowry, the stalwart, Mr. Raptor, arguably the greatest player in franchise history and the tone setter for this group. A competitive fire still burns inside Lowry, the same flame that pushed him past the blacktops in North Philadelphia to Villanova, to the NBA, to an eventual NBA championship. Up 16 points against Orlando, Lowry is barking at Evan Fournier at the free throw line. Up double digits in the final minutes, Lowry is battling Nikola Vucevic on the offensive glass.
Before the season, Nurse met with Lowry. We need more scoring, Nurse said. Lowry agreed. “It was a short meeting,” Nurse told SI. Lowry has responded by increasing his scoring average six points, ticking his three-point percentage up to 36% this season.
Ujiri saw this talent, this coaching staff and any thought of tearing the team down was fleeting, at best. For months, the Raptors were peppered with trade calls, with rivals probing if Gasol, Serge Ibaka, even Lowry were available. Ujiri didn’t bite. First-round picks are valuable, sure, but the Raptors believe they can find talent anywhere. Siakam and O.G. Anunoby were picked up late in the first round, Norman Powell in the second while VanVleet and rising rookie Terence Davis were undrafted free agents. Draft assets, Ujiri reasoned, weren’t worth breaking up this core.
Months later, Toronto is firmly entrenched as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and, really—are we sure anyone can beat them? The Raptors have stomped the Lakers, outlasted the Heat and put a 10-point loss on Orlando. LeBron James himself has declared them true contenders. Milwaukee will enter the postseason as the conference favorite, but the Raptors have beaten the Bucks before and have the size to body up with them. Siakam and VanVleet will have to step forward and make shots in bigger roles, but they have a championship run to lean on.
“We’re a no-excuse team,” Gasol said. “I don’t need someone to tell me to believe in something. You go out there and you compete and you can beat anybody. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have a lot of pieces. I don’t need someone to tell me ‘you guys can win it.’ It’s really hard, and it’s a different year, obviously, but on any given night we can be one of the good teams.”
Here comes Toronto, impossibly, improbably determined to defend its title from the beginning, armed with the personnel and confidence now to do it. The four-month hiatus healed lingering injuries, handing Nurse the deepest, most talented roster he’s had all season.
Minutes after beating Orlando, Ibaka emerged from the Raptors makeshift locker room, beelining up the stairs to the weight room, anxious to squeeze in 15 minutes on the one treadmill available before the last bus pulled out. Behind him, Stanley Johnson, eager to do the same.
“You played 25 minutes, Serge,” Johnson said. “Let me get on first.”
“Five minutes,” Ibaka replied, before disappearing up the steps.
For Ibaka, for Toronto, the work has just begun.