Raptors reach 50 win mark and clinch 2nd seed in victory
For two decades the 50 win mark eluded the Toronto Raptors like some sort of mystical creature. It seemed like an unreachable number, a mark that only the NBA's best teams could reach.
Now, they've become 50-win regulars, reaching the mark for the fifth straight season with a 108-99 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday while clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
It all goes back to Kyle Lowry, according to Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
When Lowry showed up in Toronto in 2012, the Raptors were coming off a dismal 23-43 season. He was the disgruntled, coach-killing point guard who couldn't seem to stick with a team for very long. Over time, that perception changed and Lowry ushered in a new era of Raptors basketball.
"I think Kyle’s toughness and leadership has really set the tone for this organization for this kind of run," Nurse said.
Lowry has done it all for the Raptors over the years, playing facilitator, primary scorer, and defensive leader whenever needed.
"Sometimes he gets criticized when he scores less points, but the things he does for our team is more than that, things you don’t see on papers," Raptors forward Serge Ibaka said. "He’s big for us, his impact on both ends of the floor is huge."
When Kawhi Leonard left to Los Angeles after last year's championship run, the Raptors were expected to take a major step back. Vegas set Toronto's over-under at 54.5 wins, 12.5 fewer than the previous season. This year was expected to be the last hurrah for those returning from the championship squad.
But within the organization, there was confidence in the group.
"We always have confidence as us, as a team because we believe when we play as a team, like we always do, we defend, we have players who can do many things on offense," Ibaka said. "We know when you defend in this league you have a chance to win. That’s where we get our confidence."
A lot of that confidence had to do with the growth of Pascal Siakam, the NBA's reigning Most Improved Player. This season, Siakam has taken his game to another level, reaching star status as a top 10-20 player in the NBA.
On Sunday, Memphis got to see why.
Siakam broke out of his recent funk, repeatedly attacking the rim early before nailing a pair of 3-pointers to put away the Grizzlies late in the fourth quarter.
"I just felt like my energy was better," Siakam said. "That’s how I’ve got to be, the rest is going to come, and I know that."
Siakam finished the afternoon with a game-high 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting with four 3-pointers.
It was an impressive bounce-back game for the Raptors who briefly looked like their issues against the Boston Celtics had carried over into the first quarter against Memphis.
Toronto opened the game shooting 7-for-18 in the first quarter and just 1-for-9 from behind the arc with six turnovers.
Desperate for offense, Nurse turned to Matt Thomas, drawing up a couple of plays to free up Thomas for 3-point looks. He nailed the first bucket of the second quarter and pulled the Raptors to within three with his second 3-pointer of the game.
"I was searching," Nurse said. "I was ready to put some new energy and some different shooters out there just to see if we could make em. Just trying to end the dry spell and get a spark and thankfully he knocked a couple down."
The Raptors eventually got things going, cleaning up their early turnover issues and clamping down on defense, sparking their transition offense. Fred VanVleet nabbed three steals in the second quarter alone, scoring 10 points in the frame en route to a 14 point afternoon.
The win means the Raptors have locked up the second seed in the East and will have nothing to play for in their final three seeding games against Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Denver.
"We have done what we kind of needed to do and went 4-1 to get this thing to where we needed it to be," Nurse said. "I would say you will see a little bit of everything in the last three games as far as lots of guys playing up and down the roster, some guys not playing, some guys playing limited minutes. Really just kind of see how it goes."
The Raptors will be right back at it tomorrow when they play the Milwaukee Bucks at 6:30 p.m. ET.