Right before the NBA abruptly suspended the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus outbreak, the defending champion Toronto Raptors were having a splendid season as the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference. They have remained an elite team despite the departure of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who bolted the country to go play for his hometown of Los Angeles with the L.A. Clippers.
Many expected Toronto to fall off the championship radar after arguably the best player in basketball left the city. However, the Raptors continue to prove their naysayers wrong with everybody stepping up. They’ve been led by All-Stars Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. Likewise, they are doing this despite dealing with injuries to nearly everyone on the roster all season long.
Toronto certainly had a lot of high points through their title defense campaign. Here are some of their best performances prior to the coronavirus suspension:
1. Norman Powell’s career night spoils Stephen Curry’s return
Raptors shooting guard Norman Powell had the game of his life against the Warriors. He scored a career-best 37 points on 13-of-21 shooting while making four 3-pointers and converting on all of his seven free-throw attempts. He also added three rebounds, two assists, and three steals to cap off his career ball game.
This performance highlighted a week where he won Player of the Week honors in the Eastern Conference. Through this three-game stretch, he averaged 31.3 points while shooting 56.1 percent from the field. He also happened to knock down four triples a night (on 46.2 percent shooting).
2. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet say “Kawhi who?”
The Raptors opened the season with an emotional ring ceremony followed by a game against the upstart New Orleans Pelicans. Many doubted Toronto prior to the start of the season. This win, especially with the statement performances of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, may have tempered the negative chatter on the Raptors’ ability to remain competitive this season.
Siakam recorded a massive double-double with 34 points and 18 rebounds to go along with five assists. Meanwhile, VanVleet also dropped 34 points, which is a career-high, on 12-of-18 shooting. The guard also hit a crucial triple late in overtime that extended Toronto’s lead to five.
In a way, Siakam and VanVleet’s respective performances may have been an indirect message to Raptors fans, as if saying: “No Kawhi? We got this.” Indeed, these two are the future of Raptors basketball. Getting these games from them on Day 1 of the post-Kawhi era just proved that Toronto’s future in safe hands.
So far, they are proving that with the best campaigns of their respective careers. Siakam has emerged as the undisputed face of the franchise. He deservedly made his first All-Star team – as a starter, even – with averages of 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. VanVleet, though he has been clouded with injuries, has thrived in a starter’s role for the Raptors. In 48 appearances, the former G-League standout averaged career numbers of 17.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.9 steals.
3. Statement win over the Los Angeles Lakers
The Raptors showcased an impressive team effort and took down the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, 113-104, stopping the Purple and Gold’s 7-game winning streak at the time. The win also dealt the Lakers’ first home loss of the season.
Without the leadership of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and veteran big man Serge Ibaka, Toronto leaned on Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet to lead the way.
Siakam top-scored for the Raptors with 24 points to go along with 11 rebounds, while VanVleet added 23 points, seven rebounds, and 10 assists. In Ibaka’s absence, former G-League MVP Chris Boucher stepped up with 15 points and three blocks in 24 minutes off the bench.
This was definitely an early-season statement win for Toronto, with many of its naysayers doubting that they can still hang with the projected top contenders in the 2019-20 season. What made it more impressive is that they did it short-handed, too, with multiple players from their bench stepping up.
4. Redemption for Christmas Day defeat to Boston
Christmas Day 2019 was a historic night for Toronto basketball as the Raptors hosted the first-ever NBA Christmas game in Canada. Unfortunately, the Boston Celtics spoiled the party that night, defeating the defending champs by 16 points.
Three nights later, however, the Raptors returned the favor and knocked off the Celtics on their home floor, 113-97. With the sour taste of their Christmas day defeat still on their tongues, Toronto clamped down defensively and hammered the Celtics with a signature all-around team effort, snapping Boston’s five-game winning streak in the process.
Kyle Lowry led the way with 30 points, seven assists, and five three-pointers, while Serge Ibaka added 20 points and 10 boards. As mentioned, they clicked on both sides of the ball as they shot 52.4 percent from the field while forcing the C’s to just 39.7 percent shooting.
This game reminded the NBA that when they have a chip on their shoulder, the Raptors can certainly turn it up a notch and put their foot down, especially on defense. With the added motivation brought about by low preseason expectations, the Raptors have so far exceeded them all prior to the season’s untimely suspension.