For a majority of the season, the overwhelming assumption was that the Milwaukee Bucks would come out of the Eastern Conference to take on either the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers in the NBA Finals. While that could still end up being the case, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors have managed to stay in the title conversation despite losing their star forward Kawhi Leonard, and their starting shooting guard Danny Green.
With less than a month of regular season basketball remaining, the Raptors hold the third-best record (47-18) in the NBA behind the Lakers (50-15) and Bucks (54-12). Their dominance is most obvious on the defensive end, where they’ve held opponents to 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s the second-best defensive rating in the NBA behind the Bucks and just ahead of the Lakers.
That dominance was on full display in their win against the Lakers on Saturday night. While the Lakers certainly didn’t do themselves any favors with how many open shots they missed, the Raptors didn’t make life easy on them either, holding them to 92 points on 35.4% shooting from the field.
With a win on Saturday, the Raptors became the first team to sweep the Lakers this season. The Indiana Pacers are the only other team the Lakers haven’t beaten this season, and they’ll play each other on Saturday, August 8.
Following Saturday’s game, LeBron James heaped praise on the Raptors’ ability to maintain their success, which he believes starts with the veteran talent on their roster.
“They won a championship for a reason, and it wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi, and obviously you see that,” James said. “They’ve got the two-headed monster in Fred [Van Vleet] and Kyle [Lowry] that sets the tone, and their wings are extremely good in Pascal [Siakam] and OG [Anunoby]. And they’ve got experience in the front court at the center position in Marc [Gasol] and Serge [Ibaka], and they’ve got a bunch of complementary guys. That’s why they’ve been the team that they’ve been all year.”
Kyle Lowry led the way for the Raptors on Saturday, scoring 33 points on 8-16 shooting from the field, including 5-9 shooting from 3-point range. 10 of his his 33 points came in the fourth quarter.
However, the difference between the Lakers and Raptors hasn’t been sheer star power — at their best, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are arguably two of the five-best players in the NBA. What James, Davis and the rest of the Lakers don’t have over the Raptors, though, is the experience of winning a championship together.
As quickly as the Lakers gelled this season, there is a clear distinction between a team with great chemistry and a team with championship chemistry, the latter of which has earned the Raptors’ respect with James and his peers.
“That’s a great team, no ifs, ands or buts,” James said. “Exceptionally well-coached, championship DNA — you can never take that away from a ball club if you win a championship. And even before that, they just got playoff-tested guys. Guys that played not only here in the NBA in big games, but also in FIBA games as well. Marc [Gasol] has been in big games throughout his whole life pretty much it seems like. They’re just a great team.
“The media may not talk about them much or give them much credit because Kawhi is gone, but players in the league definitely know what type of team they are.”
The regular season series between the Raptors and Lakers may be over, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see these two teams meet again this season.