Believe it: It’s time to recognize the Toronto Raptors as East contenders

TORONTO – As we anointed Boston the Eastern Conference’s heir, wondered if Jabari Parker could make Milwaukee a threat and debated whether Washington was equipped to make another postseason run, we largely dismissed Toronto. And after watching the Raptors bully the Celtics in a 111-91 drubbing on Tuesday night, it’s time to get to the bottom of why.

Is it history? Toronto has made the playoffs four straight seasons, yet only advanced out of the first round twice. Last season the Raps were a veteran-laden, experienced bunch that added Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline and seemed ready to challenge Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown. Instead, they folded in four games to the Cavaliers in the conference semis.

DeMar DeRozan passes the ball in front of the Celtics’ Marcus Morris during the second half Tuesday night. (AP)

Is it coaching? Is there any more maligned successful coach than Dwane Casey? Casey has won 56.3 percent of his games as the Raptors’ coach and is headed to Los Angeles next week to coach an All-Star team. Yet Casey’s play-calling is constantly scrutinized, his offenses in recent years have been deemed unimaginative, and he always seems one early playoff exit away from being shown the door.

Is it the stars? Make a list of the top backcourts in today’s NBA. Stop when you get to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They don’t have the sizzle of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the speed and skill of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and can be overlooked in favor of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lowry is an overachiever and DeRozan is a prolific scorer who can’t shoot the three.

Is it the bench? The Raps gutted the second unit last summer, elevating unknowns. Expecting Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet to lead a top-tier reserve unit was foolish. Pascal Siakam? Most couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.

Yet here we are, early February, and the Raptors are 37-16, a game back of Boston — and surging. Lowry and DeRozan are All-Stars, the bench is ranked in the top 10 in scoring and the coach has overhauled an isolation-heavy offense into a free-flowing system that has pushed Toronto into the top five in offensive efficiency.

You know what: It’s time to start talking more about Toronto.

What the Raptors did to Boston on Tuesday was downright mean. The Celtics were hot (winners of four straight), healthy (Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris were back in the lineup) and had a win over Toronto earlier in the season in their pocket. And they got steamrolled. The Raptors built an eight-point first-quarter lead and never looked back.

“We looked slow, we looked like we weren’t ready to react to their speed or their physicality, and I think that was probably the case the whole night,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Credit them, they played great.”

Indeed, the stars showed up. Lowry, a close friend of Irving’s, dumped 23 points in 25 minutes on him in a matchup of All-Star playmakers, while DeRozan, who has layered a lethal midrange game with a 3-point shot and high-level playmaking, chipped in with 15-points and six assists. The bench did, too. Wright (14 points) and VanVleet (10) ran wild on Boston’s bench, turning the fourth quarter into garbage time.

Said Stevens: “Their bench has been killing everybody.” Added Irving: “They are the best second unit in the league, and they have confidence in themselves.”

And what about coaching? It was Casey who scuttled an isolation-heavy offense that ranked dead last in the league in assists last season in favor of one that has pushed the Raptors into the top half of the league in that category. It’s Casey who has molded Lowry and DeRozan into stars and has taken unheralded draft picks and off-the-street free agents and developed them into a dangerous second unit. And it was Casey, on Tuesday, ordering Ibaka to pick up All-Star Al Horford near midcourt, throwing a wrench in Boston’s effort to run the offense through Horford and giving him a look he admitted he had rarely seen before.

The Raptors are for real, and with Cleveland crumbling, it’s time to start looking at Toronto as at least a co-favorite to come out of the conference. The Raps weren’t taking any victory laps on Tuesday; when asked if Toronto sent a message, Lowry shrugged. “It’s one game,” Lowry said. “We did our job.” That’s true. The Raptors took care of business at home, where they are an NBA-best 22-4 this season. And they will get two more cracks at Boston before the end of the season. But they are one of the NBA’s hottest teams entering the All-Star break with a young supporting cast that gets better by the game.

Toronto didn’t feel like a contender at the start of the season. At the midway point, it’s clear that they are.

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