Raptors leading East as NBA season enters home stretch

The Toronto Raptors developed a reputation as perennial also-rans in the LeBron James-dominated Eastern Conference after finishing the last few years with a strong regular season followed by a disappointing playoff performance. But the Raptors have never finished a season atop the East, and they’ve never looked as good as they have since the beginning of February.


Toronto hasn’t lost since Feb. 1, winning seven straight heading into the All Star break to take top spot in the conference from the sliding Boston Celtics. The Raptors can make it eight straight when their season resumes against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, with budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo standing in their way.


Toronto has fared well against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks this year, winning both of their previous two meetings - one of which included a career-high 52 points from DeMar DeRozan. Sweeping the season series against a team that gave them problems in the opening round of the playoffs last year would send a message that maybe these Raptors are not the same team as the one that gets brushed aside by the Cleveland Cavaliers each postseason.


The biggest difference between Toronto then and now is the rotation, which is as deep as it has ever been for the Raptors. Six bench players are averaging at least 6 points per game, and that depth gives Toronto head coach Dwane Casey the flexibility to counter almost any kind of opposing lineup, from teams that rely on post play to those who go small and play a perimeter shooting game. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are still the leaders of the team as well as its emotional core, but they are supported by the shot-blocking of Serge Ibaka and Jakob Poeltl, and versatile defense from youngsters like Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and rookie standout OG Anunoby.


February’s success has been bolstered by strong shooting performances from CJ Miles and Fred VanVleet, who are both coming off the bench and hitting around 50 percent of their shots from 3-point range. VanVleet has come into his own in 2018, averaging more than 11 points in January as well, and the sophomore point guard is earning plenty of praise for his quickness and playmaking vision as well.


Now that Cleveland overhauled its roster in an attempt to salvage the season and earn another NBA Finals berth, it will be up to the Raptors to hold firm as the top contender in the East. While the Celtics have been fading since their hot start, Toronto seems to be getting better with each passing month, and whoever faces the revamped Cavaliers in the playoffs will need to be at their best to find a way through.