When in Rome (Toronto)

Not a single player from Toronto’s 2007/08 playoff campaign remains today. Only Masai Ujiri –the Raptors general manager–remains from a team stripped and reassembled to innovate, entertain, and compete. Despite the Toronto Raptors being a non-contender in the playoffs during the month of May for the past 6 years, all that could change in the coming months.

Let’s start by giving no credit to hip hop recording artist Drake, and instead applaud third-year head coach Dwane Casey. The Eastern Conference Coach of the Month (December 2013) has stressed smart play in the half-court, with his team positioned third-best in the league in least fouls accrued per game. As a result, Casey can pile substantial minutes on his backcourt. Toronto is the only team in the league with two players in the top 10 for minutes per game.

The magic number for the Toronto Raptors to clinch a playoff spot is five. If the playoffs began today, the Raptors would be the third seed in the Eastern Conference. At 38-29, Toronto sits atop their division – one of only two teams above .500 in the Atlantic. With the league’s seventh-best overall defense, the Raptors are proving more predator than prey.

To begin the season, Toronto did not make any marquee moves outside of picking up Tyler Hansborough for two years. Bill Simmons pegged them in the preseason as the No. 23 best team, and many were quick to dismiss the Raptors as a formidable threat in the Atlantic Division. Instead of listening, they bought into Dwane Casey’s system, upchucked Rudy Gay’s volume shooting, and began to win.

The better question might be: If not now then when? Toronto has never been in this opportunistic a spot in the month of March since their run in 2007/08. That’s worth noting. Last year, the Raptors won 7 of their final 10 and still finished 4 games out of the playoff picture. This season, they’ve beaten every team currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture but Miami and Charlotte. That’s worth noting, too.

In a season with innumerable team-crippling injuries, Toronto has managed to stay healthy; chalk it up to their youth. The Raptors have just three players over the age of 30, none of which reside in the starting lineup.

DeMar DeRozan was selected to this year’s NBA All-Star team, and has found a notable scoring sidekick in Kyle Lowry. Alongside DeRozan’s 21.4 points and Lowry’s 17 points per 36 minutes, Casey has managed to procure a frontcourt. With low-post presence in Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Hansborough off of the bench, the Raptors are as dangerous in the half-court as they’re on the fast-break. And for those beseeching highlight tape–if Terrence Ross’ athleticism in the year’s Sprite Slam Dunk Contest didn’t entice, his in-game high-flying antics certainly have.

Surges of inter-divisional wins have created an opportunity for Toronto, and Casey’s squad has gone from 5-11 in 2013 to 8-3 this season–best in the Atlantic. Head coach Dwane Casey has already eclipsed last year’s total, with 15 games to play.

There’s something magical about a team on the rise, let alone one without a single conference championship. The old adage, “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” cannot be any more applicable than it already is in Toronto. Equipped with potential and some much-needed star power, the Raptors are starting to believe. They have every reason to continue that mentality on their way to the playoffs.

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Josh Planos

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Josh Planos hopes to one day write about sports like the millennial version of Cormac McCarthy; he's working on it. His work has been featured at Washington Post, Denver Post, ESPN TrueHoop Network, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, Buckets Magazine, and Rivals. Currently, he writes for Washington Post Sports, BallerBall of the ESPN TrueHoop Network, FanSided, and The Pick and Roll. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter. Leads can be sent to jplanos1@gmail.com | Portfolio: josh-planos.squarespace.com | Tweets by @JPlanos

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