Without Marc, Ibaka and Kawhi: Toronto is reborn from the ashes of the ring

After a desperate start, the Nick Nurse-led franchise is now fifth in the East. Siakam, the only ring holder in the last three victories.


Time flies very fast in Toronto. So much so that, where it used to say Toronto, now it says Tampa. The time capsule of 2020, which does not respect anything or anyone, makes all of the above remain far behind in the collective memory. Also the agonizing basket of Kawhi, in the last gasp of a fateful seventh game for Philadephia (in Pennsylvania, surely, the memory is still too present). He received from Marc Gasol, ran in search of a shot that refused and, once found, more excitement than necessary: six pots on the hoop, as if the historic ceiling had been placed above the net, and a squat wait that lasted forever to make the milestone credible. A fierce comeback against Milwaukee (from 0-2 to 4-2) and a successful series against the Warriors, at the gates of the three-peat but almost orphaned by Kevin Durant and with a depleted Klay Thompson, materialized the ring. And madness broke out.

Although, accordingly, the subsequent celebration has also been able to accumulate more dust than usual. Marc Gasol, as master of ceremonies and key reinforcement in the feat, collected the witness of his brother Pau and, together with Serge Ibaka, added the third ring in the Spanish locker. As you would say colloquially, the Raptors were champions yesterday; but today is very different, in every way. Neither Marc, nor Ibaka nor Kawhi are still on the team. Neither does Danny Green. All of them, in franchises with, right now, many more ring aspirations than the Canadians. The first, along with LeBron James, is looking for a second championship that matches the family shelf; the latter walk down the opposite sidewalk in a silent, but fearful, plan; and the third, along with Embiid, finds the possibility of being the first player in history to get three consecutive rings with three different franchises. The twists and turns of life. And the NBA.

Nick Nurse managed to maintain the band of contending during the past season, despite losing Kawhi (an almost irreplaceable void for any team) and through a collective gear that had been automated. The fall, although worked, in the Conference Semifinals against Boston (3-4), the evolution of the market and the beginning of the current campaign blew up such a poster. Nothing suggests that he will recover (at least, with such force), even less at a time when the Jazz take all the second-line contender tickets (even putting aside the Bucks) and the Nets are emerging as the monster they could become; But the latest results have shown that in Tampa you can also be happy, and it doesn't seem like a mirage.

The biggest rise in the power rankings

Four consecutive losses declared the state of alarm in December and a record of 7-9, in January, lengthened it. February, finally, has been the month that has prevented Tampa from being conceived as a cursed destination. It started with other airs, with two victories against Olando and Brooklyn, and is ending with a streak of four consecutive victories and, finally, a positive record that was resisting (16-15). In social networks, they even suggest that winter is coming, although the logic of meteorology says otherwise. From the fifth square of the East you live much better. The improvement is remarkable, in terms of results and in terms of play; but the northern mind has always been there. "It's a long year, we have a lot of basketball in front of us, and we stand firm and keep trying to improve every day, every game. There are going to be ups and downs, but I think we are finding ourselves and creating an identity. You need to create one. identity every year and it seems that we are finding it here lately, but we have to keep it, "declared Fred Van Vleet in the last, and meritorious, victory against the Sixers, leaders of Conference (20-11) .

In a team in which, in such a short time, everything has changed so much, he is part of that continuity that, even in the greatest of revolutions, ends up being necessary. After much hesitation, and starring in one of the biggest free agency soap operas, Van Vleet started the season with what he wanted: a front-page deal. Four years and 85 million convinced him, at the same time that they alienated Marc or Ibaka themselves, and made him the highest paid undrafted player in history. It joined, then, a process that had begun with Paskal Siakam, erected as a banner and renewed the previous course for four years and 130 million, and that was continuing with OG Anunoby, with whom the extension period of the rookies of 2017 was rushed and a contract was signed for the next four seasons at a rate of 72 million.

And they are responding. All of them, along with Lowry, are the players who are averaging the most minutes. Fred, with his peak at 54 points against Orlando (the best mark for an undrafted), averages 20.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists, being the player with the most steals in the league (53) . He has performances that are worth victories and superstar moments, such as the triple, on the horn of possession, on one hand and against the board, against the Sixers themselves. Siakam, who started the season hesitant, has joined the continuous in growing and already accumulates 20.5 + 7.7 + 4.7. His name exemplifies the break with that very recent past: In the last three victories of the team, he has been the only starting player who was also a starting player in the Raptors of the ring. Kyle Lowry, with problems in his left ankle, has not been able to dispute them. Anunoby, despite having missed eleven games this season (after an absence of ten, he returned coinciding with the best streak of the team), continues to establish itself as the great bet that it is and is in its best averages of points and rebounds (14.1 and 6, respectively) .

Three prestigious victories, two against the Bucks and the one mentioned with the Sixers, along with another against Minnesota, have been the results that have called for optimism. Without going any further, they represent the best concatenation of sensations of the season and have raised the team seven positions in the latest NBA power rankings. The biggest rise of the week. Currently, they are eighth in nate rating, being ninth in offense and twelfth in defense (close to the first ten longed for, and protocol, positions) and accumulate a record of 5-3 against the other four teams from the East with positive scales. Among the best, where they were and want, and can be.

And for that to be the case, they must follow the current path, one of those with which, although they do not always win, they have more ballots to succeed. The collective alternatives (something that already defined them) and the ability to react, from the court and from the bench, have outlined the last markers. They have overcome the absence of Lowry (17.7 + 5.4 + 6.4), the veteran team and a fundamental piece of the ring, apart from the team's record without him (6-0 this season and, according to StatMuse , 16-0 in his last 16 absences), and they have hit the key in the multiple mini-games that are played within a game.

In the most recent example, the victory against the Sixers, the constant rectification in the match between Siakam or Aron Baynes with Embiid allowed to turn a situation that was put 13 points uphill. Likewise, Chris Boucher, a player who averaged 5.8 minutes and 3.3 points in 2019, scored 17 points in the last 14 minutes and is currently the player with the best plus minus in the competition (+56) and the third with more plugs (62). Along with him, more realities are being consecrated, such as Norman Powell (from 8.6 points in 2019 to 16 last year and 17 this year), who do nothing but confirm that there is a good path to walk. And, in an NBA in which the future is worth less and less, with possible immediate destinations. It is never easy to stop being a champion, even less when you are one for the first time; but the eighth straight playoffs once again seem like a certainty (the twelfth in 26 years of history). If they ever didn't seem like it.

Photos from as.com
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