The NBA playoffs are back in Toronto, finally. Three years after the Raptors’ championship season, the team is back – and so is Jurassic Park – at Scotiabank Arena. But a lot has changed since Toronto’s historic 2019 showing. Gone are stalwarts Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. There’s a new class of fresh faces, including Toronto-born Dalano Banton. Plus, the pandemic has been hard on Raptors fans. The team was forced to play the remainder of its 2020 games in Florida, and never even made the playoffs last year – ending a seven-season postseason streak – after getting pummeled by a COVID-19 outbreak.
But what happens in Tampa, stays in Tampa. And without sounding overly optimistic, Canada is ready for another championship run. The 2022 playoffs kick off on Saturday, April 16, with the fifth-seeded Raptors facing the fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in two road games before returning to Toronto for Game 3 on April 20. You can bet you’ll see your fair share of Raptors jerseys and #WeTheNorth signs across the country that day, because we’re ready to cheer like it’s 2019.
How did we get here?
The Raptors kicked off the 2021-22 season with a return to home court, the first time in front of a Toronto crowd in over a year and a half. They lost to the Washington Wizards on opening night, but beat them three times later during the regular season. Fall proved to be a slow start as the Raptors tried to find their groove. In December, several games were postponed due to players from Chicago and Orlando entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols (aka catching COVID-19).
In the new year, things started to look up, with the Raptors hitting a six-game winning streak at the start of 2022, and embarking on a seven-game streak shortly after. Pascal Siakam has been shining since the all-star break, with an average of 22.8 points per game. The team heads into the postseason on a hot streak that began with a five-game winning run in early March. It has triumphed in 14 of 18 games since then, the best record in the league over that stretch. Toronto’s playoff spot was clinched by beating Atlanta earlier this month, and it has beaten Philadelphia in its last two outings.
Who are the top Raptors players?
Better known as ‘Spicy P,’ the Cameroonian power forward has been slamming buckets of late, averaging 22.8 points per game. While he was snubbed by not being named an all-star this year, he’s putting up numbers better than his 2019-20 all-star season. Now considered a veteran on the team, this will be Siakam’s fifth run at a championship with the Raptors.
Head coach Nick Nurse has remained quiet on whether Fred VanVleet, who has been resting a right knee injury, will be ready to play against the 76ers. Let’s hope he is, because the point guard owns the single-game points record for the Raptors, has been averaging a career-high 20.3 points per game and earned all star honors for the first time this year. Plus, with Lowry gone, everyone’s looking at Frederico to lead.
Named the Eastern Conference rookie of the month for March/April, this is the second consecutive time that 20-year-old Barnes has won the award. The talented power forward was the fourth overall pick by the Raptors in the 2021 draft, and we’ve been witnessing why all season.
The confident forward might be the Raptors’ best bet in facing Philadelphia giant Joel Embiid, who averages a whopping 30 points per game. What Precious Achiuwa, who the Raptors acquired in the Lowry trade, lacks in height, he makes up in his seven-foot wingspan.
Consider it wishful thinking that we’re including Anunoby’s name here. He was missing in action at the end of the regular season due to a right thigh bruise, but made an appearance for 25 minutes in the final game. Still, when the versatile forward is on the court, he plays to win.
Who are the Raptors playing in the first round?
The Raptors will take on their Atlantic Division rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, in the opening round of the playoffs, which tips off Saturday, April 16. After two games in Philadelphia, the Raptors return home for two games on April 20 and April 23. Game 5, if necessary, will be in Philadelphia on April 25; Game 6 back in Toronto on April 28 and Game 7 on April 30.
This isn’t the first time the Raptors and the 76ers have faced off in a playoff series. They first met in the Eastern Conference semi-final in 2001 during the Vince Carter era. Toronto lost the series 4-3. The second and most recent occasion was in 2019, when Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot catapulted the Raptors to the Eastern Conference final. “It was a wild series,” said Nurse, reflecting on that Philly series from three years ago. “I think that both teams were pronounced dead about three times in the series, right?”
The 76ers’ Embiid is a leading contender for the NBA’s most-valuable-player award, but as Rachel Brady writes, he hasn’t always had his finest outings against the Raptors. During the 2019 series, I have averaged only 17.6 points. Meanwhile, Philly added all-star James Harden at the trade deadline. “He’s a dynamic talent that hasn’t lived up to all the hype just yet as a 76er, but accounting for the pick-and-roll with Embiid is sure to keep the Raptors busy,” Brady writes.
Will Jurassic Park be open again in Toronto?
And it is, jurassic-park – aka the tailgate zone next to the Scotiabank Arena and Drake’s favorite viewing party – will be open again this year for the first time since 2019. Fans who want to watch the games live on the 30-by-52-foot screen will need to get free passes, which are available on Scotiabank Arena’s website.
With files from Rachel Brady, Canadian Press