Twelve games into the season, with a huge Eastern Conference battle tonight against the Cavaliers, the Raptors now see themselves at 10-2 and top in the East. Despite a relatively soft schedule, they have won key games against the Grizzlies and Wizards and they have taken care of the games that they needed to. This is a team that was considered a third wheel in the East behind the Bulls and the Cavs. But can the Raps keep up with this pace?
It's no secret that the Raps offense revolves around their perimeter. The backcourt of Lowry and Derozan have been very good this season, and the shooting of Terrence Ross has been critical for floor spacing. However, the Raptors have a 7 foot offensive weapon that is being relatively unused that goes by the name of Jonas Valanciunas. JV spent the summer working with Hakeem, and it has clearly showed with his offensive footwork. However, the Raptors still have not unleashed the big Lithuanian. He has improved recently, but there are matchups that should be taken advantage of that they refuse to. Overall, however, their offense has been spectacular, and certainly able to maintain their 1st place standing, however their is still room for improvement that could put them into championship contention.
Even when Dwayne Casey was a hated figure by Raptors fans, he was still regarded as a good defensive coach. The difference now is that he now has a group of players that have bought into his system, turning this team into a defensive force. Kyle Lowry is an elite defender at PG, Jonas has shown improvement as a rim protector, Amir is a defensive anchor at PF and new addition James Johnson has been the best defender on the team and a guy that can defender bigger wings, such as Joe Johnson or Lebron, something the Raps have lacked in last year's playoffs. With both the interior development of Jonas and the signing of JJ, their defense is even better than last year when the finished in the Top 10 in overall defense. This defense is legit and, as long as Casey remains coach, they will stay legit.
With the balance of an elite offense and defense, the Raptors have the potential to be a Top 5 team in both categories. This pretty much guarantees a Top 2 seed in the East. With the struggles of the Cavs this season and the health uncertainty of the Bulls, it would not be surprising to see the Raps take the top seed. Today's game against Cleveland is a great chance to put them even more in the hole, while growing their lead on the rest of the East. This team is for real, you better get used to it.