It would have been easy to look at the Toronto Raptors as one-hit wonders, winning their first championship last year but seeing Kawhi Leonard leave after one season.
The Raptors, however, were a good team before Leonard arrived and they certainly have maintained their excellence upon his departure.
Want to name how many NBA teams have won 50 or more games in each of the last five years, including this year?
That list would include only the Raptors.
The Raptors are 51-19, and their .729 winning percentage is better than last year’s title team (.707).
When the 76ers face the Raptors at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Kissimmee, Fla., what a few weeks ago seemed like a highly anticipated matchup will now find two teams playing out the string. Each team has two seeding games remaining. For both, the goal is to be healthy as possible when the NBA playoffs begin next week.
Toronto is 5-1 in the NBA restart. In its last game, a 114-106 win over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, the Raptors were missing several key players.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, likely to win the MVP award for a second straight year, missed the game after undergoing oral surgery. Toronto was without its backcourt of Kyle Lowry (lower back) and Fred VanVleet (hyperextended right knee) and forward-center Serge Ibaka (bruised right knee).
The Sixers had a depleted lineup in Tuesday’s 130-117 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Besides Ben Simmons, out after undergoing left knee surgery Monday, Joel Embiid was sidelined with a twisted left ankle. Josh Richardson got the night off to rest. Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee) also didn’t play.
It seems like a long time ago when Leonard’s shot at the buzzer in Game 7 eliminated the Sixers in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
Toronto has already clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and will face the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. If the Sixers lose one of their final two or Indiana wins one of its final two, the Sixers will be No. 6 seed and play the Boston Celtics in the first round.
When asked the reason for Toronto’s run over the past five years, Nurse, who was a Raptors assistant coach for five years before taking over as head coach last season, pointed to Lowry, the former Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova point guard.
“It starts with Kyle; he has been here the whole run,” Nurse said earlier this week in a Zoom interview.
This is Lowry’s eighth season in Toronto, his 13th in the NBA. During the last five years, he has averaged 18.6 points, 7.2 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Lowry has been an All-Star each of the last six years.
“Kyle’s toughness and leadership has set the tone for this organization, for this kind of run,” Nurse said.
Nurse said other players have also developed better than expected.
“We plugged in some new guys here and there who have probably exceeded most people’s expectations from Pascal [Siakam] to Fred [VanVleet] to Norm [Powell] …” Nurse said.
Siakam emerged as an All-Star this season after being the NBA’s most improved player last season. Guards VanVleet and Powell are averaging career highs of 17.8 points and 16.0 points, respectively.