Welcome to the Greatest Moment series at Last Word On Pro Basketball, where we’ll present to you each NBA team’s greatest moment of the 21st century. From draft lottery luck, to a franchise-changing trade, to the sweet taste of a championship, every NBA team has had its own special moment to look back on
In this edition, we’ll take a look at the greatest Toronto Raptors moment of the 21st century: Making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in the 2015-16 season.
Greatest Toronto Raptors Moment of the 21st Century: 2016 Eastern Conference Finals Appearance
Let’s be honest: Raptors fans have not had a lot to cheer about in the team’s 22 years of existence. As one of the newest franchises in the NBA, Toronto has struggled for the majority of its time. The past several years have undoubtedly been the most successful stretch in franchise history. The cherry on top of this strong run was the 2015-16 Raptors making the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual NBA champions Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. It was Toronto’s first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
Years of Struggle
In their 22 years, Toronto has only managed to make the playoffs nine times, including the past four years. Prior to the 2015-16 season, the Raptors had only ever made it out of the first round one time, in the 2001 playoffs. That year, Toronto lost to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. During these years of struggle, Toronto consistently saw star players head south for greener pastures. Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh all left Toronto. Many cited cultural differences and cold weather for the organization’s inability to retain stars. However, a much simpler explanation would be that the Raptors were almost never a .500 or better team, record-wise.
The DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry Era
It is unlikely that the Raptors knew what they were getting when they drafted DeMar DeRozan in 2009. His work ethic and aspirations to be the best have turned him into one of the best scorers in the NBA, as he averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the past four seasons.
While DeRozan continued to develop his game, the Raptors made a rather unspectacular trade for Kyle Lowry in the 2012 off-season. They acquired the stocky point guard in exchange for Gary Forbes and a future first-round pick. Lowry’s improvement was dramatic and unexpected. His career-high for a season was just 14 points per game in Houston. By his third season in Toronto, Lowry was averaging 18 points and seven assists per game. This tandem propelled the Raptors to the playoffs in 2013-14, their first appearance since the 2007-08 season.
While making the playoffs was definitely an improvement from the team’s many lottery-bound seasons, it brought higher expectations from the fans. The first time they made the playoffs, the Lowry-DeRozan era Raptors faced the new-look Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Nets were a veteran team, led by big names like Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson. Toronto lost in a heartbreaking seven-game series, falling one Kyle Lowry jumper short from reaching the second round.The 2014-15 season brought more success. Lowry and DeRozan were named All-Stars and Toronto one again made the playoffs. Another first round exit in embarrassing fashion to another young up-and-coming Washington Wizards team was hard to swallow. Especially the manner of how they lost; a four game sweep that never looked like much of a competition.
The 2014-15 season brought more success. Lowry was named an All-Star – and DeRozan surely would’ve been one, had he not missed 21 games before the All-Star break due to injury – and Toronto once again made the playoffs. However, another first-round exit in embarrassing fashion to a young Washington Wizards team was hard to swallow. That was especially so because of the way the Raptors lost; it was a four-game sweep that never looked like much of a competition.
The 2015-16 season seemed to be make-or-break for the Raptors. It was one last chance to prove that they were contenders in the East, rather than the chokers that many made them out to be. They secured the second seed in the conference, finishing the regular season with a franchise-best 56-26 record.
Come playoff time, the Raptors faced the Indiana Pacers and their star, Paul George, in the first round. As was the pattern from the last two seasons, Toronto lost the opening game of the series. A few more lackluster performances saw the series go to a seventh game, despite the Raptors having a much more talented roster.
In the second round, Toronto was up against the aging Miami Heat, who also pushed the Raptors to seven games. As is tradition, Toronto lost the first game of the series at home. Once again, the Raptors struggled to beat a lesser opponent, winning most games because of the brilliance of Lowry and DeRozan. However, while the seventh game against Indiana was a hard-fought affair, Game 7 against Miami was never really close. The Raptors dominated the deciding game en route to the first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
The series win against Miami was a landmark moment for the Raptors franchise. Even though it wasn’t pretty, they had done the job and gone farther than any previous team to don a Toronto jersey.
It all led to a series matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in round three. For a franchise that had struggled so much since its formation, this might as well have been an NBA title, especially because of the way this talented roster had performed over the past couple of playoff series. While the Raptors did eventually lose in six games to Cleveland, this was a massive achievement for the organization and great for its fan base. It validated the Raptors as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
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