By Rob Ficiur
For the first time in their 21 year history the Toronto Raptors have had three consecutive winning seasons. Their three best regular seasons have been their last three campaigns. A franchise that has stumbled with mediocrity is on the verge of becoming an elite team in the NBA. However they have to win in the 2016 playoffs.
When the Raptors made the 2014 playoffs fans were amazed at how this bottom feeder team turned their season around. Losing in the first round was disappointing but overall the season was a success. When the Raptors set a new franchise record for wins in 2015 playoff hopes were high. Those hopes were dashed by a four games sweep. Losing in the playoffs was not good enough in 2015. Neither team that eliminated the Raptors, Washington (2015) nor Brooklyn (2014), won their second playoff round. The Raptors lost to teams that went nowhere.
As this season went on I took a step back in cheering for the Raptors. Yes they were in first place the entire season, but that was no longer good enough. They have shown they can make the playoffs, but can they win in the post season?
The St. Louis Blues are the NHL’s version of the Toronto Raptors. The Blues have been in the NHL 49 years. Three of their top five seasons in their history have occurred since 2012. Each of the previous four seasons the Blues have had a winning percentage above .625. Counting this season the Blues have had 100 points (or the equivalent in the 2013 lockout season) for five straight years. With all that winning no one in St. Louis is going to be happy without playoffs success in 2016.
In each of the past three seasons the Blues have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Unlike the Raptors the Blues lost out to two eventual Stanley Cup winners in the last four years. Still no one in St. Louis was pacified that they lost to a great team, the bottom line is the Blues lost.
The St. Louis Blues have more points in the last five years than any NHL team. Their 496 points is six more than the Chicago Black Hawks. However the Hawks have two Stanley Cup championships in this period of time; more Cups than the Blues have playoff series wins. The Blues will not be considered an elite team unless they go to the final four in this year’s playoffs. I expect that if the Blues don’t win two rounds this year there will be changes in coaching and personal next season.
This article is about the Toronto Raptors not the St. Louis Blues. Raptors fans might not have been confident in their team after Saturday’s playoff opening loss to Indiana. One game is not a series…right? That is what Raptors fans said last year when they lost game one to Washington. One loss became two at home and then the series was practically over.
The Toronto Blue Jays of the 1980’s had a similar history to the St. Louis Blues (and maybe the Raptors?) From 1985 to 1991 the Jays were a perennial playoff contender. Three years with more than 90 wins was not enough to get earn those Jays a playoff series victory. At the end of the 1990 season Jays management made a bold move trading key pieces of their winning team. In exchange for these star players they acquired Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. This redesigned Blue Jays team went on to win the World Series two years later.
This article is about the 2016 Toronto Raptors not the 1985-1991 Toronto Blue Jays. However, if these Raptors don’t have playoff success their three consecutive Atlantic Division titles will mean nothing. Management will be forced to redesign a successful regular season team to make it a playoff winner. But how? In this modern era of free agency and salary caps it is harder to trade quality players for quality players than it was 25 years ago.
By the time this article is printed the Raptors will have played Game #2. By the time you read it they will have likely played Game #3 or more. If the Raptors lose Game #2 many fans will call the season over; not liking the team’s chances playing Games 3 and 4 in Indiana. If they lose the series, fans no longer believe that this core group of players can win in the playoffs. Three strikes and you are out can apply in basketball too.
Fear not, Raptors fans, history tells us there is hope! According to http://www.whowins.com, in NBA history the home team in the first round has a 95-48 record in game two of the series. Overall the home team (the Raptors in this case) have won 126 series and only lost 17 times (an .881 winning percentage). The Raptors had 11 more wins than Indiana over an 82 game schedule. They can (and will) comeback from a poor first game to win the series. (I hope).