According to Oxford dictionary, a dark horse is a candidate or competitor about whom little is known, but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds.
At the moment, the Toronto Raptors have the second-best record in the entire league. So why are they considered a dark horse for the upcoming playoffs?
To put it simple, because playoffs is a different kind of game and because the Raptors did not live up to the expectations many predicted for the 2017-2018 season, despite having the best record in the regular season with 59 wins and 23 losses, as they managed to get swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.
How Raptors broke DeMar’s heart
The trade of DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs resulted in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green arriving in an opposite direction. Why would a franchise trade their All-Star, who has committed to the team by signing a long-term deal and was not only the most beloved player among the fans, but also openly admitted liking the city?
The answer is simple, the Raptors had two mediocre post-season runs, despite performing well in the regular season. DeMar was their closer, a guy who had to make a play when the game was on the line and he failed to deliver. As a result, the president of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, decided to go for Leonard, even if it meant having him for just one year.
Case for the most improved player
The current season is a breakout season for Pascal Siakam, who is averaging career highs in a number of categories, most notable ones being: minutes played with 31.6, field goal percentage of .552, three-point percentage of .369 and 16.3 Points Per Game.
He is a player who can cover a wide range of positions and can be a nuisance for opponents on the defensive end, where is hard to come by and we are yet to witness how far he can truly go.
Trade at the buzzer
Marc Gasol trade was finalized at the NBA trade deadline and this can prove to be a pivotal move that can help Toronto become truly versatile.
A veteran and classic center player, who is fundamentally sound and can pass the ball well, while at the same time not being shy of physical contact in the paint. As a result, head coach Nick Nurse has a luxury of playing small ball with Siakam and Serge Ibaka in the lineup while if there is a need to go big, Marc Gasol can step in.
It made no sense at the time why Gregg Popovich had included Danny Green in the DeMar DeRozan deal, but the emergence of Davis Bertans, who is shooting an impressive .477 from the three-point line this season, explained why Pop got rid of Danny.
In return, Green has flourished in Raptors uniform, averaging .429% behind the three-point line and .448 in field goal percentage, while playing 28.5 minutes per game. On top of that, he knows how to play defense and his length can bother, not only opponent guards, but forwards as well.
As already said, Kawhi Leonard is on his final year deal, which raises the biggest question: will he be willing to sacrifice his body for the team that he might not even play till the end of his career? He has already won a ring in 2014 and was named Finals MVP during that year.
Moreover, his loyalty was questioned when he was cleared to play by the Spurs medical team, but after returning to the lineup for nine games he missed the rest of the 2017-2018 season and asked for a trade, which resulted in him being traded to the Raptors.
Roll of a dice
By giving up on DeMar DeRozan and adding Marc Gasol to their lineup, Raptors organization have changed the horses in midstream.
Masai Ujiri got tired of swimming with the tide and decided to make bold moves and as with any bold move, it can backfire. Eventually, all that matters to the organization that is performing well during the regular season is to have a good run in the postseason.
There are plenty of teams in NBA history that had great regular season runs but failed to deliver in the Playoffs. Will that be the case with Toronto’s team as well or will they be able to break the spell? It is something that only time can show.