Good news, basketball fans: every Canadian NBA team made the playoffs this year!
OK, that may not be the most resounding statement, considering the Toronto Raptors are the country's only representative in the league. But the team's four-year post-season streak represents an unprecedented level of consistency for a franchise that was once the purple doormat of the league.
Toronto takes on the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Since the teams last met in March — the Bucks' lone win against the Raptors in four meetings this season — Toronto has gone 14-5 while successfully weathering the absence of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, who returned from a wrist injury to play in the final four games of the regular season.
Game 1 takes place at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET.
Last year's trip to the East final sent expectations skyrocketing in Toronto, but it's important to remember the Raptors had to battle through two gruelling seven-game series in order to get there. So the team and its fans shouldn't overlook the Bucks by any means.
Fear the deer?
Yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor the last time Milwaukee won an NBA title, but the Bucks have another young superstar in the making in 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. The All-Star starter affectionately known as "the Greek Freak" posted career highs in every major statistic this season and is the driving force behind the Bucks' return to the post-season.
Milwaukee will be without No. 2 scorer Jabari Parker, who hasn't played since mid-February after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee. A healthy Khris Middleton has helped fill the void, and the off-season addition of Australian agitator Matthew Dellavedova will help pace the young Bucks (unintentional rap reference, but stay tuned for an intentional one).
Raptors fans will remember Dellavedova from Toronto's loss to Cleveland in last year's playoffs, but head coach Jason Kidd should be a familiar face to anyone who cheered for the Raptors in the pre-Drake era. Kidd eliminated Toronto from the 2007 post-season as a member of the New Jersey Nets while averaging a triple-double, and helmed the rechristened Brooklyn Nets to a seven-game series win in 2014.
Raptors ready to 'ride or die'
Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will ultimately dictate whether Toronto advances or not, bu the "Ride or Die" duo are far from alone.
Unless Kidd is planning on suiting up as a player-coach à la Bill Russell, the Bucks' lack of depth is likely to be exposed by the well-stocked Raptors. Toronto boasts quality reserves across the board, including second-unit general Cory Joseph, utility forward Patrick Patterson and freshmen Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam.
Dwane Casey's rotation will inevitably tighten during the playoffs, and lineup linchpins like Norm Powell and P.J. Tucker will be relied on to bring their "polished sandpaper" style of play to the series.
Serge Ibaka has been a revelation on both ends of the court since Toronto acquired him midway through the season, but it's the play of Jonas Valanciunas that will make or break the team's title hopes.
The fourth-year centre from Lithuania was a bona fide post presence during the team's 2016 playoff run before an ankle injury kept him out of eight games, including the first four against the eventual champion Cavaliers.
Valanciunas will need to establish himself in the paint, especially against the poster-producing Antetokounmpo, but will also have his hands full with Greg Monroe and Orangeville Prep alumnus Thon Maker. In order to replicate his performance from last post-season, JV can't be an itty bitty baller.