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Toronto Raptors

Are the Toronto Raptors a contender at full strength?

The hits just keep on coming.

Fresh off the heels of winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, it took all of 95 seconds in Monday's win over the Utah Jazz for Norman Powell to turn an ankle and re-join the Toronto Raptors infirmary.

It's likely not serious. Powell is listed as day-to-day with a sprained ankle and it appears insignificant compared to injuries that sidelined him for 11 games in December/January and nine games in February. There's no reason to expect that he won't return, even if it's not quite in the stratosphere of serving as the NBA's second-leading scorer which is exactly what he was last week.

The Raptors were already playing without Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet yet once again found a way to win. As TSN's Josh Lewenberg aptly described the Raptors managed to go 4-1 on a Western Conference road trip despite opening the trip with one point guard and zero centres and at various points playing without Powell, Gasol, VanVleet and Serge Ibaka.

MORE: Major takeaways from Toronto's west coast trip

It's a resilient bunch that oozes championship DNA and the manner in which they've remained in contention for the two seed in the Eastern Conference despite the steady stream of injuries and setbacks is beyond commendable. That they've remained competitive despite the run of bad luck has perhaps created a feeling that the defending champs can hang with anybody in the East - including the Milwaukee Bucks - if they can just stay healthy.

On one hand, they get the benefit of the doubt. This is the defending champions we're talking about, a team that's time and again been knocked down only to hop back up and re-enter the fray. They win games they're not supposed to and they take care of business when they're expected to. In every essence, it's a Professional Basketball Team with capital Ps, Bs and Ts.

On the other hand... what if it's wishful thinking? What if this notion that health cures all is actually a fallacy?

Here's what we know.

According to Spotrac.com's handy injury tracker, the Raptors have missed more games due to injury than any other team currently projected to make the playoffs.

Not since January 28 against the Atlanta Hawks have the Raptors played a game with their top seven players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell. For the season, those seven have appeared in just 17 games together.

It's those 17 games that speaks volumes about Toronto's prospects for an extended postseason push.

MORE: How far can Siakam carry the Raptors?

On the surface, everything is fine. The Raptors are 12-5 with a scoring margin of +5.0 points per game. That equates to 58 wins over the course of a season which just so happens to be the same number of games they won last year before going on to win the NBA title.

So what's the issue?

Taking a closer look at the actual 17 games reveals that their record at full strength is nothing more than a house of cards.

They went 11-0 against teams currently under. 500 and just 1-5 against teams with winning records.

The lone win? January 22 against the Philadelphia 76ers. That's impressive, right? The Sixers were without superstar centre Joel Embiid while starting shooting guard Josh Richardson played all of 3:52 after sustaining a hamstring injury early in th first quarter.

The five losses:

  • December 8 at Philadelphia in a game the Raptors trailed by 18 entering the fourth quarter
  • December 5 at home vs Houston in a game never closer than five over the final 7:00
  • December 3 at home vs Miami in which they were outscored 13-2 in overtime
  • November 2 at Milwaukee in a game they trailed by 26
  • October 25 at Boston in a game they were outscored 36-24 over the final frame

Now some might say it's impossible to read too much into results from what feels like an eternity ago. There's some truth to that. Lots can change over the course of a season and teams which take the floor in December are rarely the same which take the floor into April, May and June.

And yet if you're looking for evidence of a team that's ready to roll once healthy, it just isn't there. Outside of the win over the Embiid-less Sixers, the next two most impressive from those 12 full strength victories are a pair over the Zion Williamson-less Pelicans from October and November. The rest of the body of work includes games against the Hawks, Bulls, Pistons, Timberwolves, Knicks, Magic, Kings and Spurs... not exactly the type of competition the Raptors will see in latter postseason rounds, let alone the first round.

MORE: Why Nick Nurse should be front-runner for Coach of the Year

When healthy, the Raptors have a lot going for them.

Two All-Stars. A Finals MVP vote-getter. A defensive mastermind. One of the NBA's best bench scorers. A two-way stopper. Arguably the NBA's best backup centre.

Toss in a brilliant mastermind like Nick Nurse and the Raptors won't be an easy out for anyone.

And as the world saw first-hand last season, anything can happen come playoff time. Teams catch fire. Teams freeze over. Players succumb to injuries. Players become dads and morph into folk heroes.

But it's all about managing expectations. And as the Raptors prioritize health over all else moving forward, it's imperative to maintain perspective and search for balance when daydreaming about what could become of all this.

The views here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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