1. The mental dexterity of the defending champion Toronto Raptors
Toronto's 15-game winning streak is over, but man, is this team a joy. The Raptors bring a combination of toughness, intelligence, and confidence that is really hard to find.
Some of that was within them before they went all the way last season. But maybe winning a title cements it inside you, makes it permanent -- part of your bloodstream. You know what it takes -- how hard it is, how dialed in you have to be every second of every possession -- and that you and everyone with your shared experience can summon that. Imagine how powerful that knowledge is? Even guys who played no role on last season's team -- Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas -- seem imbued with it.
They fly around on defense with a perfectly calibrated controlled frenzy -- long and roaring fast, but never out of control. They make reads on the fly, and rarely screw up:
What Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby pull there -- a jump switch in the left corner -- looks easy, but it's not. Toronto can make four or five reads like that in a 10-second span without screwing up -- a rare thing.
Nick Nurse knows how smart his team is, and tests his players with complex defenses: zones, box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos. For short stretches, he randomizes matchups in ways that would appear unfavorable to Toronto: Anunoby jostles with a center -- Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns recently -- while one Toronto big roams elsewhere. Sometimes, it backfires. But sometimes, it confuses the offense or lures it into inefficient one-on-one battles.
On offense, Toronto rushes the ball up with something like glee. In the half court, they are all cuts and extra passes and instant decisions:
It appears as if no one cares about individual numbers. Siakam and Kyle Lowry are both scoring more, but they know they need to fill the void left by Kawhi Leonard.
Toronto isn't the most talented team in the East. The Raptors might be getting a little lucky with opponents missing 3s; they allow the most 3s of any team, somewhat by design. They won't have the best player in any series against Milwaukee or Philadelphia, and maybe not against Miami or Boston. But they have a will and a belief that makes them dangerous.