TORONTO — Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley says Toronto is his favourite city in the world and that the Raptors are the best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
The respect is more than mutual.
“I love Chuck, I love Chuck,” said DeMar DeRozan on Friday morning, a day after Barkley said on TNT’s Inside the NBA that the Raptors guard was the most underrated player in the league.
Toronto was the first team in the NBA to clinch a playoff berth this season after a dramatic 121-119 overtime victory against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
It was the Raptors’ sixth win in a row and they sat two games ahead of the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division and the East’s overall standings heading into Friday night’s game with the Houston Rockets. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have struggled with chemistry in their locker room all season, were nine games back in the conference standings.
On Thursday night, Barkley declared that the first-place Raptors would go on to represent the East in the NBA Finals and heaped praise on DeRozan and the depth of Toronto’s bench.
“The only team that can beat them is Cleveland because you have to beat LeBron four times in a week,” said Barkley. “I’m not even counting the Celtics. They’re not in that conversation. The Raptors and the Cavs are the two best teams in the East but I’m going with the Raptors.
“I’m on the (head coach) Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan bandwagon.”
Barkley’s colleagues Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith were lukewarm on the idea of the Raptors winning the East title, pointing out that Toronto’s regular-season success won’t necessarily lead to a deep playoff run. Although he appreciated Barkley’s support, Casey agreed with O’Neal and Smtih.
“Talking is one thing, you still have to go out and play, you still have to go out and do it, get it done,” said Casey. “Do you think Boston’s going to listen to Charles? And I love Charles to death and respect him to death, but they’re not going to listen. The Celtics are going to continue to play, Cleveland’s going to continue to play. All those teams are going to continue to play.
“Everybody still has to go out and compete. For us, we take it a possession at a time.”
When asked about O’Neal and Smith’s tepid response to Barkley’s prediction DeRozan just laughed and shook his head.
“I love Chuck, I love Charles Barkley,” said DeRozan. “He’s just awesome.”
Forward Pascal Siakam was unaffected by Barkley’s endorsement.
“For me, I don’t think it does anything for me,” said Siakam. “I think (Barkley) has been giving us a lot of credit, a lot of support. It’s good to hear, but I don’t think it does anything.”