When discussing the NBA’s leading contenders for the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy year in and year out, the Golden State Warriors is the first team to be mentioned in the West. In the East, there’s the Cleveland Cavaliers primarily because of LeBron James. This season, however, the Toronto Raptors may be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Beating a LeBron-led team four games out of seven is a tall order. But the Cavs have never looked as vulnerable as a team as when the Raptors dismantled them last night in a 133-99 massacre at the Air Canada Centre. That’s the worst loss of the season for the slumping Cavaliers and the Raptors did it
without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
Lowry is sidelined with a back problem and Ibaka is serving a suspension following an altercation with Miami Heat forward James Johnson during Tuesday’s match-up.
How did Toronto suddenly become a dominant team and a legit title contender?
Before this season, the Raptors were all bark with no bite come playoff time. But something tells me they’ve turned the corner this year.
Let’s analyze their season so far.
The Raptors are playing some of the best basketball in the NBA this season and very few have noticed due to the lack of big-name superstars on their roster. Their star players are DeMar DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka who don’t exactly elicit images of Nike commercials in anyone’s minds.
But this triumvirate is leading the charge on the Raptors’ newfound offensive and defensive mentality.
Their high-octane offense is resulting in an NBA-third best 112.0 points per game. And this is surprisingly with DeRozan (25.0 points per game) and Lowry (16.2) scoring less than they did a year ago. That’s because they have a more balanced offense with nine players averaging between 6.3 and 13.8 points per game.
DeMar DeRozan: MVP Candidate?
Speaking of DeRozan, the shooting guard who with the sweet mid-range jumper has expanded his game to include a three-point shot to his arsenal. He is averaging a career-best 3.2 shot attempts from downtown and making a career-high .379 percent of his shots. This opens up the lane not only for his own drives, but also for the Raptors inside attack as well.
Another aspect of DeRozan’s game that is worth mentioning is his playmaking ability which has resulted in another career year, this time in assists. His 5.1 assists per game is by far his best production ever, making him a threat to find the open man aside from making his own shot.
Not surprisingly, DeRozan was named by the NBA as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played January 1 to 7, his third time to win the award this season. He also claimed Player of the Week honors for games played from November 13 to 18 and December 18 to 24.
Make no mistake about it, after his recent 52-point game, DeRozan is going to be in the MVP conversation with him carrying the team on his back.
He says, “I remember being a kid and wishing to be in moments like. When you come out here and you’re in those moments, you’ve got to make the best out of them.”
The New Dwane Casey: New Team Strategy
Head Coach Dwane Casey has also found a new lease on life as his coaching has never been better. With an early exit in last year’s playoffs, Casey’s tenure in the sidelines was on shaky ground after he suffered another sweep in a seven-game series loss to the Cavaliers.
Casey abandoned the isolation-heavy strategy that stalled their offense numerous times last season in favor of a motion offense that results in more players getting involved. Rather than having an offense predicated on sets, the Raptors have now embraced a free-flowing offense inspired from the Warriors and Houston Rockets’ own.
Additionally, the Raps are shooting more from three. In 40 games so far this season, they are averaging more than 32 shot attempts per game from the three-point line, a whopping eight attempts more than they did last season (24 per game). This has resulted in the Raptors averaging 11.3 three-point makes compared to less than nine a year ago.
Just recently, Casey was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December.
According to NBA.com, here’s how the Raptors performed under Casey during his award-winning month:
“Toronto finished the month with an Eastern Conference best 11-3 record – third in the NBA – and averaged a conference-best 111.0 points with a +8.6-point differential. The team’s .786 winning percentage last month marked the best December record in franchise history. Toronto also ranked fourth among East teams in December holding opponents to 102.4 points.
Highlighting December was a perfect 6-0 record at Air Canada Centre, with the Raptors winning by an average margin of +12.1 points. Toronto also had five road wins, including two double-digit rallies Dec. 8 at Memphis (17 points) and Dec. 23 at Philadelphia (22 points). The Raptors set a season-high with 16 three-pointers and 35 assists during a 129-111 victory Dec. 20 at Charlotte. Toronto finished the month by securing it’s 11 consecutive home victory Dec. 29 vs. Atlanta.”
2017-18 season (2016-17)
Points: 3rd (10th)
3-Pt Attempts: 4th (22nd)
Pace: 9th (22nd)
Assists: 11th (30th)
As for their defense, the Raptors are only surrendering 103.7 points per game to their opponents, good for 9th in the league. Last season, the team was giving up 107.8 points per game (11th). As good as they were previously, they’re on the fringes of this year’s best defensive teams.
According to the NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, Toronto is averaging 6.2 blocks per game, good for second in the league to Golden State. They are also fifth in steals per game (8.6) and fourth in defensive rating (102.6).
Facing the King’s Men
Perhaps the best showing of the Raptors’ dominance this season is their crushing of their most-hated rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers yesterday. The Cavs have booted out the Raps out of the playoffs for the past two years despite the fact that the team had its best ever two-year stretch in the regular season.
This year could be different.
In their first head-to-head matchup this season, the Raptors showcased their share-the-ball offense to confound the stuck-in-the-mud Cavaliers whose defense has been atrocious in its past 10 games.
Missing its best passer in Lowry and one of its best defenders in Ibaka didn’t seem to matter. The Northerners assisted on 31 of their 53 field goals, made 50% of their field goals, and connected on 18 of their 42 attempts from three-point land for a 42.9% clip.
But perhaps the best news so far for the Raptors is that they submitted this performance with their leading scorer being limited to only 13 points. It shows how much the entire team has matured with a confidence to shoot the ball when open and to move it around to get the best possible shot. DeRozan invited the double-team from the Cavs and he was able to find the open man on several occasions as he dished out eight assists in only 29 minutes of play.
Toronto also limited the Cavs to only 99 points, far below their 109.9 points per game average which is fifth in the league overall. They also rebounded the ball better especially on the defensive end as they mauled the reeling Cavaliers to the tune of 45 defensive rebounds while surrendering only nine offensive rebounds to their opponent.
And the team’s leading scorers were Fred VanVleet, who scored a career-high 22 points, Jonas Valanciunas (15 points with 18 rebounds), C.J.Miles (16 points), and Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell with 14 points apiece.
The final score speaks for itself: 133-99 in favor of the hometown Raptors.
If you think they simply caught the Cavs on a tailspin, guess again. The Clevelanders have been rampaging through the NBA for some time now but have been doing it under the radar.
Over their last 16 wins dating back to December 1, 2017, the Raptors have been on a tear on the offensive end, averaging an incredible 118.4 points per game while limiting their opponents to 104.9 points. That’s an average scoring margin of 13.5 points a game, making them close to unstoppable when they’re running on all cylinders on offense and locking down opponents on defense.
Hungry for More
Lowry, DeRozan, and Casey have grown together as the core of this team for the past few years. The team is playing like a championship team and they are developing the confidence in their ability to hang with the best teams in the NBA.
Making it deep into the playoffs is unacceptable and one that they will not be satisfied with anymore. The Raptors are gunning for the Finals and perhaps win the city (and Canada!) its first-ever NBA championship.
Time to face the facts, folks.
The Toronto Raptors are hungry and waiting to pounce on their prey. And may God help any team that stands in their way.