By Vivek Jacob
Scarred by multiple failures, last year’s playoff sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards weighed heavily on the minds of the Toronto Raptors; particularly for point guard Kyle Lowry.
Determined not to fall off as precipitously over the second half of a season as he did last year, Lowry worked to completely remake his body while the Raptors’ front office tweaked its roster. The differences between last year’s team and this one are as striking as the images of Lowry himself:
Watching Lowry this year, it doesn’t appear that he’s made drastic changes to his game, but his dedication to transforming his body over the offseason has worked wonders. Skinny Kyle Lowry has been among the best point guards in the NBA not named Stephen Curry.
The dramatic improvement in his conditioning has allowed him to maintain his leg strength over more minutes; thereby allowing him to impact the game for longer stretches. Offensively, it means he can take and make more threes at a higher percentage. It also means he’s able to get to the basket quicker and sustain the body blows that come with it. Lowry has professed his love for analytics before, and that has driven him to prioritize drives to the rim (9.6 per game, tied for 10th in the NBA with Damian Lillard, per NBA.com) and threes (seven per game, sixth in the NBA in attempts per Basketball-Reference) ahead of any other shot.
His understanding of how to channel his energy on offense has also helped him further improve on the defensive end. He’s picking his spots offensively, but setting the tone defensively. Lowry is tied for the league-lead in steals, but also plays great help defense. He has taken numerous key charges this season, another credit to the extent to which he is willing and able to sacrifice his body.
For a team to be 24 games over .500 though, he can’t be the only reason. The Raptors have made improvements across the board, proving to be far more sustainable than last year.
DeMar DeRozan has shown incremental growth every year of his NBA career, and this season has finally reached a level worthy of star consideration. He’s continued to thrive on getting to the free-throw line, but he’s getting there a lot more via attempts at the rim–leading the NBA with 11.9 drives per game–than mid-range pump-fakes, a staple of his empty calories diet from seasons past.
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DeRozan’s aggressiveness, and newfound playmaking chops out of pick and rolls, has allowed Lowry to work off the ball more for spot-up attempts–redistributing over 10 percent of his self-created three-point attempts to the assisted variety (57.6 percent assisted last year to 68.2 percent this season), improving Lowry’s three-point efficiency from 33.8 percent to 39 percent.
Together, DeRozan and Lowry have been able to put constant pressure on defenses, propelling the Raptors to 110 points per 100 possession, which is the fifth best mark in the NBA per Basketball-Reference.
The new additions have been huge, with Luis Scola providing a stable veteran presence in the starting lineup for much of the season, and Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo providing depth for a Raptor’s bench that has devastated opposing second units all season.
For all his limitations on offense, Biyombo gives the Raptors a true defensive anchor off the bench with his ability to protect the rim; and Joseph likewise provides a considerable defensive upgrade over Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez–improving the Raptors Defensive Rating from 107.7 (25th) last year, to 105.2 (13th) this season. Joseph also provides a steadier hand with lower usage at point guard, running all reserve lineups or fitting in seamlessly next to Lowry.
There are other X-Factors too. Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have really got into a groove off the bench. Ross seems to have finally understood not only where his shots come from within the flow of the offense, but also when the team needs him to take a bit more initiative. This has come courtesy of increasing the speed of his practice drills, which really seems to have slowed down the real game for him. Though Patterson has been inconsistent offensively, his length and agility gives Dwane Casey the kind of flexibility he needs against the stretch fours of the league.
All of this success has occurred without key free agent acquisition DeMarre Carroll, who will only add to that flexibility–something that last year’s roster sorely lacked. Having Vasquez and Williams as his backup backcourt last year severely tied his hands and gave him nothing defensively, but the diversity of the new roster has helped coach Dwane Casey’s rotations.
He’s been able to stagger his lineups better between Lowry and DeMar, and the increased skill level on both sides of the ball has led to much better execution. That is the key word when it comes to beating good teams, and the results speak for themselves.
- 2014/15: 14-21 vs +.500 teams; 7-20 since Dec. 1, 2014; lost 10 of their last 11.
- 2015/16: 21-11 vs +.500 teams; 15-9 since Dec. 1, 2015; won 10 of their last 13.
The Raptors are much improved against good teams. Their 49-33 record last season was fool’s gold, primarily because of that record against +.500 teams. After an 11-8 start through early January, they’ve been absolutely dominant, losing only to Chicago (first game after the All-Star break), Detroit (without Lowry), and Houston. What has this year’s team done differently? They’ve formed a defensive identity. In 16 of those 21 wins over +.500 teams, they have restricted opponents under 100 points. When the Raptors do this, they’re 34-3, including 29 straight. Of the five times they didn’t do it, four were against Boston and Portland, two offensive juggernauts.
Their improved ability to stay afloat when the game’s played at breakneck speed is also worth noting.
- 2014/15: 19-27 when allowing 100+ points; 8-19 Jan 1st 2015 till end of season.
- 2015/16: 9-17 when allowing 100+ points; 7-7 Jan 1st 2016 – March 11th 2016.
The league’s second most efficient offense since the official halfway point of the season is keeping them in games where they don’t have it defensively. Last year, the Raptors conceded at least 100 points in 46 of their 82 games. With the improved defense, this year’s team has only done it 26 times so far.
Superstars like Damian Lillard and James Harden are going to have their nights, and if the Raptors can still hold their own in those situations, it bodes well for the future.
While this obviously isn’t the type of game the Raptors want to play, the positive is that after a 2-10 start in these games, they aren’t a lost cause anymore. Being able to win in a variety of ways is the mark of a true championship contender, and the Raptors are making strides in that area.
Now, to the concerns regarding the defensive slippage. Since the second half of the season (Jan. 20), the Raptors have lost five games with a defensive rating of 118.9. In the 17 wins, their defensive rating has been 102.7, much closer to where they’ve been all season. This is clearly the case of a small sample size influencing people’s perceptions. Remember that those 17 wins include the Cavs, Celtics, Hawks, Heat, Wizards, Pistons (twice), Blazers (twice), Clippers, Jazz, and Grizzlies. For whatever reason, the Raptors are a team that struggle to bring their full focus and energy against mediocre teams. But since those teams won’t be in the playoffs, in the grand scheme of things, it really is insignificant.
Looking ahead, the Raptors will have the perfect preparation for the playoffs over these next 18 games. They just beat a very good Atlanta team that’s leading the league in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break, and a surging Heat team. They’ll have 12 of their next 15 games against opponents that are either jockeying for playoff position, or among the elite of the NBA, to prove they’re a viable threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
|TORONTO||VS. TEAMS < .300 (GR)||VS. TEAMS .300 – .450 (GR)||VS. TEAMS .451-.550 (GR)||VS. TEAMS >.550 (GR)|
|RECORD||9-1 (2)||8-7 (4)||12-7 (4)||14-5 (9)|
- GR = Games Remaining.
The wounds from last season are deep, and the scars haven’t faded. But the Raptors, like their point guard, are unrecognizable from years past, and the same should be expected of their post-season performances this season.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Vivek” title=”More from Vivek Jacob” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]