Toronto knows what it can do in the regular season. They have bigger fish to fry now. And the Raptors are hungry.
BROOKLYN — Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is laughing, just as he should be. He’s the head coach of the best team in the Eastern Conference, one that eclipsed 50 wins for the third season in a row after a 116-102 win against the Nets Tuesday. He’s re-invented his team’s offensive style from iso-ball to pace-and-space. And he just might be the front-runner for the NBA’s coach of the year award this season.
Toronto is on pace to finish the season as the No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history, and Casey says, deep down, he’d be lying if he said that wasn’t important to his team. The Raptors are the only team in the league to rank top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Finishing the season with the best record in the conference only further validates the changes they made over the summer.
But Casey also knows Toronto has sung this kind of song before. It is, after all, their third straight 50-win season and their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. The Raptors sang all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago before losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games. They refined their vocal chords in acquiring Serge Ibaka mid-season last year, only to get swept out of the second round by those same Cavaliers.
The landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. Cleveland isn’t the same team it has been in years past, though we won’t know for sure until the playoffs. The Celtics are going to be a force for years to come, but they aren’t quite there yet. The rest of the East is inconsistent or unproven.
That’s why the Raptors won’t rest on their laurels. They’ve got their eyes set on something bigger. And this season, they feel they can actually attain it.
“We’re excited about it,” Casey says of the team’s 50th win. “It’s good for our franchise, it’s good for our team, but we’re playing for something more than that. We’re playing for something special … it’s great to get to 50, but we have to be focused on the bigger picture.”
Or as Kyle Lowry puts it: “It’s a good mark for the franchise, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
DeMar DeRozan remembers the moment like it was yesterday. This time last year, the Raptors were considered legitimate challengers to Cleveland’s throne. They traded for Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the deadline, pushing their chips into the middle to make their run to the Eastern Conference Finals and possibly beyond. That thought was quickly eradicated when the Cavaliers swept the Raptors’ hopes right out the door.
Oddly enough, DeRozan says that was when he knew his team could get over the hump.
“I knew that after we lost in the playoffs last year,” he says. “Understanding how hard I was gonna work. Understanding how hard Kyle was gonna work. Understanding how hard the organization was gonna work to make sure got where we needed to be. We always got so close and was always right there, but I always had that confidence.
Few NBA teams are overnight successes. The Warriors suffered two early post-season exits before winning two NBA crowns in a three-year span. It took LeBron James six trips to the playoffs and two NBA Finals losses before he won his first two titles in Miami. The Spurs drafted David Robinson in 1987 and didn’t win their first championship until Tim Duncan arrived in 1999.
It takes a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. It’s that experience, Casey says, that has made the difference this season.
“If you go through the fire so many times, it hardens you,” he says. “It gets you ready, and I think that’s what we’ve been through. And I’ve seen it so many times through the league over the years. That’s been the difference.”
What’s changed in Toronto? You can answer that question several ways.
DeRozan has been the most noticeable change. Since that debilitating series sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, he’s eradicated several bad habits. He’s still the unstoppable mid-range scorer who lit up the league for 27 points per game last season, but he’s averaging a career-high 5.1 assists this year while having the best three-point shooting year of his career.
Toronto’s bench has been another huge improvement. Only the Kings, Nets, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Clippers get more points out of their second unit than the Raptors , and none of those benches average more assists, steals, or blocks per game. Toronto added C.J. Miles to the bench over the summer, but more importantly, it developed its own talent in-house. Fred VanVleet has become one of the better perimeter defenders at the guard position off the bench across the league. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, and Delon Wright provide valuable bench depth, and drafting OG Anunoby has given Toronto the ability to go 10 players deep at any given moment.
Can the Raptors stretch their rotation that much in the playoffs, when teams tend to play their stars more minutes?
“I don’t see why not,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson says. “I think it’d be an advantage for them. Those guys are playing so well, they’re so athletic. Dwane does such a good job developing younger players, I would think, especially over a long series, it gives you an advantage when you don’t have to play your starters 40 minutes a game.”
Lowry has ceded ground to help his teammates; his 12.2 field goal attempts per game are the fewest he’s averaged since the 2012-13 season. The offense runs through Jonas Valanciunas more often than it has in past seasons.
In total, this is a completely different Raptors team than ever before.
“It’s almost like coaching a college team. This is the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in Toronto,” Casey says.
(“Hell nah, he ain’t having fun,” Lowry jokes. “He’s just making y’all think he’s having fun.”)
The Raptors broke the 50-win plane yet again, but there’s something different about 50 wins this season. For one, it’s the fastest Toronto has ever reached 50 wins in its history.
But what else is different about 50 wins for the Raptors? The fact that it’s old news.
Toronto knows it won’t be judged on its regular-season success. The No. 1 seed is nice and it has its advantages, but the teams at the top land the hardest when they fall.
The Raptors don’t want to fall this season, and they way they’ve played makes it seem as if they won’t.
There will be challenges. Kyrie Irving and the Celtics might be a different animal in the postseason. James has been to the Finals three years in a row for a reason. None of the teams at the bottom of the East bracket are a cakewalk, and Toronto historically hasn’t been its best self in the playoffs.
But Toronto has been there and done that. They’ve lost early, lost in the middle, and lost late in the postseason. The hump has been there for years. The Raptors are on pace to climb over it.
That’s why 50 wins and the No. 1 seed, while cute and duly impressive, doesn’t mean much to Toronto. As Lowry says, the Raptors have bigger fish to fry.