TORONTO — When Masai Ujiri cryptically said the Toronto Raptors needed a "culture reset" after they were unceremoniously bounced from last year's NBA playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers, speculation abounded as to what exactly the team president meant by that phrase.
It wasn't a coaching change. Ujiri put that notion to rest quickly by committing to head coach Dwane Casey for a seventh season.
Forget about a roster shakeup. The Raptors signed point guard Kyle Lowry and power forward Serge Ibaka to multi-year deals, meaning the core, including shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and centre Jonas Valanciunas, would remain intact.
Ujiri made it clear things needed to change in Toronto. However, sticking with the same personnel that put together back-to-back 50-plus win seasons but couldn't get it done against the NBA's elite in the playoffs caused skeptics to predict a similar fate for the Raptors heading into this season.
As it turns out, the Raptors are proving you don't have to blow everything up to make a meaningful change.
Ujiri's patient approach, and faith in his coach and players to implement a new offensive system, is paying huge dividends. Heading into a battle of conference leaders with the visiting Houston Rockets on Friday, the Raptors have emerged as a legitimate threat to make it to the NBA final.
Toronto became the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot after a nail-biting 121-119 win at Detroit on Wednesday night. Locking up home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs shouldn't be far behind. That should scare Toronto's first post-season opponent, as the Raptors were a league-best 27-5 at home heading into Thursday's action.
The Raptors' uptempo offence has eschewed long two-pointers and isolation plays in favour of ball movement and long-range bombs. Their bench is eating other teams' second units for breakfast, they have made the Air Canada Centre a nightmare destination for opponents and Casey is emerging as a leading candidate for coach of the year.
The skeptics could be proven right if the Raptors flame out in the playoffs and fail to come out of the Eastern Conference, but there is a justified buzz around this team as the post-season approaches. Here's a look at some of the reasons for that optimism:
TAKING CARE OF BOTH SIDES OF THE COURT — The Raptors are the only team in the NBA ranked in the top five for offensive rating (fourth) and defensive rating (third). They score 8.3 more points than they give up for every 100 possessions, a net rating behind only Golden State and Houston and well ahead of fourth-place Boston (4.3). The bottom line is if the Raptors' shots aren't falling, the defence can compensate by shutting down the opposition.
SHARE THE BALL — The Raptors were criticized, quite rightly, for engaging in too much "hero ball" in past seasons. DeRozan and Lowry would try to do too much by themselves, and other teams were able to adjust to their predictable isolation plays, especially in the post-season. This version of the Raptors likes to get everyone involved — they ranked seventh in the league with 23.8 assists per game heading into Thursday's play. DeRozan's numbers illustrate the effects quite nicely. His points per game are down to 24 from last season's average of 27.3, but his assists are way up, from 3.9 to 5.2 per game. With more players getting touches, the Raptors are scoring the fourth-most points per game in the league, up from 10th last season.
HIGH BENCHMARK — As good as all-stars DeRozan and Lowry are, they and the other starters have to rest sometime. Fortunately for the Raptors, their deep bench can dominate other team's second units. Toronto's bench players have a league-best defensive rating of 100.0 and net rating of 9.5, and more importantly the trust of their teammates and coach. Casey has been able to rely on his bench to close out games, giving his starters valuable rest heading into the playoffs.
BEHIND THE ARC — The Raptors are not the best three-point shooting team in the NBA, ranking 22nd in the league heading into Thursday at 35.3 per cent from long range. But they attempt the third-most at 32.8 per game, and when they get hot, they get deadly. That means other teams are forced to guard the perimeter and open up space in the paint. An improved three-point shot from DeRozan, the evolution of guard Fred VanVleet and the off-season acquisition of sharpshooter C.J. Miles have helped turn the Raptors into a respectable long-range threat. Even seven-foot centre Valanciunas has got into the act, hitting on 44.6 per cent of his long bombs. That means the other team's big has to guard Valanciunas at the perimeter and respect his shot, an advantage the "Lethal Lithuanian" has used at times to fake his defender and charge to the basket for an easy dunk.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press