How the Raptors got sick of playoff letdowns and broke all their bad habits
Toronto looks different this season thanks to a new system and the emergence of several young players
Before the Toronto Raptors faced a single opponent this season, they battled themselves. In pickup games over the summer and controlled 5-on-5 during training camp, different rules governed their games.
Corner 3-pointers -- where the distance shortens and the shot becomes ultra-efficient -- counted for four points. Other 3s were treated normally, as were layups. Anything outside of the paint and inside the 3-point line was either worth zero or minus-one. This new "shot spectrum," as they call it, was designed to change their habits.
Avoiding mid-range shots is far from a novel concept. For the Raptors, however, this represented a transformation. In 2016-17, 41 percent of their shots were from that area, the fifth-highest mark in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. They ranked No. 26 in frequency of shots at the rim and No. 20 in frequency of shots from 3-point range, which made their superb regular-season efficiency -- they were first in offensive rating through mid-January -- something of an anomaly in today's NBA.
Starting in summer league, they put a new emphasis on shot selection, ball movement and player movement. Nick Nurse, the Raptors' top assistant coach and "offensive coordinator," told CBS Sports that the young guys set the tone by picking up the new offense quickly.
"It's tough at first when you're trying to change something that drastically," second-year guard Fred VanVleet said. "You've gotta over-exaggerate it at first just to implement a new culture, a new way to do things. They were harping on things pretty hard."
This season, Toronto is only taking 29.9 percent of its shots from mid-range, No. 24 in the league. It is ninth in shot frequency at the rim and seventh from behind the 3-point line. The formerly isolation-reliant team also is ninth in assist ratio after finishing 29th last season, per NBA.com. Looking back at those scrimmages with the four-point shots in the corner, forward C.J. Miles said he has seen his teammates reprogram themselves.
"It teaches guys to look for extra passes," Miles said. "Or look for a skip pass or see the rotations earlier, to see the guy who's open in the corner on the weak side instead of getting to a point where you take a half-contested shot in the mid-range area."
If there was a knock on the Raptors before the season started, it is that we knew who they were. Led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, they have spent the past four seasons trying to go from good to great, with two wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 conference finals -- which followed two hellish seven-game series -- serving as the high-water mark. After Toronto was swept by the Cavs in the second round a year later, the prospect of another 50-ish wins was met with mostly a "meh."
Had the Raptors run it back with the same plan as usual, dismissing them might be understandable. More than their 18-8 record, the way they are winning demands attention.
Team president Masai Ujiri promised a "culture reset" two days after Toronto was eliminated in May. "To me, making the playoffs is nothing," he told reporters. Some took that to mean that coach Dwane Casey's job was in jeopardy. Others thought Ujiri might do a full rebuild, starting with letting Lowry walk in free agency. Instead, the Raptors got radical in another way.
Dating back to 2013-14, the year of the Rudy Gay trade and "F--- Brooklyn,"Toronto's offense has stagnated when dealing with trapping defenses in the playoffs. Miles recalled the Indiana Pacers' plan to "make it as tough as possible for Kyle and DeMar" in their first-round series in 2016, and this was essentially the same thing that every opponent tried. The goal was to take the Raptors' most reliable playmaking options away. The best way to beat that kind of defense is to keep the ball moving and make everybody a threat.
"The production in the playoffs was quite different than it was in the regular season," Nurse said. "So, to combat that, we're trying to raise our number of assisted baskets in the playoffs and we're trying to be much more unpredictable. Instead of a dozen or so set plays that, when you get to playoff times, teams can sit on, we're trying to have a bunch of actions -- maybe multiple actions in one series or reactions to how things get guarded and being able to counter those things."
Toronto asked its stars to get out of their comfort zone. DeRozan embraced it, telling The Athletic's Eric Koreen in October that he wanted to lead the team in assists. Lowry took a while to adjust, telling reporters he was used to having the ball in his hands, but in the last month has averaged 18.6 points, 7.4 assists and 7.4 rebounds with a 63 percent true shooting percentage. Casey said that "it speaks well of their leadership" that they haven't fought the stylistic shift. In the Raptors' last eight games, DeRozan is averaging 6.8 assists. They've won seven of them.
"I knew it was going to be not as easy as everybody just saying, 'OK, move the ball,' because you're dealing with human beings," Casey said. "It's strong habits from two All-Stars that have been successful playing that way. It's not like our offense last year was 30th. It was in the top-five. It's a different way to skin the apple, and in the long run it's going to help. You put the defense on notice and say it's not just the DeMar and Kyle show."
Toronto has had a solid supporting cast for years, but it did not necessarily have a role-player-friendly system. When Miles met with the Raptors as a free agent, they told him about their plan to make the team more dynamic. It was exactly the way he wanted to play. Now, Miles draws a straight line from that style to the players feeling good about the direction of the team.
"When you have a system that allows everybody to feel involved and make plays -- and it might not even be just shooting; just touching it and being able to make the right play, make the next play, the next pass, the assist or whatever it is -- it brings a camaraderie and a rhythm to the offense," Miles said.
Nurse thinks that when you involve your role players, they become better players. Over the past few postseasons, some Raptors have struggled even when they had clean looks. Come April and May, the stars will be asked to continue to find their teammates. The coaching staff does not want them to hesitate.
"It's showing now," DeRozan said. "Everybody's being able to touch the ball, get wide-open shots, have the ball, being able to make a play. It's showing now. We got [months] to continue to get better at it, and that's something we're working towards."
After being traded to Brooklyn in July, DeMarre Carroll told Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun that the Raptors didn't trust each other enough and he would have preferred a more free-flowing offense. Months later, after saying that "everybody changed my words and tried to kill me" when his comments were published, Carroll praised Toronto's new direction.
"They're playing like you're supposed to play," Carroll said. "Move the ball, shoot the 3, get other guys involved. They're playing the right way. That's basketball. But hey, kudos to 'em. I'm happy for them. I'm happy for all of them, especially the young guys. I think they worked really hard and they're finally getting the opportunity to shine."
If you are not familiar with those young guys, it is time to remedy that. Over the past few seasons, while staying near the top of the East, Ujiri's front office has also quietly invested in a bunch of players with upside. With the exception of slashing swingman Norman Powell, they did not have large roles until this season, following the departure of Carroll, Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and Cory Joseph. Now, along with Miles, they are consistently destroying other teams' reserves.
The 6-9 Pascal Siakam is quick and long enough to defend guards and big men. Jakob Poeltl is a mobile center who is shooting 68 percent and moves his feet better than most 7-footers. VanVleet, undrafted in 2016, has figured out how to get wherever he wants and manufacture open looks for others. Despite the fact that guard Delon Wright and center Lucas Nogueira have been injured lately, Toronto has been one of the league's deepest teams. Only Houston, Cleveland and Golden State's reserves have a higher net rating.
"We carry that confidence of being the best bench in the league," Miles said. "We say it before every game, before we check in. And we go out there and we try to make a lead bigger or we try to take a lead and we try to create energy."
In addition to a dominant bench mostly composed of former Raptors 905ers, the starting lineup has surged since the insertion of rookie forward OG Anunoby in mid-November. Anunoby guards the opposing team's top scorer virtually every game, and he has been better than advertised as a floor spacer -- he is shooting 43.5 percent from deep -- and a playmaker. When he is on the court with Serge Ibaka and Siakam, the Raptors almost always have an advantage in athleticism, allowing them to switch on defense more than ever before.
As they rely on these young players more and more, Nurse said it is important that their development program is directly linked to their offensive system. "I think we made a big shift there," he said, noting that their staff has spent countless hours teaching and drilling shooting. All the players on the roster practice 3s, and while they are not all expected to be above-average shooters this season, they are supposed to take open shots with confidence.
On Sunday in Sacramento, Poeltl made the first 3-pointer of his career. Valanciunas has made one in each of his last three games. DeRozan hasn't made a 3 in weeks, but he is attempting 2.5 of them a game.
"I'm happy that he's taking more 3s," Nurse said. "Just because he's open and it's an easy shot for him to take. He doesn't have to work so hard. He doesn't have to take so much punishment. He doesn't have to weave through so many people and stuff. They just kick it out and he takes it and he's starting to look comfortable out there. I think by the end of the year he'll look very comfortable out there."
Whether it is DeRozan making defenders respect his shot or Anunoby turning into a Draymond Green type, the significant thing is that those invested in the team are starting to imagine new possibilities. The Raptors have not abandoned what worked -- they are still excellent at taking care of the ball and above-average at getting to the free throw line -- but they have diversified their attack.
Lowry, for example, dribbles less and doesn't always initiate the offense, but he often winds up making plays after multiple actions. Nurse thinks that this will be good for the 31-year-old's longevity. Both he and DeRozan are still putting up the numbers necessary to be named four-time All-Stars soon.
"My experience is, in this system, the ball naturally gravitates to your best scorers anyway," Nurse said. "It does. It just finds them. And that's just kind of what happens. I don't really have any great scientific explanation for that."
At 110.3 points per 100 possessions, Toronto is having the most efficient offensive season in franchise history. It is also in the top 10 in defensive rating, and it has a better point differential than the Boston Celtics despite a road-heavy schedule. As easy as it is to be excited about the future of Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the Raptors have the strongest statistical profile of any team in their conference. DeRozan said he is fine with flying under the radar -- "it's been that way, we don't think about it," he said -- but Miles, the newcomer, called the lack of buzz around them "really weird" and "almost comical."
"You realize that nobody talks about the fact that we're top three or four in the East and it's been like that for the last four years," Miles said. "Nobody talks about the fact that Kyle and DeMar have been All-Stars, and what they've been doing. And then when they do say something, they want to talk about the fact that DeMar doesn't shoot 3s. It doesn't matter if he scores 40 if he didn't shoot any 3s. I don't understand what it is or why it's not talked about. And that's not me saying that we should be talked about like we're on Mount Olympus. I'm just saying it's a respect thing."
If things keep going this well, Toronto will eventually play its way back into the spotlight. For those who have not been paying attention, it will become obvious that it is not the same old team. The Raptors have examined and evaluated their past failures and evolved as a result. While they are not a superteam and have yet to prove they are true championship contenders, the organization has clearly learned one thing about competing in today's NBA: You cannot stand still.
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