Over the last two years the Toronto Raptors have stood out as one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams, one capable of hovering at or just below a 50-win campaign, but not necessarily capable of making a deep postseason run.
That perception, however, has already started to blur five games into the new NBA season.
With head coach Dwane Casey now in his fifth year at the helm, the Raptors have gunned out to a franchise-best 5-0 start and could be halfway around the corner to the NBA’s upper echelon.
Each of the five wins thus far have come in myriad ways, but defense has largely trumped hot shooting. In the season opener, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan’s 25 points led the way past Indiana, with point guard Kyle Lowry notching 23 points and six assists, and center Jonas Valanciunas putting up 21 points and 10 boards. Toronto would suffer from 20 turnovers, an issue that is still lingering today, but they held the Pacers to 37.2 percent shooting from the field.
When their shots weren’t falling, the Raptors followed up by keeping Boston close by forcing 17 turnovers and then pushed their lead to 19 behind DeRozan’s 23 points and another 21 from newcomer DeMarre Carroll.
Next they pounded the glass for a 46-33 rebounding advantage over a shorthanded Milwaukee squad, and rolled to a 106-87 win.
They again held Dallas to 38.4 percent shooting, including 5-for-17 from three, and used a 28-18 fourth-quarter explosion to drop the Mavs 102-91 behind Lowry’s 27 points and 10 dimes on the road.
And the very next night, Wednesday, Toronto took on Oklahoma City’s sharp, two-pronged attack of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and dominated the Western Conference titans with a 12-1 burst in the last 2:30 of the game. While DeRozan poured in 10 of his 28 points in the final quarter, the other hero of the 103-98 triumph was new guard Cory Joseph for his work on containing the always-electric Westbrook down the stretch.
And when their shots fell flat against the Thunder, DeRozan and company crashed the basket for fouls and knocked down 32-of-39 from the charity stripe to the home team’s 14 attempts.
The fifth straight win upped the Raptors to third in opponent field-goal percentage (40.4), sixth in points allowed per game (95.6), and only Golden State and Cleveland are head of them in average point differential (+10.4)
Casey, clearly keeping his team’s new found success in perspective at such an early juncture of the season, later summed up why the Raptors find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
“I don’t know how many games we’re going to win but I know that we’re going to scrap, we’re going to compete, play hard, get after people,” Casey said to the Toronto Star.
But a team that work’s the hardest on the court doesn’t necessarily rise to the top of the conference. Instead the work of off the court by general manager Masai Ujiri to bring in both Joseph and Carroll via free agency plugged up some of the glaring holes in a squad that won 49 games but was swept in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Acting as an offensive sparkplug and a top perimeter defender, the former Spur Joseph has tallied six steals in the last three games and his 4-for-7 night for nine points and three assists helped bury Oklahoma City. Joseph’s essentially helped mend the loss of last year’s Sixth Man of the Year-winner Louis Williams, but more as a complement on defense to Lowry than another player requiring shots to be effective.
And with Williams gone, and Carroll joining as the offense’s “everyman,” Toronto’s relied more on DeRozan to do the heavy lifting. After fighting off a groin injury and missing 22 games last season, the 26-year-old former first-round pick is on pace to average better than 20 points a game for the third straight season and he’s doing so by relentlessly attacking the basket.
Over 60 games last season DeRozan took 7.2 trips, on average, to the free throw line per game. This year he’s exploiting his incredible athleticism to stalk the cup and secure 11 free throws per contest, burying 81.8 percent of them.
DeRozan’s been able to create his own shot for most of his career, but he has Carroll to thank for stretching defenses and allowing him to operate in the paint and at mid-range.
Acting last year one of the Atlanta Hawks many darlings, Carroll’s taken his all-around, smooth-shooting up north and is fourth on the team with a career-best 13 points per game. His accuracy from three is slightly off, down from 39.5 percent last season to 36.4 through five games with Toronto, but last year the only starter to shoot better than 36 percent from three was forward Terrence Ross and the Raptors have gone from No. 11 in the league to No. 4 in work behind the arc.
A loss is certainly on the way, especially given Toronto’s arduous slate of nine of the next 13 contests on the road, but Lowry said it best after the Thunder win.
“Game 5, nothing special,” Lowry said to The Toronto Star. “We’ve got to continue to grow. We have a lot more games to go, 77 more. All we can do is take his victory and grow from it.”