The rather dominant effort put forth by the Toronto Raptors over the past month has been lost in Golden State’s historic start to the season, Cleveland’s head-coaching modification and San Antonio’s ostentatious beat-downs of seemingly all teams not named the Warriors.
Coach Dwane Casey, who entered the season riding the job-insecurity train, has guided his outfit to a nine-game winning streak and a 10-2 record in January.
“I think we’re grittier,” he told the Toronto Sun this week. “Last year, we did it all with offense.
“I think this year, we don’t mind getting gritty, grimy, getting into people. We have the ability and the personnel to play defense when we have to and I think that’s the biggest difference.”
There isn’t much of a counter-argument to be made over the notion that this iteration of the Raptors has progressed markedly on the defensive end: Last season, Toronto allowed 104.9 points per 100 possessions; this season they’re allowing 100.3, even with Kyle Lowry spending portions of games in the courtside seats, kissing fans.
Over the past 10 games, only the Spurs and Atlanta Hawks have held opponents to fewer points per 100 possessions than Toronto, and only the Portland Trail Blazers are grabbing a larger percentage of available defensive rebounds. In fact, no team saw more of a spike in defensive rebound percentage compared to last season than Toronto, a testament to the progressions made by the team’s frontcourt.
Casey’s outfit is procuring points from other facets of the game this season, too: Toronto generates 18.2 points off turnovers per 100 possessions, good for seventh best in the league and a considerable uptick from a season ago in which they ranked 14th in the metric.
In the absence of lockdown defender DeMarre Carroll, Lowry has elevated his defensive prowess, hawking opponents along the perimeter. Toronto is forcing 8.6 steals per 100 possessions, which ranks eighth in the league; again, a considerable uptick from a season ago in which they ranked 17th in the metric.
Opponents are connecting on a high percentage of attempts from beyond the arc, but that percentage should be at least slightly mitigated once Carroll returns from injury. In total, the Raptors are holding opponents to the seventh-lowest field-goal percentage in the league (43.8).
Offensively, the Raptors have re-calibrated their identity around an attack-the-rim ethos. It’s proven to be effective: Toronto leads the league in scoring per game off drives (22.9 points per contest) and only the haphazard Philadelphia 76ers attack the rim more frequently, albeit at a much less efficient rate.
“I have no problem shooting threes,” DeMar DeRozan told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe earlier this month. “I just feel like I can get to the basket at will, so it almost feels like settling.”
In some respects, the rest of the team ostensibly has adopted DeRozan’s thought process. Toronto is attempting nearly two fewer three-pointers per 100 possessions compared with last season, and is—perhaps obviously — generating a smaller portion of the team’s points by way of the three-pointer.
“We’ve gotten really good at attacking gaps,” Casey told Lowe in the aforementioned piece.
For the second consecutive season, Toronto has gone a franchise-record 30-15 through the first 45 games of the season. While precisely the same in record, this iteration shouldn’t be misconstrued as a carbon copy of last year’s installment. This team will not combust down the stretch, drop 18 of the final 37, and be swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Washington Wizards. They’re too talented and too improved on the defensive end. As James Johnson put it: “I just think that we’re just playing with confidence and a lot of swag right now.” With Casey seemingly off the hot seat, Toronto has its sights set on higher accolades than the second seed in the Eastern Conference.