The past few years have been a golden age for the Toronto Raptors. After reaching the playoffs just five times in their first 18 seasons, the Raptors advanced to the postseason the past four years and posted the four highest win totals in franchise history. They won a combined three playoff series the past two seasons after winning just one in the previous 20.
That success has been built on a simple formula: Get the ball in the hands of one of the team’s all-star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and get the hell out of the way. Behind a steady diet of isolation plays for each, the Raptors have consistently been a top 10 offense.
But this summer, after a lopsided loss in the playoffs to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second straight season, the Raptors went back to the drawing board.
“Right now we are doing something that, if you’re a betting man, you’re betting it’ll translate in the playoffs,” Raptors Coach Dwane Casey said recently. “That’s what we’re betting.”
The Raptors’ bet is that a more egalitarian approach, predicated on better ball movement and more three-point attempts, will lead to more postseason success.
The thinking goes like this: It’s easy for a defense to prepare for one or two legitimate threats. During the regular season, when teams seldom tailor their game plans for specific opponents, the Raptors could lean heavily on their star guards and still rack up plenty of wins.
But in the postseason, when teams home in on their opponents, trying to contain the Raptors boiled down to one thing: stopping Lowry and DeRozan. A team could throw its entire defense at Toronto’s backcourt, knowing that their teammates would struggle to take advantage of any openings that were created.
The result was a dip in production from the two guards – Lowry in particular – during the postseason, which left Toronto struggling to escape even from a winnable series.
So by trying to get everyone involved in the offense from Day 1, the Raptors hope that in the postseason they can depend on Lowry and DeRozan, but also have reliable options to take advantage of holes in opposing defenses.
“We need two or three other guys to step up and make plays and be confident by playoff time to make plays,” Casey said. “That’s the main thing.
“It’s nothing Kyle and DeMar are doing wrong. It’s going to free them up. In a crazy way, it’s going to make their life easier once guys are making plays off the ball and guys are making shots.”
Two seasons ago, Toronto was 19th in three-pointers attempted and 29th in assists per game. Last season, the Raptors were 22nd and 30th, respectively.
This season, though, the Raptors are eighth and 11th, respectively, and performances such as Tuesday night’s 129-113 win over the Rockets in Houston – with 30 three pointers attempted and 28 assists on 41 made baskets – are becoming the norm.
“Anything that [can be] beneficial is always worth trying,” DeRozan said. “If it’s something that’s better in the long run, without a doubt. And then still, within that, [we’re] using the same things that have made us successful over the years, as well.”
The early returns are encouraging. Toronto is third in offensive efficiency, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions per NBA.com, indicating that pivoting away from so much reliance on Lowry and DeRozan won’t mean a slip in scoring.
But what has slipped, at least early on, is Lowry’s production. He’s taking fewer shots, not shooting as well and most notably, taking fewer than half as many free throws as he did the past two years (although the latter could be attributed to the NBA’s crackdown on exaggerated drawing of shooting fouls, a skill Lowry has mastered).
Tuesday, though, Lowry got to the line 10 times – a season-high – and matched his season highs with 19 points and 10 assists. If Toronto’s plan is going to bear fruit in the playoffs, the Raptors still need the Lowry of the past few seasons.
But Lowry and the Raptors have five months to get it right.
“It’s for the playoffs,” Lowry said. “So we have to get to the playoffs and then we’ll see in the playoffs if it’s working. That’s what we changed it for, so that’s when we’ll really figure out if it is.”