Photo via Facebook/Toronto Raptors

To get to the next level, the Raptors changed their approach. It’s working so far

In most situations, when a coach gets asked a question that allows him to openly praise his team, particularly when his team has the best record in the Eastern Conference, they will gladly take the opportunity to do so.

So when Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was asked before Friday night’s victory over the Washington Wizards if this year’s version of the Raptors was the best one he’d coached during his six-plus seasons with the franchise, it was interesting to hear how he phrased his response.

“The numbers say it,” Casey said. “Sometimes the most talented teams are not the best teams, but the numbers show it out. I don’t think we’re a finished product. There’s still room for improvement in different areas, in different individuals.

“You could make a case for a lot of teams being the best team, but the numbers say we are there.”

The numbers do back Toronto’s claim. After Friday night’s 102-95 win at Capital One Arena over the Wizards, the Raptors are 44-17 – the best record in the East, and the third-best in the NBA. That puts them on pace to break the franchise record of 56 wins they set two years ago. More importantly, Toronto has the NBA’s fourth-best offence (111 points per 100 possessions) and third-best defence (102.7 points per 100 possessions), per NBA.com.

The only other team that can say it resides in the top five in both categories? The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

So why would Casey be slightly reluctant to go all-in on his current team? One way to look at it is a chance to guard against the rapidly rising expectations for his squad. But there’s another that seems more likely: Casey knows the true test of how good this Raptors team is – and if it is the best team this franchise has ever assembled – is going to come in April, May and June.

Regular season success isn’t foreign to the Raptors, including breaking past 50 wins for the first time each of the past two years. But in the postseason, the Raptors have clammed up, needing every ounce of their energy to escape from their first-round series and then continuing to struggle against actual contenders.

Two years ago, Toronto made it to the Eastern Conference finals, but only after two heart-stopping seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat that both could’ve gone either way. Then they were demolished by the Cleveland Cavaliers in arguably the most lopsided six-game series the sport has ever seen. Last year it took six games to dispatch the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1, only to get swept by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

So what’s different this year? Stylistically, the biggest change is in Toronto’s approach. Last season, the Raptors were 22nd in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted per game and 29th among the league’s 30 teams in assist percentage. This year, they are fifth and tied for ninth, respectively.

Those statistical leaps reflect Toronto recognition entering the season that, if this team were going to reach another level, it was going to have to get away from the days of having Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, their two star guards, to do everything on their own.

“I think we’re a very talented group,” Lowry said. “I think the trust that we have in everyone on our roster is big for us. That’s what’s making our team a better team.”

That trust Lowry referenced is the other, perhaps bigger, change Toronto made. More so than in previous seasons, the Raptors are willing to lean on its second unit.

Over the years under team president Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have steadily rounded out their roster with players the team has drafted and developed. This season, several of them have become major contributors. Rookie OG Anunoby has stepped into the starting lineup and given the Raptors the big, physical presence on the wings they’ve been searching for. Other former draft picks have developed into reliable options at point guard (Fred VanVleet), power forward (Pascal Siakam) and centre (Jakob Poeltl), while this summer’s main offseason acquisition, swingman C.J. Miles, has helped Toronto’s efforts to become a better 3-point shooting team.

The result is that Toronto has – again, by the numbers – developed the best bench in the NBA this season, allowing the Raptors to keep the minutes for their starters down, and to give Casey a multitude of options for how he chooses to close games.

“Coach has been doing a good job of finding the hot hand,” Lowry said. “Tonight, Serge [Ibaka] and JV [Jonas Valanciunas] didn’t play to end the game, but there are nights where they will be in there. Pascal played great tonight [and] CJ played great tonight.

“We’re going to go with what’s working.”

But can the Raptors continue to play this way during the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but to do so, Lowry and DeRozan will have to continue to believe that everyone needs to touch the ball as the game winds down, instead of reverting back to the isolation play that they’ve so often relied on in the past. It also comes back to whether Casey will continue his liberal use of his bench. Typically, teams shorten their rotation during the playoffs, and groups that have had success relying on depth like this have either struggled to replicate it or simply gone away from it.

Casey, however, sounds like he’s fully committed to giving it a go.

“We will find out,” Casey said. “The goal is to find out. Why not? What is our record right now so why change this because some rule book somewhere [says so].

“If you find it, please send it to me. Because I have been on some teams where you keep the same rotation, and somebody somewhere in the back of a room says, ‘Well, [in the] playoffs you have to shorten your rotation.

“So we have to find out unless this group proves us wrong.”

There is so much that has to be found out about this Raptors team. That’s what happens after years of regular season success has been followed by false starts in the playoffs.

We’ll answer the question for Casey: This clearly is Toronto’s best team yet. But is it good enough to take the Raptors to places they have never been?

Check back in the spring. It is only then that we’ll know the answer.

By Tim Bontemps/The Washington Post

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