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NEW YORK — The distance the Toronto Raptors have traveled can be summed up in one blank post-game stare.
All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, an evolving leader in more ways than one, stood at his stall in the visitor’s locker room at Barclays Center on Tuesday night. He’d just scored seven straight fourth-quarter points to turn a one-possession squeaker against the perpetually feisty Brooklyn Nets into a double-digit victory. He fielded questions about the challenge of getting up for games against cellar-dwellers (“Once you look up at the scoreboard and realize that you’re down to a team playing extremely hard, you know, it kick in after that”) and the value of game-tilting reserve guard Fred VanVleet, who helped douse D’Angelo Russell after a scorching start.
Then, a reporter asked DeRozan about the big-picture significance of the Raptors reaching 50 wins.
“We won 50 games?” DeRozan asked.
Yep! Third straight year, too. Kind of a big deal, right?
“I didn’t know,” DeRozan said. “I didn’t know we won 50 games.”
This is where we remind you that, in their first 18 years of existence, the Raptors only strung together three straight 40-win seasons once, in the 1999-2002 heyday of Vinsanity. And that, before 2015, the Raptors had never cracked half-a-hundred.
“Hearing it, it’s definitely an accomplishment, especially, you know, these last few years,” DeRozan continued, searching for words to sum up an achievement that, somewhere along the line, stopped seeming like one.
After a beat: “We’ve got to keep going.”
A half-dozen years ago, when post-Vince-and-Bosh Toronto couldn’t muster this many wins in two seasons, DeRozan’s response would’ve been unfathomable. Now, though? It’s just about right.
After years in the NBA’s upper-middle class, the Raptors, to a man, believe they’re built for the kind of June success reserved only for the sport’s legitimate elite. They’ve spent the last five months building a résumé to support that assertion, which features:
The NBA’s best home record (28-5);
The NBA’s fourth-best road record (22-12);
Nine straight wins, the league’s second-longest running streak;
The league’s No. 4 offense — a famously diversified attack now less reliant on heroics from DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — and No. 4 defense, making them the NBA’s only top-five team on both sides of the ball;
Two of the NBA’s 10 most effective five-man lineups, including one — the all-bench crew of VanVleet, guard Delon Wright, swingman C.J. Miles, and young bigs Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl — that has blown opponents’ doors off by nearly 26 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any group to log at least 200 minutes;
Wins over every other contender of note, save the defending champion Golden State Warriors (to whom the Raps lost twice by a total of seven points), including last Friday’s season-defining defeat of the Houston Rockets.
That win wasn’t nationally televised in the U.S. Casey remains unapologetically salty.
“For it not to be watched by ESPN, TNT, whoever, we feel slighted,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “I know nobody cares, but it puts a little chip on our shoulder. It should put a chip on our shoulder.”
No matter how many people saw it stateside, the win confirmed what anybody paying attention has known for a while. These Raptors are really good. The best team in franchise history. And maybe even better than that.
In DeRozan, they’ve got one of the league’s premier one-on-one scorers, a midrange monster whose pristine footwork allows him to get to his spots against virtually any defense. In Lowry, they’ve got one of the NBA’s best two-way point guards, a dogged playmaker who’s made a nine-figure living out of turning The Little Things coaches fawn over into Big Things that stack victories.
In Jonas Valanciunas, they’ve got a 25-year-old, 7-foot bruiser who can devour small-ball frontlines — 26 points with 14 rebounds in 26 minutes against Brooklyn — and who’s added stretch (25-for-57 from 3-point range) and spatial awareness (Casey raves about his progress in defending pick-and-rolls). Now, Toronto can start Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, get the defensive benefits of playing two traditional bigs, and still run four- and sometimes five-out offense.
Casey can also crank up the athleticism with the early-20s tandem of Poeltl and Siakam, whose length and quickness can cover acres of space, and who have shown defensive and playmaking awareness far beyond their years. In the backcourt, VanVleet’s been a godsend, a two-way playmaker out of central casting to spell Lowry and, increasingly, to kick the All-Stars up a spot in the lineup in three-guard units that give defenses headaches.
They’re a little shy on shooting, and they don’t have much depth on the wing; the health and performance of rookie forward OG Anunoby will be one of this postseason’s biggest X-factors. But if you’re looking for weaknesses, that’s about it.
“We started to figure out how good we could be early,” said Lowry.
Like James Harden and Chris Paul’s Rockets, the Raptors know that most hoops fans won’t believe they can actually make it past their bogeyman until it actually happens. That’s OK. They believe enough for the rest of us.
“I kind of feel like that’s the way we came into camp,” said Miles, a 13-year vet who came up hard under Jerry Sloan and brings savvy and sharpshooting in equal measure. “That was our goal, was to be the best team in the East. We’re trying to win a championship. We talked about it.”
For DeRozan, who’s scoring more efficiently and dishing assists at career-high rates, the belief that this year’s Raptors could be special — could go from being one of the league’s best teams to its best, full stop — started even earlier.
“I knew that after we lost in the playoffs last year,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Understanding how hard I was going to work. Understanding how hard Kyle was going to work. Understanding how hard the organization was going to work to make sure we needed to be where we needed to be. You know, we always got so close. It was always right there. But I always had that confidence. Ever since that Game 4 in the playoffs last year. The next day.”
That sweep at the hands of LeBron and the Cavs set in motion the “culture reset” that’s transformed Toronto. Once a team that ranked near the bottom of the NBA in passing and near the top in isolation offense, the Raptors now focus much more on flow, sharing, and deploying every weapon in their arsenal. Including those — like Siakam’s playmaking, Poeltl’s deft hands and Valanciunas’ burgeoning 3-ball — that might’ve previously gotten buried beneath a hail of DeRozan and Lowry jumpers.
“It’s a traditional thing,” Casey said. “For years, there was always Detroit. There was always Chicago. There was always New York, or always Boston — that team that everybody is trying to bust through the gate to get to. We’ve gone through that. We’ve gone through it the last few years with Cleveland. So what can we do to get through that door? What can we do differently? That was the thought process going into changing that philosophy.”
The Raptors insist they’ve always been confident. But a few did acknowledge that they started to feel a change — and maybe the start of busting through that gate — as they built up steam on a run that’s seen them go 21-4 since Jan. 15.
“You have the belief; now you just have to go out there and perform it at that level,” said VanVleet, who boasts the NBA’s best individual net rating and has become indispensable in Casey’s rotation. “Then it all ties together, and you’re able to grow some chemistry and some energy and some confidence, and it all comes together like this.”
“We just had a really good swagger about us,” Miles said. “[…] We had gotten to a stride where it felt like everybody was kind of clicking, and we had figured out how to really hit people in the face twice. [The starters] would start the game off, and then we would come in the game and take it up another notch. It was great.”
As the energy improved and the wins piled up, the Raptors started to think bigger.
“There was a point where we talked about [the top seed],” said Casey, a coaching lifer was the lead assistant on the Dallas Mavericks team that shocked the Miami Heat to win the 2011 NBA championship. “We let it go, because we knew probably we were going to talk about it every day. But we hit on it probably right before the All-Star break, about working hard to get the No. 1 spot.”
It’s a new position — leading the pack rather than chasing — and one that brings new trials. For example: preaching the importance of trying to win every possession, and not coming out flat, ever, even against one of the league’s worst teams.
“You know, it’s easy to get up for the Houston game,” Casey said after the Raptors allowed Brooklyn to score 40 first-quarter points. (The Nets scored just 35 after halftime.) “There’s 28 other teams out there that are trying to come into your house and take your food. That’s what we’ve got to get ready for.”
They also have to get ready for a postseason slate that could pose stiff immediate challenges. Toronto could face Round 1 rematches with a pair of recent opponents: the Heat, who took the Raptors to seven in 2016, or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, who put the fear of God into Toronto last spring. They could also face a brand new monster: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers.
They’ll face lingering doubts stemming from the franchise’s checkered history in Game 1s. They’ll face skepticism that their more egalitarian offense will hold up in the postseason crucible. They’ll face all sorts of pressures and expectations, external and internal, that come with rising to the top.
“We’ve just got to keep remembering that nothing that’s going on outside of the locker room’s going to matter,” Miles told Yahoo Sports. “It’s about us, and what we’re trying to do.”
The Raptors have done everything they can to this point, including hitting the 50-win mark faster than ever. To them, it’s all just preamble.
“We’re excited about it,” Casey said after win No. 50. (He did not sound excited.) “It’s good for our team, our franchise. But we’re playing for something more than that. We’re playing for something special.”
If you’re not yet convinced that this Raptors team can get there, that they’re capable of being beasts of the East and champions of the world … well, they’re not sweating it.
“We just go out there and do our job, and we let everybody else talk about that,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “We go out there believing what we believe in. We know what we can do.”
If they can keep this up, soon you will, too.
“That’s why we play. It’s a bigger goal,” DeRozan said. “Success during the regular season is great. But we’re playing for something bigger than all of us, and that’s to get in the postseason, win all the rounds and get that gold trophy.”
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