It’s perhaps the most telling sign yet that the 29-11 Raptors — who have already locked down the best record the franchise has ever had at the halfway point of season with Game 41 still to play Saturday night — are better positioned to leverage it into something meaningful in the second half and beyond.
Crushing the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James on a rare Thursday-night TNT broadcast?
Meh. On to the next thing. Nice win, that’s about it. Time to get ready for the visiting Golden State Warriors and their multi-headed MVP candidates, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.
“I think this time around you just understand patience more where before you’d get excited off certain games like this or certain moments or a winning streak or all that,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “Nowadays it’s not about the moment it’s kind of about the process and the long run of it. You really don’t get too excited because you understand the next day you got to come in here and prepare for Golden State, you know. So it never stops. For us it’s that continuous grind of understanding: Let’s continue to get [to the] best we can so come the end of the season we can be playing the basketball we know how to play.”
It’s evident that the basketball they know how to play already is at a very, very high level.
There are all kinds of numbers to crunch, but most of them keep spitting out the same conclusion: At the midway point of the regular season the only team that can, without argument, claim to be superior to the Raptors is the one that is coming to town Saturday night.
They are only the two teams in the NBA ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Warriors (33-9 before play Friday night’s game) have the NBA’s best record and are ranked first and third, respectively, in offence and defence while the Raptors, with the league’s third-best winning percentage, are ranked third and fourth.
This is not an insignificant achievement. According to Sportsnet’s Chris Black, over the past 20 years, 10 teams have finished the regular season in the top four in both categories. On average they’ve won 64.6 games and the lowest number they’ve won in a full 82-game season is 58.
The Raptors are on pace for 59, which would surpass their franchise-record 56 wins in 2015-16 when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.
They’re second only to Golden State in the NBA in net rating. The Boston Celtics lead the Raptors by three games for first place in the East, but Toronto trails Boston by just one game in the loss column.
Sounding quite sincere as they say it, the Raptors feel like they still have room to improve.
“Well, we’re adjusting a little bit better offensively the way we want to play to be effective and efficient every night,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “We’re not there totally yet, we’re getting there. Defensively we’re executing the things we want to do, whether it’s switching, handling pick-and-rolls and just being efficient in those ways.
“Like I said before the game last night, winning the game or losing the game last night doesn’t make your season or break your season. We still have work to do to get to where we want to go and I know it sounds like coach speak but it’s true. Every night is a different animal that you’ve got to attack and our job and our approach is to be consistent as much as possible each night.”
The Raptors are 18-4 since Nov. 25 – only the Warriors at 19-4 are better in that span – a sign of the consistency that Casey is striving for.
What’s even more remarkable is that scattered among their 11 losses are several games that were all but won save for some late-game breakdowns. A flipped possession here or there against (most recently) the Miami Heat but also the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers and on down the list and the Raptors’ record could be even more gaudy.
Among those was the Raptors’ first meeting with the Warriors at Oracle Arena in the fourth game of the regular season as the Raptors led by five with 1:37 left only to watch Curry score a layup and then Durant and Curry bomb threes all in the space of 56 seconds to put the Raptors to sleep.
But the Raptors don’t have revenge on their minds for Saturday even though the possibility seems decent enough. The Warriors will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back and the Raptors will have Serge Ibaka (suspension) back, if not necessarily Kyle Lowry (bruised tailbone). That would distract them from the process of gradual improvement.
“There’s a few games but you could nitpick so much, dwell on it,” said DeRozan. “For us we just remember what we did wrong and how to correct it the next go-around. That’s one thing we keep in mind.”
It’s an outlook that has permeated the group. Having been through the hype of hosting LeBron James and the Cavaliers at home for the first time since being swept in the playoffs last May, having the Warriors blow into town is just another opportunity for the Raptors to focus on what they need to do to get better.
“I think any time in this league, you’ve got to focus in on yourself,” said second-year guard Fred VanVleet, who had a career-high 22 against the Cavaliers. “I know the game plan changes between who you’re playing, who you’re guarding, what each team does. [But] if you bring the same intensity and approach to what you do, that will give you a chance in most games.”
Through half a season and counting, the Raptors have had a chance to win in almost all them, and more often than not have done just that. They don’t expect Saturday to be any different.
“But I always say, games like this, you want these games,” said DeRozan. “You want to play versus the top teams in the NBA. You want to. It’s fun, it’s exciting, you get up for it, you can’t sleep at night.
“You have that anxiety where you just want to get out there on the floor and compete.”