There is a very clear template regarding how to play successfully in the NBA at the moment and even at their very best – remember December? – the Raptors barely followed it.
The best teams in the league spread the floor, move the ball and bodies until they can generate a layup or a lob at the rim or an open three-point shot. Golden State, Cleveland, Houston and Boston are the top four teams in the league in threes made and have four of the five best records, while San Antonio, who sport the league’s second-best record, rank first in the NBA in three-point percentage.
The Raptors peaked this season – in terms of winning percentage – at 22-8 in late December and it was not a coincidence that their best basketball was bolstered by the best shooting month of Kyle Lowry’s career. The Raptors all-star guard joined a short list of players to make at least half of their threes while attempting at least eight per game over a calendar month in December.
But even then the Raptors were never a spread-it-and-fire-type club. They got by when Lowry (and the since departed Terrence Ross) could keep defences honest from deep and DeMar DeRozan earned his way to the foul line at league-leading rates and as a group they took care of the basketball.
Heading into Sunday night’s 116-91 win over the Indiana Pacers at the Air Canada Centre – their first meeting since the Raptors eliminated Indiana from the playoffs in a seven-game series last spring – the Raptors' lacking of any semblance of a threat from deep was beginning to look like too much to overcome on a consistent basis.
With Lowry and his 3.3 made threes per game – third in the NBA – out of the lineup since the all-star break the Raptors were making just 6.8 triples a game, 28th in the NBA while shooting 31.2 per cent, 26th in the league. With Lowry playing Toronto was making 9.2 threes a game (10th) while shooting 37 per cent (seventh).
Dwane Casey’s response to the swoon was, of course, to keep shooting.
“We gotta get the attempts up,” he was saying before the win, which improved his team's record to a very respectable 8-5 since Lowry’s surgery and 41-29 overall while pulling them within three games of second-place Boston in the East and 1.5 behind No. 3 Washington.
“I think we gotta get the attempts up …. we have some capable guys. I think right now, recognizing the three-point shots and looks that we can get, I think we’re turning some of those down.”
Without him, looks were hard to come by and making them even harder. Only once in 12 games since the all-star break had the Raptors made as many as 10 threes – the 11 they made against the Washington Wizards in their bounce-back win earlier this month.
But Lowry’s absence was beginning to turn into a convenient excuse. With Lowry not expected back until the beginning of April at the earliest, simply accepting being a bad three-point shooting team was not an option.
Figuring out how to improve – moving the ball more willingly, cutting harder away from the ball, screening more precisely – were all topics of discussion during the Raptors' closed-door meeting after their embarrassing loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night.
It looks like people listened.
“The past two games we’ve been moving the ball and trying to get everybody involved, that’s the only way we’re going to win,” said Carroll, who led the Raptors with four triples on five shots against Indiana, typically as the finishing touch on a possession featuring the ball moving side-to-side or inside-out.
“After we had that long meeting that was one of the key [points] of emphasis,” said Carroll, who is also eight for his last 17 from the floor with five threes on nine shots over two games. “Moving the ball and getting other people involved and it’s been working out."
Carroll is kind of a bell-weather for this type of thing. He’s not one to create his own shot but has proven over his career to be a solid shooter when the ball can find him open with his feet set, but that’s a team effort. His best season was with the Atlanta Hawks two-seasons ago when 99 per cent of his threes were assisted.
“With Kyle out it’s kind of hard,” he said. “But recently we’ve been moving the ball and I’ve been catching the ball in rhythm."
No one was happier than Casey. “The key was it wasn’t forced,” he said after the game. “It was natural and that’s what’s needed.
"Any time you play with the force we did tonight that’s what we’ve been searching for, it gives your offence and defence a chance to be successful and I thought that’s what we did tonight.”
There were all kinds of positive elements that led to the Raptors' virtually wire-to-wire blowout of the Pacers – the Raptors took the lead on a Serge Ibaka three midway through the first quarter and never trailed again. The game could easily serve as a playoff preview depending on how the East’s seeding shakes out – the Raps are fourth and the Pacers are sixth, but it’s easy to see them meeting in a 3-6 or 4-5 matchup.
If it does the Raptors have a lot to be heartened by, beyond just waiting for Lowry to return.
As a team their defence picked up largely where it left off against the Detroit Pistons on Friday as the Pacers were held to 42 per cent shooting and just 6-of-23 from deep while Toronto led 51-33 on the boards. P.J. Tucker continued to elevate his teammates with his hustle and his savvy. The final gasp of air went out of Indiana’s balloon when Tucker broke his man down for a late-clock layup at one end early in the fourth quarter and then hustled back to D-up Pacers star Paul George, drawing the charge and George’s fifth foul. The Raptors were up 20 at that point.
Rookie Jakob Poeltl continues to show why he’s surged past Lucas Nogueira in Casey’s rotation as the Austrian rookie scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 27 minutes. The numbers might seem modest – when DeRozan (who led all scorers with 22) was told that Poeltl had notched a career-high he was impressed only until he was told it was 12 points and Poeltl’s previous peak was seven.
“Good for him, good for him,” said DeRozan, barely hiding a big-brother smirk before praising Poeltl’s calm at both ends.
Jonas Valanciunas had the bulk of his 11 points and 13 rebounds in the first half as the Raptors took a 17-point lead into the break and Cory Joseph played one his most complete games as a starter with 11 points, nine assists and four rebounds in 31 minutes.
But the simplest explanation for the Raptors' win is that they – for once – won the three-point battle, shooting 12-of-27 from deep. It was helped by some committed ball movement – 25 assists is almost a week’s work for the NBA’s least pass-happy team (Toronto is 30th in the NBA in assists and falling) – and the ball movement looked good because shots were being knocked down at the end of it.
Carroll led the way while Ibaka – Toronto's most consistent perimeter threat in Lowry’s absence – knocked down two of three as well as some wide-open looks from just inside the line on his way to 16 points.
When you’re making threes and the other team is making twos, life becomes a little easier.
For once the Raptors were on the right side of the equation.
“That’s NBA basketball at this point,” said Carroll. “If you can’t shoot you can’t compete in the league. With Kyle out we have to have some people step up.”