The playoff hopes for the Toronto Raptors are becoming slimmer and it’s time for them to turn the tide once again if they are thinking about playing in May.
Toronto put itself back in the playoff conversation in February with its first winning month since January of 2010. The Raptors finished with a 7-5 record and posted a record above the watermark in the month of February for the first time since 2008, coincidentally, the last time they tasted the post-season.
But what’s happened lately? After winning five straight, and six of seven games, things have gone south. Toronto has posted three straight losses and now hits the road with four consecutive games away from the Air Canada Centre.
It’s about winning and getting some help — scoreboard watching, if you will — for Toronto if they are still entertaining playoff hopes. The road trip starts with a must win in Milwaukee as the Bucks hold the final playoff spot and have already defeated Toronto once this season. And yes, the last time Toronto won four consecutive road games, which they had a chance to do the other night before losing in Cleveland, was 2002.
The trade for Rudy Gay definitely improved the team but the Raptors had to give up one of the elements of a winning formula. Jose Calderon’s savvy as a “traditional” pass-first point guard is currently being missed by the Raptors. That’s not to say that the deal should not have been made because the other element — a star player who can close games like Gay — is difficult and often tougher to acquire.
Consequently, the style of play has changed. Head coach Dwane Casey has talked about the ball “sticking” and it just means the ball is not moving as much as it did before. Coaches, with the help of stats, will tell you that when the ball moves from side to side, the defence is forced to move. That’s when breakdowns occur in defensive rotations, allowing offences to take advantage. Toronto still features screen-and-roll possessions to start that process in its offence. However, these sequences do not produce the same results as they did with different personnel.
In the past, the Raptors had run screen-and-roll to bring the defence to spots to cover the initial attack. If the defence accomplished that, then the subsequent ball movement would force the defence to move again and another offensive opportunity may present itself. Calderon was a master at that aspect of the game. While the pick-and-roll is still part of the offence, the Raptors seem to be running their pick-and-roll plays and trying to take more advantage of mismatches created by player switches. It has led to more isolation basketball with difficult offensive possessions and sometimes more contested shots.
Over the course of the current losing streak, Toronto has only shot above 44 per cent from the field in one game while being at 40 per cent or lower in the other two losses. It’s unfortunate for them, because at the other end of the floor, the defence is showing improvement.
With Dwane Casey at the helm over the past two seasons, the Raptors have held the opposition to less than 45 per cent from the floor on 58 occasions and have a record that is 10 games above .500. As a comparison, in the previous two seasons (full 82-game schedules), the opponents were under 45 per cent in a total of 63 contests.
So if playoff chatter is still on the lips of Toronto fans the team will have to turn things around offensively and start sharing the ball more. The margin for error is slim but it can be done if the team makes a conscious effort to do it together.