No one knows what to expect from this new-look Toronto Raptors in the post-season, but everyone can think of things that can’t happen again.
Exactly one player from the Raptors memorable 2014 post-season run — their first in five years — remains: Kyle Lowry. Former coach Dwane Casey’s core is all but gone, and with it went the style of basketball he had built in seven years as bench boss.
Although it would be unfair to compare this team to past squads, coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors can still draw some valuable wisdom from the years behind them.
Here are five lessons from the past five post-seasons the Raptors need to keep in mind:
1. Avoid LeBron James
2. Win that first game
The Raptors finally broke the Game 1 curse last year, beating the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena for their first-ever franchise win in the first game of the post-season.
But Paul Pierce’s nine straight points to win it for the Nets in 2014 and the 2-for-11 overtime shooting collapse against the Washington Wizards in 2015 are still fresh in fans’ memories. So are Paul George’s heroics for the Indiana Pacers and the 22-13 fourth-quarter deficit to the Milwaukee Bucks in the following years.
When all was said and done, those were teams whose depth couldn’t keep up with the intensity of a first-round Game 1, and it would be disappointing to see the Raptors fall back into old habits.
Toronto had some trouble with the Orlando Magic in the beginning of the season, dropping the first two of four matchups to its first-round opponent. After that, however, the Raptors recovered to close out the final two contests against Orlando, including a statement 118-109 win on April 4 which cemented the team’s status as Round 1 favourites. Home-court advantage and a more solid roster should be helpful in the quest for that first game.
3. Iso-ball is ancient history
Game 7 in 2014, Lowry gets the ball at the point with six seconds left and the Raptors trailing by one in front of their home crowd. He struggles with the tight defence and eventually finds his way to the paint, where his jump-up is viciously blocked by Paul Pierce.
A year later, DeRozan inadvertently helps sink the Raptors in Game 1 vs. the Wizards, going 6-for-20 from the floor while constantly attempting contested mid-range jumpers instead of finding the open teammate.
Casey’s Raptors didn’t end up having much to show for doing it the old-fashioned way, so it’s refreshing to see this current squad try a new direction.
Toronto’s ball movement has been smoother than ever, especially after Marc Gasol’s arrival. The centre’s positive impact has been well-documented, and the Raptors’ increase in assist-per-possession ratio after his arrival is a good example of that. Toronto currently ranks 10th in the league, compared to 16th prior to the Feb. 7 trade that brought Gasol to the team.
“With his addition he may be getting the ball [to shooters] a half count quicker than they’re used to, so they’re open and they’re staying open or the contest might not be quite as hard as maybe they’re used to because it touches his hands and it’s getting to the next guy’s hands quickly and they’re getting them away with more clearance,” Nurse said in the final days of the regular season. “His ball movement has made it a little more contagious for all of us. We had a game — maybe five games ago — where we had 373 passes and the average is 275 or something. It was really flying around. The contagious passing that’s he brought is only going to make us shoot the ball better.”
The only moments when we’ve seen the team return to its iso habits this season were in games where Lowry was inactive, and the offensive load fell in Leonard’s or Pascal Siakam’s shoulders.
The Raptors seem to have done a good job in addressing this one.
4. Quicker adjustments
One lesson the Raptors definitely appear to have learned from their last post-season run is: Don’t wait until the playoffs to introduce new lineups.
That tendency was, in fairness, largely tied to Dwane Casey’s brand of basketball, as last year Toronto sported the same starting five in 52 of 82 games and struggled deeply when teams figured out their rotation in the playoffs.
As the Raptors scrambled to find chemistry with new combinations in the middle of October, the Cleveland Cavaliers feasted on the holes left by the Raptors on both ends of the floor, racing in transition and making Toronto pay for turnovers.
Who would have thought that calling on an incongruous, out of form Lucas Nogueira in an elimination game wouldn’t work?
Nurse’s current team might have overcorrected on this one, though.
“We’ve been forced into go off-script a lot,” Nurse told reporters the week before the playoffs. “We’ve been looking at different lineups, different second units, different starting lineups, different combinations, small, big, super big. And I guess the whole point of that was we get some type of familiarity with things not just being perfect all the time. And I feel good about that.”
Ten months later, the Raptors’ projected post-season starting five has seen just nine games together from tip-off so far, as the coaching staff keeps experimenting and dealing with injuries or load management.
This year’s team has seen 22 different starting fives, compared to 12 last season.
It’s tough to predict how a team will mesh together on a nightly basis – the most important nights of the season — based on such a small sample size. On paper, Lowry, Leonard, Gasol, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam are the best available players and a good fit. But they might encounter a new version of an old problem.
5. Believe in the title
Taking a look back at the Raptors’ six-year post-season run can either turn into an educational exercise or an excruciating experience.
From that first-round loss to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 to consecutive sweeps by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past two post-seasons, to a drastic restructuring process, Toronto has gone from overlooked surprise to prime-time contender.
And yet, the team’s confidence seems to fall flat year after year.
“If we had LeBron, we would have won,” DeMar DeRozan said back in 2017 after the Raptors were eliminated by the Cavaliers the first time.
“I know I’m not no LeBron, I know DeMar is not no LeBron,” Lowry said in a pre-game interview that same year.
When asked about how a team could beat the Golden State Warriors, Raptors president Masai Ujiri said: “Pray to God.”
Those are some examples of the underdog mindset that needed to be eradicated from the Raptors locker room.
After a handful of aggressive moves by Ujiri, Toronto might be in the best position ever to reach an elusive NBA Finals. But they must believe they can do it.
The level of talent on this team isn’t the problem anymore, which is why mental preparation has never been so important. The addition of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green has proven to be a success in countless levels, and their title run with the San Antonio Spurs may become pivotal in this matter.
That switch in mentality is visibly something Nurse has been striving for all season long, and the biggest case in point of that was Leonard’s 24 minutes and 20 points in the Raptors’ last regular-season game, against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday. Winning that game represented earning home-court advantage against the Warriors in a potential Final matchup.
Cultural change is about much more than locker-room speech.
“They’re not an up-and-coming team,” Kevin Durant said after the Raptors beat the Warriors in December. “They’re here.”
The Raptors would do well to remember it.