While the Toronto Raptors were enjoying a rare three days off between games earlier this week, they did some goal-setting.
They had just come through the most challenging two weeks of their schedule: seven games in 12 days against teams with .500 records or better, including some of the NBA’s best clubs. Their loss to the fast-rising Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 20 meant they finished the stretch at 3-4 – not bad considering they were without all-star point guard Kyle Lowry for three of them – but the loss came with a party favour: it was the Raptors’ last road game against a Western Conference opponent for the rest of the season.
The timing was right. The worst was over, in other words, and the Raptors were standing tall.
Their first game after their break was an easy win Wednesday against the hapless Atlanta Hawks, leaving Toronto at 32-14, good for the fourth-best mark in the NBA, and tied in the loss column with the Boston Celtics. Their underlying numbers are good, too, with the Raptors third in the NBA in net rating behind only Western Conference powerhouses Golden State and Houston and joining the defending NBA champion Warriors as the only teams ranked in the top six in both offensive and defensive ratings – the Raptors ranking fourth in each category.
So, at their little corporate retreat, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey delivered a challenge: Why not gun for No. 1?
Why shoudn’t the Raptors make a push to be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as a precursor towards their first-ever conference title?
The message was heard.
“He wants us to embrace chasing after that top seed and that’s what we have to do,” said Lowry. “As a group, as a team we want to embrace it and go after it and we’re focused on being a better team. I think that’s one thing that coach really wants for us, is to be focused on that and to continue to reach for that goal.”
Casey typically preaches process over outcomes, but in this case, he’s confident that setting their sights on reeling in the first-place Celtics is the best way for his club to keep fine-tuning the details it needs to master to be playing its best basketball come playoff time.
It’s unusual for Casey to make a concrete team goal public, but you get the sense he’s trying to figure out ways to make sure his club plays its remaining 36 games with a suitable amount of urgency. Gunning for No. 1 might be the best way to keep the Raptors’ focus on the task at hand.
“It’s always a target to try and get to the top and beat who is in front of us,” said Casey, whose club hosts the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Air Canada Centre on Friday and Sunday, respectively. “That’s what we should be playing for and working every day to get better for and not be satisfied with anything, whether it’s pick-and-roll defence, offensive execution, points, numbers. Whatever it is, whatever the individual goals and accomplishments are, we can’t be satisfied because there are a lot of areas where we can get better.
“[But the No. 1 seed] is important. One is the pride goal, to be the conference champion is a goal you should always aspire for, to get to the top, to get home-court advantage, to be the No. 1 team in the conference. You still have to win no matter if you’re one, two or three [seed], but that’s our goal, we want to put the pressure on ourselves to try and get there and chase Boston, to catch Boston and if we get there to hold it.”
“But the main thing is to continue to get better more so that [the No. 1 seed] be the only thing that you’re worried about. You can get there by winning some games but you’re not really getting better as a team. That’s my major concern. “
The Raptors seem well-positioned to make a run at Boston, who lost its first two games of the season before reeling off a 16-game winning streak to force the Raptors and everyone else to play catch-up.
Not only does Toronto not have play on the road in the Western Conference again this season, the Raptors have played just 20 games at home, the fewest in the NBA. Of their 36 remaining games just 15 are on the road while 21 are at home, where they are 17-3, the second-best home record in the NBA after the San Antonio Spurs, who are 20-3.
Boston’s schedule is almost the reverse, as 18 of its remaining 33 games are on the road. The Celtics have lost four of their last five games and will play the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. They have another long West-coast trip and a separate trip to Houston still on the docket. Two of their road games are against the Raptors.
Schedule is often destiny in the NBA, and by that measure, the Raptors may be primed to knock Boston off the top of its Eastern Conference perch sooner rather than later.
Their goals are realistic.
“I mean, home court through the whole Eastern Conference playoffs, possibly, yeah, it’s an advantage for sure,” said Lowry. [but] we’ve still got to lace ‘em up and go hoop. I think it’s an advantage to be playing well at home. I think we have a chance to continue to get better and take it day-by-day and focus on what we need to focus on for the long term.
“I haven’t really looked too deep into the schedule, I’ve looked a couple weeks ahead, three or four weeks ahead, but I think we’ve got to just take care of the games we can at home and take advantage of the games that we’re supposed to take care of.”
The list of things to improve on isn’t all that long, but there are a couple of red flags: the Raptors three-point shooting accuracy needs to improve from 26th in the NBA. They are 18th in defensive rebound percentage and 27th in opponents’ second-chance points. Their inability to finish off possessions with rebounds is one of their few weaknesses, defensively.
Casey’s prescription? Take more responsibility individually.
“The strengths and weakness of each player [is part of it],” said Casey. “But it’s also attention to detail, trusting the team concept, the team defence; the other guys being in the right place at the right time, doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
“But I told the guys [Thursday] we have to act like we’re in the gym playing one-on-one, don’t depend on [help]. Guard that guy like you and he are in the park, one-on-one and we have dinner depending on it.”
Get that done in the remaining 36 games and the Raptors might sit first when they set the table come playoff time.