TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are playing their best basketball of the season and – for the moment – are playing the best in the NBA.
Tuesday night they put their five-game winning streak on the line against the visiting Miami Heat. If they can push it to six they’ll match their season high, achieved twice.
And while six wins is nothing to scoff at, one notable aspect of Toronto’s workman-like march up the Eastern Conference leaderboard is that the Raptors have done it without any of the torrid tears that have shaped their rivals’ seasons so far.
The Raptors have only just recently taken over first-spot in the conference because the Boston Celtics staked their claim with a 16-game winning streak in October and November. Toronto was looking up at Cleveland for a while because the Cavaliers won 13 straight and 18 of 19 at one point.
Out west, the Houston Rockets announced their designs on the Golden State Warriors’ crown with a 14-game winning streak while the Warriors – who have routinely knocked off double-digit win streaks since they started their epic 73-9 season in 2015-16 by going 24-0, the longest win streak to start a season in league history – answered with an 11-0 roll of their own.
Not surprisingly, the Raptors have no interest in talking about winning streaks – particularly a fairly modest five-gamer.
“I don’t even think we look that far ahead,” said Kyle Lowry on Monday. “You start thinking about streaks, [stuff] go bad.”
But it’s not unreasonable to think the Raptors might be due for a streak that hits double figures. The franchise record is 11 straight in the 2015-16 season.
During their five-game streak, the Raptors have a preposterous 21.9 net rating. Houston and Utah –- also undefeated in their past five – have net ratings of 16.5 and 15.6, respectively over the same period.
The Raptors’ recent dominance has been so commanding that all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan haven’t played a fourth quarter in minute in three games and Toronto’s starting lineup hasn’t been on the floor together once in the fourth quarter during the streak.
Of course, it’s not like tethering their starters offers the opposition any respite as Toronto’s five-man bench unit – Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl – is plus-83 in 56 minutes together, while the starting five is plus-15 in 85 minutes.
“I think we just play hard,” said Siakam. “We just go out and of course we can say we worked out together and all that before, but I think we just go out and play hard. Man, I think that’s the important thing.”
Even by their own standards, the 39-16 Raptors are playing some excellent basketball.
In their three previous streaks of five games or more the Raptors have been dominant. But not like this. Their best previous net rating over a stretch of five or more wins this year is 14.8.
“I don’t get caught up in streaks or superstitions. I just want to play well and get better,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “What’s our longest streak this year? Six games? I think the difference even now [compared with] those groups of games before is we [are] playing at a higher level now. We have a better understanding. We were playing hard [then], but I don’t know if we were executing things.”
If the Raptors’ goal has been to move the ball and create a lot of assisted baskets – ideally assisted threes – the last five games have been a great advertisement for their template.
Toronto is averaging 15.2 threes a game over their past five games, second only to Houston’s 15.8. They’ve averaged 27.4 assists, third behind Golden State and Washington. For the season, the Raptors average 23.2 assists, which is 11th, and 11.5 threes, which is seventh.
The Raptors’ balance may be their most defining trait. They are fourth in the NBA in offensive rating and third on defence, making them the only team in the league in the top four of each category.
Toronto has two games left before the All-Star break – Miami at the ACC on Tuesday and a stop in Chicago Wednesday – and 27 in total.
The Raptors are ahead of the pace from two seasons ago when they won a franchise-record 56 games and – statistically at least – were a far superior team than the version of the Raptors that had a net rating of 4.3, which was sixth in the NBA and a franchise record at the time, and were ranked sixth and 11th on offence and defence, respectively.
The offensive and defensive balance combined with their depth may not have delivered a double-digit win streak so far, but perhaps more important is that the Raptors have avoided losing more than two games in a row so far this season, a distinction they share only with the Warriors.
“Not saying we’re going to do that every night,” Casey said of his club’s level of play. “But I like the direction we’re going right now. The main thing is to continue that.”