First-place Raps seem to be solving lineup issues

Strong play off the bench from Terrence Ross is one of many factors contributing to the Raptors' recent success (Photo: David Tulis/AP)

It’s like leading a marathon after the first mile: it’s nice but it really doesn’t mean anything.

Yes, folks, with a record of 6-7 at the time of this writing, the Toronto Raptors are atop the Atlantic Division. By all means, please feel free to pull out monikers from seasons gone by, like the Titanic Division, Sub-Atlantic, or the latest in the race for top draft picks this season, the Titanktic Division.

But know that for Dwane Casey, at least for the time being, it’s nice not to have to worry about the dreadful 4-19 start of a season ago—a year in which win No. 6 didn’t come until December 16th.

So, what’s the difference?

Toronto is playing much better defensively this season than they did a year ago. Some of the simple numbers show it best: After 13 games in 2012-13, Toronto was 24th in opponents’ scoring, 25th in opponents’ field goal percentage, 21st in opponents’ three-point percentage and 23rd in opponents’ assists. Contrast that with this season, which sees them inside the top 10 in opponents’ scoring and three-point percentage and it’s not hard to see one major explanation for the team’s improvement.

However, it’s safe to say Toronto still doesn’t look like a true division leader, and much of the consternation centres on the offence.

The issue is ball movement. I will refrain from getting on my soapbox and sounding off about how the game was different in years past (that will come in another musing later in the season), but that’s exactly what it is with Toronto.

The Raptors aren’t necessarily a selfish team; it’s just that some players are a product of the evolution of the game. In this day and age, players use athletic gifts to score and ultimately bail their team out, and Toronto’s wing players—Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan—are prone to taking too much of the offensive load on their shoulders when trying to help the team.

But lately, under the direction of point guard Kyle Lowry, the Raptors have started to show signs of a functional offence that actually shares the ball. The have had 20 or more assists in each of the last two wins, and Lowry in particular (although he would never admit it) seems to have heard the howls about his responsibility to run the team. In his last five games, he has had 43 assists with only seven turnovers, and he currently sits third in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio.

There will always be questions about a coach and his rotations, but as a former bench boss once said: “A coach always has options and the only reason his options are questioned is because they don’t succeed. If the fan at home can see them, don’t you think an NBA coach can?”

In short, Casey knows his team better than anyone, and probably have a good answer for every question you have about his lineups.

Lately, though, Casey seems to have found something that works well. With DeRozan and Gay needing the same space on the floor at times, Casey has taken to sidestepping the problem by playing them separately more often. Combine that with the fact that Steve Novak is healthy and Terrence Ross is playing better, and you’ve got shooters on the floor to create driving lanes and stretch the defence.

As Gay asked reporters in the locker room following a career high eight-assist night in a win over Philadelphia: “What do you think of when you see Novak on the floor?” Regardless of the number of shots he has missed this season, the fact that Novak might knock one down keeps defensive players honest. The numbers show that when one of DeRozan or Gay is on the floor with Ross and Novak, the team is quite productive on offence.

So, no Raptor fans, sitting in first at the end of November is nothing to get excited about. And for those still pulling for ping-pong balls over playoff berths, yes, there is still a long way to go. But in a conference with only three teams sitting above the water line, Toronto is part of bunch that is fighting to improve. Only time will tell if they are really figuring things out.

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