Sinking Leafs would do well to emulate Raptors

They are two teams in one city seemingly heading in opposite directions. While the Leafs are stunning fans with their late season collapse, the Raptors are winning them with their late season surge.

The best thing the Toronto Maple Leafs can hope for in the near future is to figure out how to be more like the Toronto Raptors.

The team at the centre of the hockey universe has melted down again and the picking at the entrails is well under way, even if the body isn’t quite cold yet.

Fire someone. Trade everyone. Fix this mess.

But how?

They could do worse than emulate their corporate cousins, who are plowing into the final stages of what may be best season in franchise history. With a cupcake schedule through their last five games, the Raptors are almost certain to break the franchise record of 47 wins. Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is a virtual lock. All this after starting the season 6-12.

Start slow and finish strong, the Raptors are — in other words — the anti-Leafs.

“This team truly loves each other,” MLSE president Tim Leiweke said of the Raptors on a recent appearance on CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. “Those guys love each other, they hang out together, they want to win for one another, it’s really unique.”

As in: my hockey team could learn from those tall American dudes.

What the Raptors are on the floor — tough, resilient, unselfish and defensively responsible — are all qualities Leaf fans could only wish to have seen from their team down the stretch.

Could there be anything more embarrassing if you’re a Leafs fan than the fact Leiweke feels his hockey team could learn toughness from his soccer and basketball leadership?

“If we can get [TFC midfielder] Michael Bradley and [Raptors point guard] Kyle Lowry to be heart and soul of MLSE and we can get the Leafs to understand that kind of intensity, we’ll change the culture quick,” Leiweke said, again on Stroumboulopoulos.

What the Raptors are off the floor — financially flexible, well coached by Dwane Casey and well led by general manager Masai Ujiri -– the Leafs should be envious of also.
The coming weeks are a perfect opportunity for those not familiar with the Raptors -– and the club’s so-so television ratings suggest the casual fan has yet to buy in – to appreciate what the Raptors have done right.

The contrasts between the two flagship teams under the MLSE umbrella are remarkable.

While the Leafs were failing to earn even a point against the forgettable Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night, the Raptors were winning their third straight game to put the Atlantic Division title on ice, impressive considering the mini-streak started with wins against legitimate NBA title contenders Houston and Indiana -– in each case minus key starters Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and Carlyle have more in common than they do differences. They’re lifers in their sport; they served lengthy apprenticeships before becoming head coaches in their respective leagues; each of them talk about the importance of focusing on the process rather than the outcome.

The difference is that Casey got it done — against considerable odds — and Carlyle never has in Toronto.

Casey inherited the worst defensive team in the NBA when he arrived to start the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season; they’re now one of the toughest teams to score against in the league.

And while the Leafs have struggled to find an identity under Carlyle and the ineffectual captaincy of Dion Phaneuf, the Raptors have taken their cues from the understated consistency of Casey and the on-floor triumvirate of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson: play hard, play hurt and play for each other.

As the Leafs were signing under-achieving players with no record of recent success to long, cap-clogging contracts, the Raptors jettisoned Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay.

The Leafs talk about being tough to play against, the Raptors simply do it: since they traded Gay on Dec. 9 the Raptors are fourth in the 30-team NBA in points allowed, sixth in point differential and eighth in overall defensive efficiency.

It follows that the Raptors trail only the two-time defending champion Miami Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference over that span, running up a 38-20 mark. For those who point out that — much like the NHL — the Eastern Conference is the league’s weak sister, consider: the Raptors are a healthy 13-9 against the Western Conference, third best in the East. It’s worth pointing out that the Raptors have thrived on the road as well, earning the second-best road record (21-18) among Eastern teams.

The Leafs have no depth. The Raptors? They can go 10 deep, benefitting from what Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson referred to –- with the utmost respect -– as a professional bench.

The Raptors second unit ranks third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents just 99.7 points per 100 possessions.

Where it all leads, no one knows. The Raptors are a young team with minimal playoff experience among its core players. For all their surprising success this season, it’s possible the club might have been served better in the long-term by scuffling along the bottom for a high draft pick as they were projected to do.

But for the moment they’re a team any fan can love: a young, unheralded group that has proven greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s natural for Leafs fans to despair as their team slowly sinks beneath the surface. Even if they somehow snag a playoff spot, the reality is their team isn’t very good.

The good news is, if Leafs fans are looking for a team that can fight through adversity with a lunch bucket in one hand and hard hat in the other, they solution is easy: become a Raptors fan.

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