The Raptors’ not-so-secret recipe for success

Wednesday's last-second win in Brooklyn felt exceptional, but it relied on the same force that's been powering the Raptors since early December: team chemistry (Photo: Kathy Willens/AP)

By the end of next week, two months will have passed since the Raptors sent Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy to the Sacramento Kings. Toronto’s success since that deal has been well documented. Though many critics expected the Raptors to slide towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference with their top scorer out west, Dwane Casey’s resilient squad turned the tide and shot to the top of the Atlantic Division.

But how did they do it?

“The vibe that we have in the locker room [and] the relationships we have with one another … it feels like we’ve been together for five or 10 years. And when we’re on the court it shows,” says Patrick Patterson, who came over from Sacramento in the deal. “We believe that this is who we are and we buy-in to what the coaching staff gives us every day.”

From DeMar DeRozan’s career-year and Kyle Lowry’s ascent among the league’s top guards to the legit contributions turned in by a pair of starting sophomores (Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross) and a balanced bench that’s been bolstered by the arrival of Patterson, John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez and Chuck Hayes, Toronto has found the secret ingredient to winning that many coaches and general managers spend years searching for: chemistry.

“This is a team,” says Vasquez. “Everybody is excited for each other.”

Things weren’t so exciting for the Raptors in November. In spite of what many believed was a formidable one-two punch in DeRozan and Gay, Toronto struggled out of the gate. Then one week into December, Masai Ujiri had seen enough from his underachieving 6-12 squad.

The trade with the Kings shook-up Casey’s locker room—tears were shed for suddenly former teammates, but pleasantries were short-lived as the Raptors hit the floor that same day and stole a win against the Lakers in Kobe Bryant’s first game of the season. That victory ignited a run that Toronto is still maintaining, and enjoying, to this day. The team has gone 17-9 since the deal was swung—the seventh-best record in the NBA over that timeframe—and they’re fresh off an emotional win over the league’s hottest team, Brooklyn, last night.

“This is fun,” says Vasquez. “Everybody is cheering when somebody makes a big play. When you win, it’s fun.”

The current streak could have easily slipped the other way. Ujiri changed nearly a third of his roster less than two months after training camp and not even a quarter of the way into the 2013-14 campaign. But the unpredictable science of people and personalities came together in an instant for Toronto and the organization—and fan-base—is now reaping the benefits.

“You can’t put your finger on it … it has just clicked,” says Amir Johnson. “We know what to expect from everybody. We’ve just been playing like a team [and] it’s just comfortable now. It’s been good.”

Adds Valanciunas: “Everybody is supporting each other. That’s the key.”

That mutual support and team play may be put to the ultimate test over the next handful of games. Though no timeline has been set for DeRozan’s return from the ankle injury his suffered last Saturday against the Clippers, it is expected that he’ll sit out Wednesday’s home game against Orlando and his status for Toronto’s upcoming five-game jaunt through the Western Conference is up in the air at this point. With their top scorer on the shelf, the Raptors will need to rely even more heavily on their chemistry and balance.

“No matter who is out there … no matter who is not playing … the guys on this team step up every single night and we put our hearts on the line,” says Patterson. “We represent for Toronto.”

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