The 2014-2015 Raptors finished the regular season 12-15 and were mercilessly swept by Washington in the first round. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since the 2000-2001 season, when this columnist was in the seventh grade.
So why and how is this Toronto team a legit contender, perhaps the only contender, who can threaten Cleveland for a Finals trip in the Eastern Conference? The major difference for the 2015-2016 Raptors is their defense and a certain free agent signee itching to return from injury.
Toronto was a horrific mess defensively last season, 25th in efficiency and 19th in points allowed per game during the regular season.
“Last year defensively we struggled down the stretch a little bit, so we tried to get better,” Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri told SheridanHoops on Monday before Toronto obliterated the Knicks in New York. “We tried to get better from last year and learn from the experience.”
Toronto’s defensive struggles and early playoff exit reportedly nearly cost head coach Dwane Casey his job. Casey made sure going into this season that his players would take that side of things seriously this year.
“I think coach came into camp really harping on it and really preaching it,” Toronto All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry told SheridanHoops. “That’s all we did in training camp, was play defense, work on defense. It’s really paying off right now.”
Toronto is now fifth in the league in scoring defense and ninth in efficiency. The Raptors have won 16 of their last 19 games, with an 11-game win streak in between, allowing over 100 points in just eight of those contests. Toronto may be just 16-9 against teams currently over .500 this season, but it’s won five of its last six games against those teams, giving up just 98 points per game over that span.
“Our coach is a defensive coach and we want to be a strong defensive team going into the postseason,” Ujiri said.
Veteran forward Terrence Ross said that the effort on defense is the same as last year, but the attention to detail and communication on that end is a lot better.
Unlike last year, Lowry said he wanted the team’s defense creating offense for it. Toronto’s pace, or possessions per 48 minutes, is down to 26th in the league this season but its offensive efficiency is still fifth in the league last season, down just a tad from a year ago.
The core group remains from a season ago, but a few offseason changes weeded out underperforming defenders. Out went Amir Johnson, Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams and Tyler Hansbrough and in came DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola and Cory Joseph. The defensive ratings of the incoming rotation quartet is way better than last year’s.
Carroll had arthroscopic knee surgery in early January, limiting him to just 23 games so far this season. Toronto expects an early to mid-March return for the former Hawk, but that timetable is unofficial. Scola has started every game this season, and Biyombo, James Johnson, Ross and rookie Normal Powell have contributed as starters in the absence of Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas, who broke his hand in November.
“The NBA is a league filled with injuries, it’s something you can’t help,” Ujiri said. “You have to deal with it, and that’s what’s happened to us.”
Many thought Ujiri would deal with it via a trade, but he said that he prefers to change and improve his team during the summer. He said there was nothing available to the team without giving up key assets.
“If a trade makes sense for me, we make it. But there was none that worked our way. So you move on,” Ujiri said. “I believe in kind of making your team better in the summer.”
With no trades completed and no open roster spots to pick up a bought out player, now it’s about gathering momentum and cementing the team’s defensive style, Ujiri said.
“Now is the time where you put it into action and prepare for the postseason,” Ujiri said. “So hopefully we keep preparing the right way and we play at a high level and keep momentum going.”
This time last year was when Toronto’s collective momentum ran out. The schedule won’t be easy down the stretch, with 14 of their last 27 games against teams currently over .500. Ujiri and Lowry hope that the defensive principles instilled in the team early on will help them avoid a late season meltdown that extends into the playoffs.
All the players and components are there for a deep playoff run, to finally win a series for the first time in 15 years. Now it’s up to the players to validate the passion of the team’s fervently dedicated fan base and play like the contender they have the potential to be.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.