Maple Leaf Rag

Photo courtesy SLAM Online/IG: @atibaphoto

“I am Toronto.”

With these three words, and a reported $139 million, Compton native and All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan took his seat at the table of the NBA’s leader in latitude, the modern king of the midrange having found comfort in an uneasy Eastern Conference all the more unsettled by the various fluctuations that the summer of 2016 carried with it. DeRozan’s empathy for the frozen North made for great newspaper fodder, but it did not alleviate the worry that fans of his team, the Toronto Raptors, had at the time concerning their franchise’s future.

As has become the standard, that relief would arrive the following summer, when All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry inked his own $100 million deal to stay in Canada. Along with DeRozan, Lowry represents Toronto’s best chance at viability in an Eastern Conference long dominated by LeBron James’ regular season malaise giving way to humdrum playoff dominance. By seizing control of the #1 seed in the East, along with several high-profile wins, including those against Houston, Cleveland and a back-to-back drubbing of dark horse Process favorites the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto has edged its way into something like favorability, edged on by a modernistic offense and an ability to rise to the occasion.

Consider where the Raptors were in May 2016: following the best regular season in franchise history, one in which they won 56 games en route to the 2-seed, Canada’s only NBA team barely squeaked out two seven-game series[1] on the way to an Eastern Conference Finals date with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where they were excused from the table in six games.

That season’s Raptors team was slow – 29th in the league in pace – and only slightly above-average defensively, although it carried a top-five offense by rating. Head coach Dwane Casey had something, but whether it was enough to overcome an eternally-virile LeBron became a philosophical barometer that summer.

Relying on an All-Star backcourt has become the standard for championship aspirations, but Lowry’s slow burning career and DeRozan’s no-burning three-point range left something to be desired, to say the least. With both of their contracts soon to be up, general manager Masai Ujiri had difficult decisions to make with regard to Toronto’s immediate and long-term futures: would the whole of these two together, along with eager role players, ever add up to anything more than the sum of their parts?

Two years, two contracts and several trades later, and the Raptors are the toast of the East, at least for now. Currently riding an eight-game win streak, Toronto sits a full four games ahead of Boston for the second 2-seed and shows no signs of letting up.

Much of that has to do with the franchise’s belief in Lowry-and-DeRozan as a viable partnership. It’s clear the two like each other interpersonally, and their playing styles coalesce well enough on the court; it was always a matter of both reaching some vague “other level,” that grasping hope that every NBA player entering or in his prime feels itching at his feet. Only the few ever get there, but so many reach spectacular heights trying.

Lowry’s entire career has been a case study in steady improvement; although he is averaging almost six fewer points than last year (16.5 to 22.4), his play recognition and floor-scanning ability have never been better, and an enthusiastic supporting cast of young guns and veteran heads has something to do with siphoning off his offensive significance anyway.

Perhaps nobody has more of an impact on Lowry’s confidence in working an offense, however, than DeRozan himself. The Kobe acolyte is attempting more threes per game than he ever has previously; per NBAsavant, he is also demolishing his own hesitancy for three-pointers above the break. In his career, he has shot 24.3% from distance up there, but this season he has kicked that up to a reasonable 33.1%.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed, DeRozan’s confidence has been the most important part of this Raptors renaissance. Any pause the shooting guard can give to opposing defenses is time enough to pass out of trouble and toward an open man, directly or indirectly, and DeRozan’s situational decision-making has been crucial to Toronto’s success. Near-scrap heap players like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam[2] and, especially, Fred VanVleet have stepped up in immeasurably unexpected ways, and others, like Serge Ibaka and Delon Wright, have seen their play revived at the exciting surroundings.

The question with the Raptors, as with any non-LeBron Eastern Conference team, always concerns their capabilities in the playoffs. Gregg Popovich famously saves certain schemes and sets for postseason play, which partially explains the pre-Kawhi injury 25-point lead his San Antonio Spurs had on the colossal Warriors in last year’s playoffs. The best coaches and teams do not allow others to perfectly scheme to them, no matter their own predictability or stubbornness.

We have seen so many new things from Toronto this year that it would be shocking if Dwane Casey was holding anything in the chamber. DeRozan and Lowry have staked their claim as the East’s best backcourt, and they are not beholden to wild trash-talking à la the Washington Wizards. Renewed optimism north of the border is as native as a midrange hero declaring himself akin to Canada before finding himself beyond the arc.

*     *     *

[1] Both after losing Game 1.

[2] Because, in the NBA, when you’re not a lottery pick, you’re essentially mutton, or at least that’s what plenty of subdued masses on Twitter would have you believe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: