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PRINT EDITION
WHY THE TORONTO RAPTORS ARE BETTER THAN EVER - AND TWO BIG QUESTIONS FOR THE PLAYOFFS
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After a banner regular season, Toronto is looking to shed its reputation as playoff rollovers
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By RACHEL BRADY, MATT LUNDY
  
  

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Saturday, April 14, 2018 – Page S8

TORONTO -- If there was any time to silence the critics, it's now.

Fresh off the best regular season in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors start their playoff campaign on Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET) as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, although not exactly a popular pick to reach the NBA final.

In the past two seasons, the Raptors expended loads of energy in dispatching early round opponents, before being easily eliminated by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. To retool for this season, the Raptors did a complete renovation of their offence, dropping isolation basketball for a system focused on swift ball movement and shooting the three-ball.

The new system suits Toronto.

The biggest proof: its franchisebest 59-23 record. The No. 1 playoff seed lands the Raps home-court advantage through the conference finals, which could be an enormous perk for a team that played to an NBA-leading 34-7 home record this season at the raucous Air Canada Centre.

And yet, the Raptors will need to shed their reputation as playoff rollovers. The playoff draw won't make their task any easier. For Round 1, the Raptors will face the Washington Wizards, who have their own star-studded backcourt, and another bout with the Cavs could come as soon as Round 2.

Does this Raptors squad have a chance? Here's a stat-laden look at four ways Toronto has made dramatic strides, along with two big question marks.

BETTING ON THE BENCH

Every coach who faced the Raptors in the second half of the season fretted about how to deal with Toronto's barnstorming reserves - a unit now called the "Bench Mob" with an uncanny ability to extend leads. This group shatters past notions that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan must do everything. During the previous two seasons, the Raptors ranked 26th out of 30 teams in bench scoring. But, this season, they skyrocketed to fifth (41.8 points a game), and first since Jan. 1 (44.3 points). The bench played around 44 per cent of all minutes - easily the most of any Raptors team - lightening the load on Toronto's stars. (Some years it hovered around 30 per cent.) Toronto's bench has by far the best plus/minus of any reserve unit in the league (+3.6), and is top two in steals, assists and the momentum-revving category of blocked shots. The numbers speak volumes about bench guys, such as Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. Most coaches decrease minutes for bench players in the playoffs, so it will be intriguing to see if Dwane Casey continues to use this potent bench talent so liberally.

FOCUS ON THREE-POINTERS

For several years, the prevailing offensive trend in the NBA has been the move toward threepoint shot attempts. The Raptors fully bought in this year. Toronto launched 33 three-pointers a game in the regular season, third in the league and a dramatic improvement from 22nd the previous season. In doing so, the Raptors crushed a previous team record in three-pointers made. The team surpassed 10 made threes in a whopping 60 games this season (something they did just 37 times last year) and won 49 of those games. Lowry set personal records in three-pointers attempted and made, and DeRozan revolutionized his game to make deep shooting a new weapon. Even big man Jonas Valanciunas has got into the action: After making a single three-pointer last season, he made 30 this time around. Better ball movement has been crucial to the offensive overhaul. The Raptors finished the regular season sixth in the NBA in assists per game, compared with dead last in 2016-17.

BETTER BALANCE

The Raptors are the only NBA team that ranks in the top five for both offensive and defensive rating, which marks a steady progression from past Toronto teams. Casey put a 1,300-pound boulder in the Raptor locker room when he arrived as head coach in 2011 and emphasized a "pound the rock," defence-first philosophy. That mindset shifted this year. In fact, the Raps have a better offensive rating this year than every team but the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Last year, they lagged in sixth spot in that category.

BETTER HEALTH

The Raptors head into the postseason with a stellar run of good health. During the regular season, Toronto's roster lost the third fewest games due to injury, according to injury tracking site ManGamesLost.com. It's a noticeable improvement from past years. Lowry needed wrist surgery last season and missed significant time, returning shortly before the playoffs without sufficient games to establish chemistry with trade-deadline acquisitions Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

But this season, Lowry missed just three because of injury - a tailbone bruise back in January.

The point guard took a single rest game and made 78 starts, the healthiest he's been since 2013-14.

DeRozan has also fared well, starting 80 games this year, the most he's played since he started a perfect 82 back in 2012-13. The team has been able to shave a few minutes of playing time off both stars' nightly average this season as well, contributing to their freshness.

HOW WILL DEROZAN AND LOWRY PLAY?

While Toronto boasts arguably the best bench in the NBA, to make a deep playoff run, a team's biggest stars must shine. For Toronto, that means big performances from all-star besties Lowry and DeRozan. No doubt, playoff opponents will zero in on Toronto's backcourt standouts, deploying top defenders to snuff out their scoring. It's worked before.

Both DeRozan and Lowry's productivity has dipped from regular season to postseason in each of the past four campaigns. Just look to their PERs - or player-efficiency ratings - a complex all-encompassing stat that rates a player's per-minute productivity, wrapping in positive and negative plays. Their production has typically fallen to average in the postseason, and in some cases, below average. The Raps were able to convince the two established allstars that changing their style would be best for the team this year. Now it's time to see if it works in the playoffs.

CAN THEY BEAT THEIR EASTERN RIVALS?

It's not hard to recall the last time the Raptors met the Wizards in the postseason. In 2015, the fifthseeded Wiz swept the fourthseeded Raps in the first round.

Since then, Toronto is 8-3 versus Washington, and 2-2 this season.

Though it's a small sample size, there are reasons for concern.

This season, the Raptors averaged 9.3 three-pointers a game versus the Wiz, shot 29.6 per cent from three, and had a plus/minus of 0.5 - all their lowest averages against Eastern Conference opponents.

And this week, with a chance to move up in the standings in their last game of the regular season, the Wizards chose to sit stars John Wall and Otto Porter. They lost, which cemented them as the No.

8 seed, prompting many to wonder: Did the Wiz want to face the Raps again?

If the Raptors get past Washington, the No. 4 Cavaliers will likely await in the conference semis, along with the gargantuan task of preventing LeBron James from steamrolling to an eighth consecutive NBA final. The Raps were 1-2 against Cleveland during the regular season, with the most recent loss happening this month on the road, with the Cavs' trade-deadline acquisitions catching steam.

That is where Toronto's mettle will be truly tested.


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