The Toronto Raptors are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2008, likely with homecourt advantage in the first round.
The Raptors’ improvement is as surprising as the December trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, which seemed to signal at the time that Masai Ujiri was waiving the white flag on the 2013-14 season. Toronto is 10 games above .500, but they were 6-12 on the morning of Dec. 8.
When the postseason begins, several new faces will represent the Eastern Conference. We are accustomed to seeing the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks/New York Knicks, but the Raptors, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats will be looking to advance while learning about spring basketball on the fly.
Late-game execution is vital to success in the playoffs and while you can predict that guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant will have the ball in their hands with the game on the line, many clubs have had success without an alpha dog.
The Raptors are one of those teams.
“We have different situations where we like to go with different people. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets or anything, but we like different guys in different situations,” Dwane Casey said when asked about how he draws up late-game plays.
“We have multiple guys, we don’t have one guy that we go to all the time.”
Casey can go to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson or even the emerging Terrence Ross in crunch time. Before you discount Johnson as a late-game option, he’s a team-high +34 in the final minute of close games (within five points) this season.
Toronto has taken 82 shots in what I’ve defined as a clutch situation, but not one player accounts for even a third of those attempts.
“That is just the trust that we have in one another on this team, honestly,” DeRozan told RealGM. “Anybody here can hit a big shot for us at any given moment in a late-game situation. That’s big for us to have. Sometimes I’ll use myself as a decoy to free up other guys. That’s just the trust factor we have.”
Lowry leads the Raptors with 27 clutch attempts, scoring a team-high 35 points on 33.3% shooting. DeRozan, a first-time All-Star this February, has scored 27 points on 26 takes (an abysmal 23.1% shooting). He is, however, 15-for-18 from the line.
“Sometimes you have to understand that if teams are coming in on me, double-teaming me, I’ve got to be comfortable as the decoy to help get a better shot for someone else on the team, whether it’s Kyle or someone else,” DeRozan said of the team’s balance.
Johnson averages 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but has been very efficient for the Raptors late in games. He’s 10-for-17 from the field with 26 points and 11 rebounds in 29 “clutch” minutes this season. Aside from Jonas Valanciunas, 21, Johnson is Casey’s lone interior threat on the offensive end.
“Whoever has the ball, we’ll believe in him and that he’ll make the right decision,” Ross said. “We believe in whoever is in that position.”
While talking to Ross for this piece, Chuck Hayes joked that he’d like to see the second-year forward take some shots in the final seconds. Ross has made some big shots this season, but he has yet to attempt a shot during the final 60 seconds of a close game.
“It gives us more options and the defense can’t load up on one person,” Ross added. “You don’t know who the ball will go to in the final minutes, it definitely helps.
“We’ve got to play together the whole game. It’d be nice if we had a KD-type closer, but we don’t.”
Defenses may not be able to key in on a specific player when facing the Raptors, but that doesn’t mean they have excelled. They are .500 (24-24) in games that are within five points in the final five minutes, but just 16-19 and in the bottom third of the NBA if you trim that clutch time down to the final minute. The Raptors are 1-6 in overtime games.
On March 25, the Raptors had the ball with a chance to tie the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final moments. Greivis Vasquez lost his footing and turned the ball over with 1.9 seconds remaining. The result was a 102-100 loss to a team with fading playoff hopes and an injured Kyrie Irving.
“He fell down. I thought he turned his ankle, but he slipped and lost his balance,” Casey said when asked about the specific play. “Those are the kind of plays we’ve got to made and find closers in those situations at the end of games. I was telling the coaching staff in Oklahoma City, you wish you had a Kevin Durant. A player that you can throw it to a half court and he’ll give you two points, but we’ve got to learn that. We are a team in the progress of growing, developing. We’ve pulled out some games with our defense, but there’s still a lot of areas that we are growing and improving in.”
Just a few days before the Cleveland loss, they led the Oklahoma City Thunder 118-110 with 49 seconds left in double-overtime. The Thunder scored nine-straight points to win the game, while the Raptors missed two field goals, two free throws and even threw away an inbounds pass.
“We’re going for a bucket. The best bucket available,” Casey said of how he approaches the end of games. “If I had Michael Jordan, or whoever in that situation, who can rise up and shoot a three we’d probably go for that. For us, we have to go for the best bucket available.”
Lowry, one of the few players on the roster with playoff experience, spoke highly of their overall offensive balance, but as a competitor he always wants the ball in his hands.
“We’ve got guys that make big plays and take big shots. As a team, we always count on each other, not just one player,” Lowry said before cracking a smile.
“I’m always ready. I’m going to make a play if I can.”