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Raptors are atop East but Toronto has five reasons

  • Aug 29
    You werent going to get Raptors coach Dwane Casey to bite. By the time last weeks All-Star Game rolled around, his team was in first place in the East, two full games ahead of the Celtics and Rene Robert Jersey 6.5 ahead of the Cavaliers. Toronto had made a much-ballyhooed change in its offensive strategy, de-emphasizing the DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry pick-and-rolls that had dominated their offense last season, and getting into an offense with more ball movement and open shots for all. With the Celtics slumping and the Cavs undergoing a trade-deadline overhaul, the Raptors have ascended to a lofty position, considered by some now to be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Toronto has been known in recent years for its solid regular seasons and ensuing playoff flameouts, which have put Caseys job on the line at various times, so perhaps thats why he addre ses any notion of a Raptors coronationwith caution.MORE:I dont know, Casey said when asked if the Raptors were the conferences best team. The record says we are, but for me to sit here and say we are the best team? We have confidence, but Im not going to sit here and say we are the best team. Right now, were No. 1. The numbers say that.The numbers also show the net impact of the changes the Raptors made to their offense, and the reasons they did so. They needed to cut back on PNRs and find more shooters.Compare how the Raptors offense looked last season to how it looked in the playoffs and where Toronto is now.Raptors offense201820172017 playoffs (rank of 16)PNR Ballhandler % of plays (rank)20.1 (5)24.2 (1)19.2 (6)PNR efficiency (rank Joe Sakic Jersey )0.89 (7)0.95 (2)0.86 (12)PNR FG % (rank)41.9 (19)46.1 (2)40.4 (12)Spot-up shots % of plays (rank)21.9 (6)19.5 (20)24.0 (3)Spot-up efficiency (rank)1.02 (14)1.00 (14)0.93 (15)Pa ses per game (rank)297.4 (19)2773.4 (27)269.7 (7)Offensive efficiency rating (rank)110.7 (4)109.8 (6)101.3 (14)Toronto was the heaviest pick-and-roll team in the league last yearandvery efficient with the play. The Raptorsdid not pa s much, nor did they get spot-up shots. That cost them in the playoffs, where teams were able to take them out of the pick-and-roll and force them to shoot more. As the numbers show, the offense sputtered, from 109.8 points per 100 po se sions in the regular season to 101.3 in the playoffs.The numbers for 2018 show a more diverse offense. The ball handler pick-and-roll is down from 24.2 percent of the offense to 20.1 percent, and theyve gone from 20th in spot-up shots attempted last season to sixth this year. Theyre only 19th in pa ses, but they were 27th last year, and theyre making 24.0 more pa ses per game, which is the third-biggest leap Ben Smith Jersey from last year to this year in the NBA. The hope is that the Raptors will be better prepared for the defenses theyll see in the playoffs this year, and that teams who take out either Lowry or DeRozan or both will find the Raptors have other decent options. Toronto has been better at the defensive end (they rank fourth in efficiency), too, and the team has the top-rated bench in the league. All this should give Casey acertain ebullience.Yet Casey spouts caution when it comes to inflating the Raptors prospects. The East is there for the taking, with Boston and Cleveland vulnerable. But we can look closer at Caseys pe simismand see that he has a point. There are five good reasons to be worried about Toronto and its odds of reaching the NBA Finals.Bench youthThis was Caseys primary concern.I think our young core is coming along in a good way, he said, but I wouldnt say theyre right ready to step through the door right now. Theyre young guys. That would be the reason I would not say that this is the year we have to do it because I know they have a lot to learn.PHOTOS: Casey is right. The Raptors' bench has a net rating of plus-8.7, second-best in the NBA. But with Norman Powell being nudged out of the rotation lately, four of the teams five top bench players are 25 or younger and, combined, they have just 198 minutes of playoff experience. Thatll scare a coach. (Powell, for the record, has 433 minutes.)The one guy with significant playoff experience is veteran wing C.J. Miles, but his postseason track record is abysmal. In 34 games, he has averaged 6.7 points, shot 39.1 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from the 3-point line. Much of that experience came when he was very young in Utah, but he went to the playoffs the last two seasons with Indiana, and those were especially poor showings: 11 games, 4.8 points, 33.9 percent shooting, 19.4 percent 3-point shooting.Clutch strugglesIt was Lowry, not Casey, who brought up another dark spot on the Raptors recent ledger: Theyve gone cold in clutch situations over the past seven weeks.Just finishing games Mikhail Grigorenko Jersey better, Lowry said when asked about areas for Raptors improvement. When were in close games, finishing better.All year, the Raptors have not been a good clutch team. Theyre 14-13 when games are within five points in the final five minutes, and their net rating is minus-11.9 in those situations.MORE: But its been especially bad lately. Going back to Jan.9, the Raptors are 4-7 in clutch situations. Their offensive rating is 96.6 points per 100 po se sions, and their defensive rating is 120.3. Thats a net of minus-23.7, which ranks 27th in that span ahead of only tanking teams Orlando, Dallas and Phoenix.The prime culprits have been Lowry and DeRozan. In the Raptors last 11 clutch situations, Lowry has scored 2.1 points on 33.3 percent shooting and 12.5 percent 3-point shooting Nathan MacKinnon Jersey . DeRozan has averaged 3.3 points on 40.6 percent shooting. When the playoffs come, the Raptors will need to rely on their two top stars to close out games, but thats not happening now.So-so shootingThe Raptors have gone to great lengths to change the offense and create open looks for a variety of shooters, but there is one hitch in that approach: These are not great shooters.Toronto is shooting 35.5 percent from the 3-point line, which ranks 21st in the league. That makes an offense designed, in part, to create more open 3-pointers an iffy proposition. The charts below compare the Raptors 2016-17 3-point shooting, broken down by the proximity of the nearest defender, with this years 3-point shooting.2016-173-pts, closest defenderDistance% of shots taken (rank)3-point FG % (rank)2-4 feet4.0 (10)30.1 (12)4-6 feet11.2 (15)35.6 (15)6-plus feet14.6 (25)39.0 (12)2017-183-pts, closest defenderDistance% of shots taken (rank)3-point FG % (rank)2-4 feet5.7 (5)31.1 (14)4-6 feet12.7 (16)34.3 (18)6-plus feet19.8 (7)37.6 (22)The Raptors were above average (39.0 percent) on wide-open 3s last year, which explains why they wanted more of those shots this year. But theyve been in the bottom thi