Raptors Struggling But Still Winning

Toronto, ON- “Sometime this year, we’re going to find some defense from somebody, somewhere…don’t know when, but we’re gonna find it”- Dwane Casey, speaking to Raptors.com Wednesday.

With the Toronto Raptors 110-107 win over the Boston Celtics Wednesday night, the Raps moved to 4-1, matching the team’s best record to start a season in a decade.

There is a lot to be excited about with this Raptors team. They always fight and claw back. They always seem to dig deep every game, and so far this season, they overcome adversity and find ways to win most nights.

But is that a good thing?

Photo Courtesy: USA Today
Photo Courtesy: USA Today

“A lot of our toughness is self-inflicted,” said coach Casey, referring to how his team has to catch up late in games due to poor starts. Demar Derozan echoed those sentiments to reporters following the win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 4th.

“We gotta learn from it…we cant keep digging ourselves into a hole and expect to fight back and everything to fall in our hands,” said Derozan.

Numbers don’t often lie, and an in-depth look into the first five games of this season show this is a team that is actually struggling. The Raptors have been helped out by a weak start to the schedule while catching the Thunder at a time when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others were out due to injury.

You shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the Raptors are on top of their game. The team’s coaches and players aren’t.

“We gotta build, we have to get better,” said backup point guard Greivis Vasquez to Raptors.com. “We’re not doing as good as we want to do. We’re pissed at ourselves. We’ll take care of it,” he said, recognizing the many flaws on display during the win over OKC.

Usually, when dishing out statistics over the span of five games, it would be responsible to offer the “sample size” disclaimer.

However, these numbers are not an attempt to prove the Raptors are a bad team, but instead, that they are struggling right now. With a long season ahead, the Raptors have a lot of time to work out the kinks.

“Its good that’s its happening this early,” Vasquez added. “We gotta fix it. We gotta play better defensively. Our identity is defense, and it was last year.”

The Raptors current struggles begin and end with defense. The team is not rotating well, they’re missing assignments and leaving shooters open for easy looks. The proof is in the numbers.

Last season, the Raptors didn’t allow an opponent to shoot better than 50% until the 14th game of the season. This year, every opponent, with the exception of the Orlando Magic, have shot 50% or better against the Raptors. In fact, the Raptors are the worst team in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage, which sits at an even 50%. To put that number into context, that number last season was 45%.

The Raptors perimeter defense has also been abysmal, allowing opponents to shoot almost 40% from the three-point line. This is a major increase from the 25.5% average that Raptors defenders held three-point shooters to last season.

Another major issue is how slow the Raptors are out of the gate defensively. When you break down the Raptors’ opponents scoring per quarter, you’ll find teams are scoring early and often.

“Our starting unit hasn’t been playing up to par. I know we need to play a lot better…its one of those things we need to fix internally.” Kyle Lowry said to reporters after OKC scored 30 points in the first quarter. The Celtics followed this up the next day by scoring 35 in the first frame.

Dwane Casey acknowledged his starters are struggling, “ the first unit is still trying to find ourselves defensively to start games. We can score, but it’s about the defensive end. Until we decide collectively to do it, its gonna be the same old song over and over again.”

Luckily, the Raptors’ defensive intensity picks up as the game progresses. While allowing an atrocious average of 28.8 average points in the first quarter, the team follows that with averages of 26.6 points in the second quarter, 23 in the third and 21.4 points in the final frame, which is good for eighth best in the NBA. The Raptors are playing their best basketball late in the game, which is important in this sport, but it often means they’re playing from behind.

Moving to the offense, the team’s scoring has been the reason the Raptors are winning games (we’ll get to that in a moment), but there are still some inefficiencies that need to be worked out.

In order to truly utilize their big men- according to player efficiency rating, Amir Johnson (27.5) and Jonas Valanciunas (25.3) have been the Raptors’ most valuable players so far- the Raptors need to be able to stretch the floor.

The Raps are currently among the worst in the league at three-point shooting, sitting at 28%. Last season, the Raptors shot close to 37% from deep.

The combination of Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson hurt opponents with their abilities to knock down the long shot last season. Out of that group, only Patrick Patterson finds himself above 30% shooting from behind the arc, with his stroke returning in the past two games (6-8).

Photo Courtesy: USA Today
Photo Courtesy: USA Today

The biggest disappointment has to be Ross, who has yet to find any semblance of his game this season. Shooters can be streaky, so there is no proof this is anything but an early season shooting slump. Ross is considered the best three-point shooter in the starting lineup, and the Raptors will need him scoring, or at least the threat of him scoring from deep to keep defenses honest.

Another issue is the play of Demar Derozan early this season. The Raptors as a team are shooting 43% from the field, ranking 22nd in the NBA. Contributing to this is poor shot selection from their all-star. Derozan is shooting a career-worst 39.8%, while taking more shots than ever before at 18.6 attempts per game. The best part of his game remains cutting to the basket and getting to the free throw line (career best 9.4 FTA per game), but even from the charity stripe, Derozan is shooting a paltry 72%.

Photo Courtesy: The Toronto Star
Photo Courtesy: The Toronto Star

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Raptors, after all, they are three games over .500 this early in the season. To make up for many of their defensive and shooting woes, the Raps are doing a few things VERY well.

Derozan is not the only Raptor who is spending a lot of time at the free-throw line.

Kyle Lowry is averaging 9.2 trips to the charity stripe, with Jonas Valanciunas coming in at 5.5 attempts. As a team, 25.7% of the Raptors total points come from the free throw line. They are averaging just over 35 free throws a game, which is second-best in league. However, the Raptors are only converting those attempts about 77% of the time, a number that can be improved upon.

In terms of scoring, Raptors are excelling in an area they struggled in last season. The Raptors are scoring 15.4 points per game on the fast-break (seventh best in the NBA), up from 9.6 points last season, which was among the lowest in the league.

Another strength has been the post play of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas in the first three games this season. The Raptors have scored close to 44 points in the paint per game, making them top-10 in that regard.

Perhaps the most important facet of their game has been taking care of the rock. The Raptors are averaging the fewest amount of turnovers per game, coming in at 9.2. No other team in the league averages fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

This means the Raptors are getting more looks and are able to take more shots (average of 84 attempts per game) than most other teams in the league. These factors lead to the biggest reason the Raptors are 4-1 this season. They are scoring on average 105.8 points per game this season, making them a top-five scoring team in the NBA.

Maybe it’s just that the Raptors are logging heavy minutes early, with Boston being the fourth game in five days. But the fact remains the Raptors are not playing particularly well.

I would go as far as saying they’re struggling, considering the lofty standards they set as a team last season.

The scary part? They’re still winning.

We haven’t seen the best of the Raptors yet this season. Not even close. And that is something that should terrify other Eastern Conference teams, and much of the NBA.

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