TORONTO – Taking on the Wizards in Toronto for the first time since the 2015 playoffs when Washington pummelled them to take a 2-0 series lead, the Raptors are back on track.
With a 94-91 win, the Raptors end 2015 at a record of 20-13. It’s a start hot enough to earn them a top-four slot in the Eastern Conference that’s become an annual rite, regardless of the Atlantic Division.
But just a year ago Toronto was rolling at New Years, a record of 24-8 before the wheels fell off. The Raptors faltered going 25-25 the rest of the way and were swept out of the playoffs by Washington.
The main thing that’s changed?
“One is our defence,” coach Dwane Casey said pre-game December 30th ahead of the Raptors’ last game of the year.
“We were scoring a lot of points but we were winning with our offence instead of our defence and I knew that wasn’t sustainable and I said it the entire year last year.”
It really wasn’t sustainable as the isolation-heavy backcourts featuring Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez clogged against-playoff level defence.
Both were shipped out, with DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph brought in to keep the offence fluid and the defence rock solid.
“I think this year we’re grittier, not as pretty, grimier, and those type of games help you win against good teams down the stretch and in tough situations,” said Casey. “That’s the difference between this year and last year – our disposition is tougher.”
Led by an offence that scored 112 points per 100 possessions (3rd best in NBA) the Raptors of last season were dragging an anchor of the fifth-worst defence allowing 108.7 points.
This year it’s a different story – 20th in offensive scoring average and fourth best in opponents points allowed with just 96.6 per game.
Kyle Lowry is again leading the way for Toronto and looks like an All-Star for the second year in a row. Lowry is averaging career-highs with 20.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.2 steals.
With DeMar DeRozan healthy for a full season and Joseph and Carroll so spell some of his minutes, Lowry won’t have to do too much and hit the wall like he did last season.
DeRozan was especially effective against Washington scoring 34 points with 6 rebounds and 5 assists.
“It says a lot [that we won while shooting 34%] but that’s what we’re going to need to depend on,” said DeRozan after the game.
“We’re going to have games where everybody’s going to be hot and making shots, but we’re also going to have games where we can’t make shots and we have to depend on our defence.”
With a franchise record 50-win season within reach, the starting unit back to full strength, the All-Star festivities coming to Toronto in February and a second-round playoff date a serious goal the new 2016 Raptors are on a sustainable rise.
And this time they’ll get defensive.