Nothing the same for once-surging Raptors

After a fast start to 2014-15, the Raptors face an identity crisis heading back into the postseason. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty Images

On Dec. 31, the Toronto Raptors ruled the Eastern Conference. On the heels of a magical season, with the corporate and cultural tenacity of #WeTheNorth at its peak, Kyle Lowry’s bullheaded heroics and a smoking-hot bench propelled Toronto to a reason-defying 24-8 record. The believers were vindicated, DeMar DeRozan’s return from injury was on the horizon and the East was there for the taking.

And yet, the Raptors have fallen almost as quickly as they ascended. To watch Toronto since the start of 2015 is to witness hope’s ugly side: bloodless regression.

They’ve gone 18-21 since the new year, dropping to fourth in the East, in danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have turned into juggernauts. Lowry, who carried the team in DeRozan’s absence, has spent 2015 worn down and injured while DeRozan, mired by timidity after returning from a groin injury, is only now starting to pick up the head of steam that earned him countless trips to the free-throw line and a spot at the 2014 All-Star Game.

And all of this is overcast by the big defensive elephant in the room. The ball-pressure and double-teaming defense, an undercurrent to their success after the Rudy Gay trade, has completely vanished this season. Since Jan. 1, only five teams have performed worse defensively.

Post-whiplash, a fan base already heavy on emotional extremism -- remember the frenzy at the Air Canada Centre during last year’s playoffs? -- is reacting to something as overlooked as defense with a familiar refrain: panic.

Overhaul the defense. Overhaul everything. Fire the coach. Fire Drake.

But wholesale change in mid-March isn’t only impossible, it’s in nobody’s interest. The execution gap between these and last year’s Raptors is tremendous but the roster is fundamentally the same. Accepting that the problem lies in the nuts and bolts, not the machinery, is vital to understanding the collapse. What’s missing here is what, on both ends, was the catalyst to the 2013-14 Raptors’ success: trust.

With Gay gone, DeRozan and Lowry became the Raptors’ identity. DeRozan’s ability to shed the empty-calorie attempts from his shooting diet, force his way to free throws and hone his drive-and-kick game was vital to the team’s attitude shift. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson set hard screens from the short corner and rolled knowing that Lowry and DeRozan wouldn’t waste them on long 2s unless they had to.

The plan heading into the season was to build on that continuity and leverage incremental improvement. But at some point during the early hot streak, the gears shifted and realigned, like a button in the wrong hole of a shirt. Lowry’s early-season tear justified some individualistic decision-making off screens, but that, along with DeRozan forcing things post-injury and Lou Williams’ score-first mentality, led to a backward shift in the identity they created last season. Once better than the sum of their parts, the Raptors became disjointed.

On defense, Lowry hasn't resembled the bulldog from years past. Same goes for DeRozan, who made important strides on that end last season. That, combined with Johnson’s wobbly left ankle hindering his mobility in the early going, has made every other deficiency more glaring.

The Raptors let the results overshadow their goals, and solvable problems turned into entrenched habits. Necessity may be the mother of invention -- the Raptors learned as much in the aftermath of the Gay trade. But progress is never promised.

Friday’s loss to the depleted Chicago Bulls proved a sobering backdrop for overdue self-evaluation. Even with Lowry missing in action, the team finally had to backtrack from its stance that they could, in Johnson’s words to the Toronto Star, “hit the gas” and “pull a San Antonio.”

Anyone who saw the thrashing could understand why. Over and over again, the Raptors tried desperately to muster a big moment and came up empty. DeRozan scored a lean 27 points but couldn’t stop Tony Snell from getting into the paint. Patterson snarled and flexed after made triples, trying to siphon fresh blood from a corpse.

“We didn’t win a championship last year,” said DeRozan after the loss. “We haven’t done nothing to feel that way, think that way. We need to grow every single day and get better, and understand how to win games game in and game out, and not wait for a big situation.”

With 11 games left until the playoffs, the Raptors should be fine-tuning their attack. Instead, they’re trying to rediscover it, grappling with the question of whether a formula predicated on belief can be reclaimed once it is lost.

The soft schedule ahead has built-in advantages; it’s easier to find and stay true to principles when things are easy. But if Toronto finds its groove, it’ll go untested until the playoffs, where the stakes are high and the room for mistakes is thin.

At best, the Raptors can enter the postseason with blind faith, not the level of trust they built last season, and hope things go their way from there. That’s the hole they’ve dug themselves into, their punishment for staying in the dirt for so long. It’s time to see if they can find their way out.

Seerat Sohi is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. Follow her @DamianTrillard.