TORONTO -- Back in November when the Golden State Warriors were pillaging cities from Sacramento to Memphis, the Toronto Raptors came into Oakland and pushed the 11-0 Dubs to a final possession after Kyle Lowry danced with Stephen Curry step-for-step on a Curry drive and stuffed the MVP at the rim.
During a preceding timeout, the Raptors discussed their offensive strategy for their final crucial possessions. As coach Dwane Casey led the conversation, Lowry interjected with a suggestion: The Raps should return to their "1-2 pick-and-roll," with Lowry screening for DeMar DeRozan.
Lowry had been bullish on the play call all night. As early as the first quarter, DeRozan drew Curry on a switch and used the possession to drive Curry into the paint for an easy jumper over the shorter defender. The next three looks DeRozan generated off the set resulted in one miss, but two trips to the line.
Lowry's conviction was good enough for Casey.
"I have trust in them to manage possessions, to play call, what to do in defensive situations," Casey says. "They now understand -- even better than I do a lot of the time -- what guys can do. The continuity here has built trust, and it's made us a better team."
As Lowry set the screen on Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, the pair locked arms momentarily and the whistle sounded. We'll reserve judgment here as to whether Lowry was culprit or scapegoat, but Casey wouldn't do anything differently.
It was the right set at the right time proposed by the right guy. Not only that, but a point guard who loves the ball volunteered to give up his body for a teammate who had it going.
"That's trust that's earned from your coach," Lowry says. "That's the way Coach lets me rock and lets me go."
Lowry carried a reputation for years as salty, a bit chunky and ubercompetitive. Elected as an All-Star starter for the second time last week, the new and improved Lowry now has 25 percent less sodium and fat, but all the same grit and tenacity as the original formula.
By every measure, he and DeRozan compose the Eastern Conference's best backcourt for a team that's riding a nine-game winning streak entering its Thursday night matchup with the New York Knicks. DeRozan has evolved from a low-efficiency, high usage sinkhole into a more nuanced offensive player with multiple speeds.
"I went to meet him in L.A. this summer. And when you meet DeMar, you meet him in the gym. He's there 24-7. He's not doing it to impress anybody. He just loves the gym, loves to work out." Masai Ujiri
Contested midrange jumpers constituted 30.1 percent of his field goal attempts the previous two seasons, but are down to only 21.3 percent of his shot selection this season. This evolution has culminated at a moment when DeRozan is almost certain to opt out of his current contract.
"The kid works his ass off," Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri says. "Every single year he's gotten better -- and that's pride. I went to meet him in L.A. this summer. And when you meet DeMar, you meet him in the gym. He's there 24-7. He's not doing it to impress anybody. He just loves the gym, loves to work out."
There's a distance between gym rat and tactician, between loving basketball and intuiting the pro game, and DeRozan has threaded that needle. He has varied his game, stretched it out a bit, and become a stronger driver -- in some part because he now demands a harder closeout. He essentially has grown into a hurler who can throw multiple pitches for strikes.
"DeMar now knows he's strong enough and athletic enough to get to the basket almost at will," Lowry says. "He can shoot the long 2, but now he's a good enough pick-and-roll player where he can use the screens to suck everybody in. He can still be an iso guy, but now he mixes it up. We'll go iso, pick-and-roll, iso, pick-and-roll, transition, pick-and-roll, iso, iso, shoot at midrange, shoot a 3, catch-and-drive, catch into a pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, iso. The variety of things he's learned how to do and our team has learned how to do and now we've meshed."
Truth be told, the Raptors solidified themselves as an elite offensive squad some time ago. They finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency each of the previous two seasons, and rank sixth this season behind only the West's top four teams and Cleveland. Featuring two lethal guards in a league that has gone perimeter-crazy has a way of churning possessions into points.
Jonas Valanciunas is still a somewhat mechanical big man -- and that might never change -- but he's aware of his limitations (possibly too aware), doesn't take a lot of bad shots, is careful with the ball, and gets to the line and converts. All of it adds up to one of the more efficient centers in the league.
In Luis Scola, the Raps have found a sensible, stretchy forward who knows where to be in the half court on every possession. Their final piece is DeMarre Carroll, who is sidelined following knee surgery, but when healthy is an opportunistic wing who can slash, make plays and shoot from distance.
Meanwhile, Toronto's six-through-nine guys have built themselves into a dominant bench mob that's crushing opposing reserves. After a quick blow late in the first quarter, Lowry often returns with Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo. Collectively, they're plus-32.6 per 100 possessions in 116 minutes. The starters have been fine on the defensive side of the ball, but the reserves are the unit that really brings down the Raps' defensive efficiency number.
On Sunday against the Clippers, the second unit reversed a 13-point L.A. lead in a flash with tight pressure and a hard rain of long-range bombs. By the time the full starting lineup checked back into the game midway through the second quarter, the Raps led by 12. On Tuesday night in a win over Washington, the unit was plus-11 in less than 10 minutes.
Offensive exploits aside, the Raptors had to improve defensively after finishing 23rd last season.
"Our mindset was that we're not very good defensively last season, and we need to get better," Ujiri says. "So we got some two-way players. We added in Cory [Joseph], Bis[mack Biyombo], DeMarre [Carroll] and Scola. We had to get better, we had to get quicker on our feet. We had to get tougher."
Casey came to Toronto as one of the sharpest defensive minds in the league. But with the exception of the 2013-14 season, when the Raptors finished as the No. 3 seed, they have struggled to wed their roster with a scheme that works. Most of the league has adopted pick-and-roll coverages that direct opposing ball handlers away from the middle of the floor. But with the deficiencies Ujiri enumerated above, Casey opted to have defenders square up against attackers, a strategy that was effective in Dallas, where he coordinated the defense. With Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and less experienced players with less intuition than the Mavericks' graybeards, not so much.
"This league is a lot about personnel and what you have to work with," Casey says. "A lot of things you want to do and the type of team you want to have are one way. I'm thankful to Masai and the front office that went out and got better defensive players, no disrespect to the guys that were here. But Cory and Biyombo are better defenders. DeMarre Carroll is a better defender and that breeds a better defensive team."
"No disrespect to the guys that were here. But Cory [Joseph] and [Bismack] Biyombo are better defenders. DeMarre Carroll is a better defender and that breeds a better defensive team." Dwane Casey
A leaner Lowry means a quicker Lowry, and while DeRozan and Valanciunas aren't elite defenders by any stretch, the continuity of the starters coupled with better speed and instincts has allowed the Raptors to institute a push/ice pick-and-roll scheme. That leaves them less vulnerable to middle drives, easy kickouts and general confusion after ranking toward the top of the league in "Was that you or me?" looks after surrendering buckets.
"Fewer decisions -- it's left, it's right, it's one way," Lowry says. "Now that we're keeping it on the sideline, it makes it more convenient and helps [Valanciunas] know where he has to get at all times."
The new acquisitions not only furnish Casey with some Casey-ish players, but underscore that Casey and Ujiri now share a common vision after consecutive playoff series losses to lesser seeds. April has not been kind to the Raptors, and the postseason failures are stuck in their collective craw.
"You can dissect it any way you want, but there was no positive that came out of it," Ujiri says.
Casey wasn't Ujiri's hire, and installing a coach of one's choosing is generally regarded as an exec's most valued prerogative. The playoff flameouts might have been cause for dismissal in many shops. Yet that wasn't the case in Toronto, where Ujiri subscribes to continuity as a virtue, whether the talent and coaching staff were handpicked or inherited. He also admires workaholics, and Casey is one of the league's most committed grinders.
Ujiri might have the best job in the NBA. At a time when owners are increasingly itchy and interventionist, the Raptors' confederation of corporate and individual owners is decidedly low-maintenance and gives its charges in basketball operations plenty of space. The Raptors are willing to invest in medical, scouting, facilities and, of course, talent -- a good thing, because the Raps will almost certainly have to exceed the cap to retain DeRozan.
Toronto, the NBA's fifth-largest market, is the best-kept secret in the league. The city is cosmopolitan, demographically diverse and the team packs the Air Canada Centre to capacity every night. Media scrums in Toronto are robust. The Raptors don't have a rich history or legacy, but they're trending up in all the leading indicators of franchise health.
In many respects, Ujiri embodies Toronto. He's an international presence in a franchise that has long aspired to be the NBA's international outpost. He came up through the grind of the scouting ranks, yet has none of the residual schlubbiness. That refinement is balanced by a populism that appeals to Toronto's rabid, starved fan base. How many other execs in the league stand in a public plaza and drop an f-bomb on a New York borough -- a gesture whose fine was well worth the free media ginned up from the clip.
Toronto made LaMarcus Aldridge's short list last summer, and though the Raptors were a long shot at best, meetings with top-line free agents have a way of sending notice to NBA players and their representatives that an organization can hold its own at the league's adult table. In Ujiri's mind, gone are the days when players kvetched about not having "the good cable" at their condos in Toronto.
One team in the Eastern Conference scrum will get a puncher's chance at Cleveland for a trip to the NBA Finals, and Toronto's combination of a top-10 offense and top-10 defense puts the Raptors on course to take a stab. Acquit themselves well this spring, and the Raptors can fast-track their build, and make a compelling case to DeRozan that Toronto isn't just the most profitable destination for him, but the place where he's most likely to succeed.
"It's simple: Win," Ujiri says. "If you have a good culture, you can attract free agents. We have a very unique opportunity here."