These Raptors might be real and only getting better

As DeMar DeRozan finished practice on Dec. 19, he noticed one Toronto Raptors higher-up after another -- Bobby Webster, the team's GM, and its three highest-ranked coaches -- file into team president Masai Ujiri's office. Then someone summoned him.

"I didn't know what the hell was going on," DeRozan recalls. "I thought, 'S---, I know I can't be traded.' It was like I was being called into the principal's office.'"

It was clear by then that Toronto had reinvented its offense after too many playoff stagnations. They had one more hurdle.

DeRozan, a proud native of Compton, California, grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had retired Bryant's two jersey numbers the night before. DeRozan had surely watched. Ujiri told DeRozan he could be Toronto's Kobe -- a lifetime player who defines a franchise and, maybe, brings it championship glory. But to get there -- to push this live-wire Toronto team to its full potential -- DeRozan had to start shooting more 3-pointers.

Everyone in the room knew how much work DeRozan had put in to be ready for this moment. He was officially dabbling with the 3-pointer, about 2.5 attempts per game, but he had tried zero or one in six of 10 games. They needed more. Just taking them, coaches said, would draw attention and give everyone else more space. It would spare DeRozan contact. Possessions would flow more naturally.

They empowered DeRozan because they knew he was prepared. "When everyone has that kind of confidence in you -- that you can carry a franchise -- it gives you that extra confidence," DeRozan says. "For them to say I could be in [Kobe's] position -- it was an honor accepting that fully."

The next night against Charlotte, DeRozan went 3-of-4 from deep. Two nights later in Philly, he drained 6-of-9 -- a performance so stunning, the shots flying off his fingertips so fast, you had to check to make sure it was actually DeMar DeRozan, king of the midrange.

"I wanted to jump out of my seat watching," says Chris Farr, DeRozan's longtime trainer, who has watched DeRozan launch thousands of 3-pointers in summer workouts. "He has worked so hard. I always say, he's not Beyonce. He didn't wake up looking like this."

DeRozan has jacked almost four 3s per game since -- off pindowns and random cuts he never executed before, in transition, when guys duck under picks, even from a standstill.

It was the final step of Toronto's evolution into the best team in franchise history. They have surged past Boston and Cleveland, and by any metric, they are closer peers to the Western Conference superteams than to anyone in the East. They are the only team ranked in the top five in both points scored and allowed per possession.

Cleveland is vulnerable, though Kevin Love's return will help. Boston is without Gordon Hayward until further notice. The Raptors are real. They have home-court. If their revamped offense carries into the playoffs, they will deserve "favorite" status in the East.

They are getting better as the season goes along. They know it, too. They feel it. They are comfortable in their own skin, and hungry. They have the same sense playing you do watching: That they've figured out something profound about themselves. That something special might be happening.

The team that almost tanked four seasons ago is ready.

"We've been through the heartaches and the letdowns," DeRozan says. "This time, with this new approach, we feel comfortable."

The new approach started the day after another postseason humiliation, when Ujiri promised a "culture reset." No one knew precisely what he meant. "I still don't really know," jokes Kyle Lowry, the symbol -- along with DeRozan -- of a star-driven offense that sputtered in April and May.

Ujiri didn't fire anyone, even though he had the political capital to do anything he wanted. He re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka. The "culture reset" was a mandate for stylistic change: Our offense doesn't work in the playoffs. Change it. The subtext was obvious: If we don't, more drastic changes will come.

Change was the goal when the Raptors hired Nick Nurse, an offensive guru from the (then) D-League, in the summer of 2013. Nurse came in for an interview, and on an office whiteboard drew the offense he envisioned: different starting points, reads, passes, options. "The framework of what we are doing now," Nurse says, "was up on that board."

Dwane Casey, the team's head coach, liked Nurse's ideas. For various reasons, they never made it onto the court for long. Perhaps no one felt enough urgency until Cleveland swept them and Ujiri spoke out.

"We were working so hard," says Jakob Poeltl, Toronto's precocious backup center, "for not very good shots."

Nurse started with the young guys -- Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet -- at informal workouts in Los Angeles, and then in Las Vegas for summer league. As James Herbert of CBS Sports detailed, they played pickup with new rules: Corner 3s earned four points, and any shot between the paint and the 3-point arc counted as minus-1. Nurse strongly encouraged anyone who grabbed an offensive rebound to dunk or kick the ball out to a 3-point shooter, though he did not mandate it as he had during his time in Houston's D-League lab. (Back then, he banned midrange shots in practice.)

Players passed up good shots for great ones. They stretched their playmaking skills, and that was the point: When opponents keyed on DeRozan and Lowry, these guys -- these unknown kiddos -- would have to do something. So would Ibaka and Valanciunas, behemoth screen-setters who froze outside the paint. Touching it more might invigorate other parts of their games, and inspire more focused effort on defense.

Selling DeRozan and Lowry might prove harder. "Go to any superstar and say, 'We're changing our offense, and we're taking some of your minutes away,'" Casey says. "So many would look at you sideways and tell you to take a leap."

DeRozan was diligent, but it wasn't easy at first. Lowry verbalized his frustration early in the season. "They were a little resistant at times, to be honest," Nurse says. "Even still, Kyle has these moments when he's kicking out passes, and guys are missing, and he's getting pissed."

But they saw it working, and surrendered some control. DeRozan got better at the random, improvisational bobs and weaves the offense requires. The results are inarguable: Toronto ranks third in points per possession, jacking almost nine more 3s per game than last season. They're only a so-so shooting team -- it is their most worrisome weakness -- but trading 2s for 3s increases their margin for error.

Toronto has assisted on 58 percent of its baskets, up from a league-low 47 percent last season, per NBA.com. They are throwing almost 30 more passes per game without any uptick in turnovers.

They are unpredictable, harder to grasp. Casey has mothballed a lot of set plays. Toronto pushes hard, and initiates semi-random screening action with 18 or 19 on the shot clock. Everyone else orbits the ball in patterns that fall somewhere between random and scripted. They have general rules, but riff -- cut backdoor or fly toward the arc? -- within them.

Everyone is free to launch 3s and drive. Even Ibaka, who once played as if dribbling were illegal, is attacking with a new decisiveness. "We don't want Serge taking a 20-footer," Nurse says. "We want him to put pressure on the rim. We want him to make the next play."

"Before, when I put the ball on the floor, it was over," Ibaka says. "I had trouble. But here, if you lose the ball or commit a charge, the players still give you the ball. The coaches encourage you."

Valanciunas is delivering almost twice as many handoffs per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. He's 25-of-56 from deep after attempting four career triples before -- a dinosaur who fought extinction. "This offense," Valanciunas says, "has made my life better."

And the bench. Holy hell, the bench. They absorbed the offense early, and never looked back. Casey's bench mob du jour -- VanVleet, Wright, Siakam, Poeltl and C.J. Miles -- has outscored opponents by 25 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among all 114 lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com.

VanVleet has been a revelation -- a brute on defense who has hit 39 percent from 3 and shimmies past defenders one-on-one. There aren't many veteran frontcourts with the collective IQ -- on both ends -- of Poeltl and Siakam. There may not be a single player anywhere who runs the floor harder than Siakam. He is racking up assists. Siakim is a reliable jumper away from being an archetypal, switch-everything playmaking power forward:

The bench led the culture change. The starters followed. If players slip into old habits, the coaches have a remedy: Starting this season, they mostly replaced individual player development with group work. Instead of shooting alone, three or four guys rehearse sequences they execute in games. It's working. The team is discovering new wrinkles every week.

Semi-random "split" cuts like this just weren't in Toronto's bag last season:

DeRozan used to stand still on the wing. "He hangs out here a lot," Nurse says, using a salt shaker to represent DeRozan. "He can hang there some. But I want him to hang here, too." He moves the salt shaker to the corner.

Shifting positions isn't just about hunting shots. It forces the defense to reshape itself, to make decisions, and sometimes those decisions leave gaps for DeRozan's teammates. Highlight dunks are nice. Toronto's coaches derive more satisfaction from DeRozan skulking five feet sideways into a pocket of space:

"It's something I'm going to continue to get better at," DeRozan says. "That's the beauty of this game: you grow."

"He's getting there," Nurse says. "I mean, he did literally no cutting before."

Shooting 3s instead of overthinking has made the game easier for DeRozan. Every decision is faster. Passes and drives arise organically, and DeRozan sees them earlier. He is dishing a career-best five dimes per game.

The reset seems to have enlivened everyone. Valanciunas is beasting in the post; he has hit 57 percent on post-up shots, 10th among 110 players who have finished at least 50 such plays, per NBA.com. The Raptors have scored 1.27 points per possession on any trip featuring a Valanciunas post up, another top-10 mark, according to Second Spectrum.

He is playing the best defense of his life. Valanciunas is still mostly a paint-bound plodder. That won't change much. He has refined the subtleties -- footwork, timing, arm positioning. He won't extinguish every fire like Rudy Gobert, but he no longer starts as many.

Poeltl has been even better on that end -- quicker, with balletic feet and a veteran's feel:

All of this presents Casey with a postseason dilemma. He goes 10 deep, sometimes 11, and plays a traditional center almost every minute. That sounds like the opposite of playoff basketball. Rotations shrink in the playoffs. Teams struggle to generate spacing, and downsize; questioning Valanciunas' starter status has become one of Toronto's rites of spring, along with losing Game 1s.

It seemed a fait accompli that their crunch-time playoff lineup would feature Ibaka at center, Anunoby at power forward, and a rotating fifth guy alongside DeRozan and Lowry. We will see that at some point, but Casey plans to stick with what's working.

He trusts his centers. He thinks the offense runs better with them. "They are such good screeners," he says. "They help our motion. We aren't as discombobulated."

He is delightfully adamant about the playoff utility of a full bench. "I'm still looking for the manual that says you have to play eight guys," he says. "Until someone shows me otherwise, we gotta be who we are."

Three months ago, uncertainty about Toronto's closing five seemed like a weakness. Now it seems like a strength. Improved defense and shooting have made Valanciunas a viable closer. He will still have trouble when Cleveland surrounds LeBron with four shooters -- i.e., Love at center -- but who else can place that kind of stress on him? Perhaps Milwaukee, a potential first-round foe, if the Bucks get religion and slide Giannis Antetokounmpo to center.

Other stretch centers -- Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk, Joel Embiid, Markieff Morris when Washington goes that route -- aren't quite stretchy enough to justify benching an engaged, mauling Valanciunas. Some play with so-so shooting wings Valanciunas can hide on, as he did in guarding P.J. Tucker during Toronto's streak-buster over Houston on Friday. Even with Valanciunas on the floor, the Raptors can often switch across three positions.

VanVleet and Wright have thrived in crunch time. Anunoby has been shaky from deep over the past two months, but he's a cool, steady sort. Toronto can even try Miles at power forward. They have blitzed opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions when they play Siakam and Ibaka together, at power forward and center.

None of it will matter if Toronto reverts on offense. "One thing we know: Going to Kyle and DeMar over and over didn't work in the playoffs," Casey says.

There is an interesting dissonance in how the Raptors talk about the playoffs. They acknowledge that they have failed, but reject the idea that they are failures.

"The last couple of years, we lost to a champion and a [NBA] Finals team," Casey says. "I bristle when people say we are failures." Lowry looked like himself in Games 1 and 2 against Cleveland before suffering an ankle injury.

"I haven't played the best," Lowry says, "but when I have great games in the playoffs, no one says anything. Nothing."

The worst-case scenario is that dissonance translating into a prideful attempt by Lowry and DeRozan to win the old way. They've resorted to hero ball late in close games; Toronto has been a bottom-10 crunch-time offense all season.

"Is [the new offense] gonna translate into the playoffs?" Casey asks. "We're gonna find out."

The league is respectful, yet skeptical. "We take that disrespect," DeRozan says, "and carry it into games."

Potential playoff opponents don't fear the Raptors as they would a typical No. 1 seed. They need to see it before they believe it. The Raptors know they will be judged on postseason performance.

"That's all I hear is 'playoffs, playoffs, playoffs,'" Lowry says. "People only look at what happened before. You just have to have thick skin."

Things will get harder. An engaged LeBron, playing 44 minutes, has ruled the East since 2010-11. If Cleveland falls into the 4-5 bracket, Toronto could meet them earlier than expected. Philly, Milwaukee and Washington loom as dangerous underdogs with star power.

Offenses will pick on the DeRozan-Valanciunas combo in the pick-and-roll. Defenses will take an extra step away from Siakam, Wright, Anunoby, even Ibaka, clogging driving lanes -- and inviting Toronto's bad shooters to fire. They'll dare DeRozan, too; he's still shooting just 32 percent from deep. The bench will face more opposing starters. Casey will have to adjust early, not late. The two stars, wobbly in playoffs past, have to maintain their normal shooting percentages.

One unproven guy might quake. If it's Anunoby, who guards LeBron in a potential Cleveland-Toronto rematch? If that job falls to Siakam, what if he can't hit shots? If they lose Game 1 again, they'll face all the same scrutiny.

Another playoff flameout would raise questions about whether it is worth it to keep going with this core -- especially if LeBron stays in the East after this season.

But this looks sustainable. It looks, sounds, feels different. There is hope that they've turned the corner in crunch time. They held on against Houston. DeRozan trusting VanVleet to drain a game-winner in Detroit last week felt like a landmark moment -- proof of evolution.

"This time around," DeRozan says, "it's coming together."