Raptors Win Third Straight, But What’s Changed?

Team defense and sharing the ball on offense. Sounds simple, so let’s see it again Wednesday.

Box – Raptors 113, Cavaliers 99

Three wins in a row, and it appears the corner may have been turned. Whether it was the player’s only meeting, the return of Alan Anderson, a lack of Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry, or whatever your theory, the Raptors have looked like a different team over the last three contests (and they’re eight-man roster played spirited ball the game before in a loss to the Nets).

It appears the road trip, while resulting in an 0-5 record, did wonders in terms of galvanizing the active players and getting the team to re-commit to what made them such a surprise last year – working their tails off on defense.

No, 99 points to the Cavaliers isn’t great. However, consider that this is now five straight games the Raptors have held opponents under the rather arbitrary 100 point “Pizza” marker. Without adjusting for pace, look at the comparison below:

First 21 games: 103.5 points allowed per game
Last five games: 91.0 points allowed per game
Average PPG of last five opponents: 98.2

These aren’t pace adjusted, of course, but if you’ve watched the game the eye test has certainly backed up the narrative of a more spirited, more engaged team defensive effort.

Last night, the Cavs shot 51.4% and got 11 offensive rebounds on just 34 missed field goals, which sure doesn’t sound good. But the Raptors’ Achilles heel has been the long-ball and the freebies, and last night they managed to limit the three-point damage (7-of-16) and force 16 turnovers. The Cavs got to the line plenty (20-of-30) but more than half of that was Varejao, who has become a nightmare to defend.

They also rotated well and forced the Cavs to take shots late in the clock, some of which still fell, but you evaluate the process more than the results in situations like that. The “help like crazy and leave guys wide open for threes” defense of earlier this season appears to have fallen by the wayside, at least for now.

Offensively, the team was lights out, hitting 52% from the floor, going 23-of-27 from the stripe and adding 12 triples. It was a really great, balanced, team-oriented attack on offense. When Jose Calderon takes over the scoring load, John Lucas gets half a dozen assists, DeMar DeRozan does all his damage at the line and Alan Anderson does his Kobe impression successfully, you know it was a good night at that end.

Allow me to once again illustrate the difference between the team’s recent play and the team’s previous play:

First 22 games: Assists on 57.9% of team FG made
Last four games: Assists on 65.1% of team FG made

That’s a stark contrast, and is likely a key reason why the Raptors have been both more balanced and more successful. I don’t have the numbers handy, but I would bet that assisted shots fall at a greater clip than unassisted ones, especially for non-elite players such as, you know, every Raptor.

Last night’s Quick Reaction can shed light on the player-by-player breakdown. I’m keeping this brief since there’s another game tonight.

As the Raptors head back home to take on the Pistons, I’ll direct you to A Dub’s pre-game post for the details there. Trap game? Or a potential fourth win in a row? I’m really hoping for the latter, and the keys appear to be sharing the ball and the renewed defensive effort.

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