Raptors Making Hay While the Sun Shines but a Storm Is Coming

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Well, this has been as underwhelming as six-game winning streaks come.


This isn’t meant to be unnecessarily negative, but color me less than optimistic that the six-game run portends good things to come for the rest of the season for the Toronto Raptors. After a bad stretch of play through the first three weeks of January, any victories are welcome, it’s just that these see six in a row against middling competition don’t seem to be a signal that things have turned around.


There was Philadelphia, a five-point victory that basically came down to the 76ers handing the ball over on a potential game-tying possession.


There was a Brandon Jennings-less Detroit team, a four-point win that saw the team incapable of containing D.J. Freaking Augustin. Good thing Detroit waited until now to sign John Lucas III, because only Shammgod knows what he would have gone off for.


The victories over the Pacers and Kings, while hardly statement games, were at least margin-of-victory wins, though the former required a little more effort to close things out than the team surely would have liked. And these wins came against teams a combined 27 games under .500.


Then there was Brooklyn, and a 17-point collapse that required overtime and a handful of insane DeMar DeRozan shots to steal what appeared half-an-hour earlier to be a runaway win. Jarrett Jack and Brook Lopez were made to look like All-Stars. They are decidedly not.


And finally, a game against a very good Washington Wizards team that nobody has any business complaining about. In their fourth city in five nights, on the second night of a back-to-back, against a comparably talented team, the Raptors got it done. They blew a 21-point lead and couldn’t slow a hobbled John Wall, but this was a schedule loss that the team won.


All things told, six wins are six wins, even against a stretch of competition with a collective .389 winning percentage. You can only beat the teams put in front of you, and the Raptors just did that for an extended period. That four of those came on the road is all the better. The Raptors are now 33-15, two games up on Washington for second in the Eastern Conference – a top-three spot has become a relative necessity given the need to avoid drawing the fifth-seed in a first-round match-up, by the way – and they have some nice cushioning in the standings if a tough stretch hits.


That tough stretch, it may be coming.


Even during the winning streak, there were some bad signs for the Raptors. While their offense was back to operating as the league’s second best since Jan. 22, the defense remained nothing more than a fleeting idea of the aggressive scheme that ranked top-10 a year ago. Even during the winning streak, the Raptors gave up 104.8 points per-100 possessions, 24th in the NBA during that time. This isn’t new – they rank 21st on the season and 27th since the calendar flipped to 2015. It’s a serious issue, one without a clear solution.


That can fly against the stretch of teams the Raptors just played, and it’s manageable against Milwaukee and Brooklyn this week, neither of whom rank in the top half of the league for offense, but the Raptors’ sunshine is about to have a dark scheduling cloud pass in front of it. Here’s what the Raptors are dealing with in February:
Until they visit the Knicks on the 28th, the Raptors will be playing against a top-10 defense and top-10 offense on average this month, against teams with a combined .641 winning percentage. That may not even tell the entire story, with an asterisk next to the Hawks (on a 35-3 run), Spurs (21-9 with Kawhi Leonard), and Clippers (+10.8 net rating in January) all playing even better of late than their record would indicate.


What’s more, the usual claim that the Raptors can play up to their competition and hang with any team isn’t holding as true as their reputation may suggest. Toronto is just 7-7 against other playoff teams in the East and they’ve gone 3-5 against West playoff teams, solid marks but hardly ones that are encouraging in a month like this. To be completely fair, the Raptors’ record against the 11 teams they’ll see this month is actually 11-4, with wins over the Clippers, Wizards (two) and Hawks (two) standing out, so there’s some room for optimism.


There’s one other factor that may end up helping the Raptors round out of their prolonged defensive slump, though it holds for most teams: They’re off from Feb. 11 to Feb. 20 for the extended All-Star Break. Kyle Lowry, in particular, has looked exhausted for weeks and will surely benefit from the rest, while any other minor maladies will get the proper time to heal up (here’s looking at you, Amir Johnson). Lowry ranks ninth in the league in total minutes played and while nobody else is higher than Patrick Patterson at No. 90 overall (really, he’s second on the team?), the Raptors’ aggressive defensive scheme appears an exhausting one, and a straight minutes count may not do justice to the load placed on certain players (again, Johnson).


It’s also an extended opportunity for head coach Dwane Casey and his staff to study that scheme, one that doesn’t appear to be working or fit the team’s personnel all that well. He’s not going to overhaul things mid-season, especially since the post-trade Raptors a year ago ranked eighth in defense with a similar ideology, but some tweaks appear necessary. Namely, if the rest doesn’t do Lowry good on the defensive end – he was playing below his established standard on defense even before DeRozan’s injury put a larger offensive burden on him – the Raptors simply don’t have the defense at first point of attack to play switches and help so aggressively. It’s a fun scheme on paper, and a long, athletic team like the Bucks play it really well, but the Raptors have been found wanting on defense for most of the season. That has to change before the playoffs, and while a run of opponents like this isn’t the ideal chemistry lab, the break is the best time to toy with tweaks.


In short, I’m a fuddy-duddy who can’t enjoy a six-game winning streak without worrying about what’s to come with a terrifying stretch of schedule, especially from Feb. 6 to Feb. 27, when the Raptors’ average opponent is 33-15 and ranks seventh in offense and ninth in defense.

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