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How the Toronto Raptors have accomplished their winning streak

The Toronto Raptors, quietly, have amassed the longest winning streak in the NBA. After beating the Chicago Bulls, the Raptors have now won 11 games in a row. The second-longest such streak stands at four, belonging to the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Raptors are officially the hottest team in the NBA. They’re also tied as the hottest Raptors team in franchise history; their 11-game winning streak ties the franchise record set in 2016 and tied in 2018.

Just as impressive as Toronto’s winning is the way that the team has accomplished it. Outside of the result, no two games have been the same.

I think each game is something else,” said Nick Nurse before Toronto’s game against Chicago. “It’s not like you sit there and say we went and totally dominated with our man-to-man defense five nights in a row. Some nights, the man is clicking, some nights the zone jump-starts the man, some nights the zone bails us out. Some nights we hit a bunch of threes, some nights we get at bunch at the rim. But I think that’s what’s happening here as you start to dissect [the games].”

“This team has an interesting intellect in that when the ball goes up they start really trying to figure out how they’re gonna hurt them at the offensive end, where we can go, where the mismatches are, where actions are working and what pace to play at. Then they’re doing the same at the other end, trying to figure out how to tweak the coverages and make things difficult for them at the other end. It’s all done with the end goal in mind of winning, because they have such a competitive spirit. That’s the only commonality I can see.”

Nurse is absolutely right. Toronto used all sorts of different defenses over the course of the winning streak. They trapped the San Antonio Spurs opportunistically during a win, frequently throwing off DeMar DeRozan’s rhythm. They’ve worked hard to force live-ball turnovers. They used all sorts of zones against the Detroit Pistons, including a 2-3, 3-2, and a 1-2-2. They’ve used box-and-ones and triangle-and-twos.

It hasn’t just been the defensive end. Over the past 11 games, six different Raptors have led the team in scoring: Norman Powell (three times) Pascal Siakam (three times), Fred VanVleet (twice), Serge Ibaka (twice), Kyle Lowry (once), and undrafted rookie Terence Davis (once). As a note, that number adds up to 12 and not 11 because Ibaka and Siakam tied for the game-high in one game. The point, though, is that for Toronto, it’s been diverging offensive punches that have landed so many body blows against opponents.

“We probably would’ve thought it would be some offence by committee late, and I think that’s what it’s turning into, with Pascal being kind of the forefront of any of those guys, but there’s a lot of places we can go,” said Nurse in explaining how the offensive system has evolved recently. “Kyle’s been aggressive in scoring at the rim late, Freddy’s been doing his thing late when they leave him open, Serge has been making big shots late, Norm has, so that’s, I think it’s great, I think it’s fine, I love it, I prefer it to be that.”

As Siakam’s ability to create for his teammates has skyrocketed, Toronto’s pieces have locked into place around him. Lowry has been able to pick his spots and create elite looks with his passing. Ibaka has dominated scoring in the pick-and-roll, and his passing over the last few games has sneakily been the best of his career. VanVleet’s off-ball shooting has been leveraged more frequently as a weapon. The puzzle pieces are fitting together more cleanly than ever before.

The winning has made opposing coaches perk up and take notice. Jim Boylen, Head Coach of the Bulls, sees Toronto as a team to emulate.

To me, the reason they’re on the winning streak is because they play very hard,” said Boylen. “Their speed and quickness is dominating. Their multi-handlers are very difficult to guard, and they have a team that realizes after winning it that you only way you’re gonna win it is if you play defense. I think they’re committed to that. You have to give them credit for that. I think the two top teams in the East, Milwaukee and Toronto, they guard. That’s what you have to do, and that’s my message to our team too.”

The Raptors have indeed been fantastic over the past 11. Their offensive rating, 118.1, is third in the league over that stretch. Their defensive rating is just as impressive: 105.9, also third in the league. It’s all the better that Toronto has been able to keep the minutes down for their starters, most important of all Lowry.

Of course, it helps when Toronto plays a string of mediocre opponents. The average win total of their opponents during this winning streak has been 18.6, which would be good for 10th place in the East or 12th in the West. It’s been a load of poor teams. But that doesn’t detract from what Toronto has done. This Raptors team is on the march, winning game after game. One more good showing, this time against a solid opponent in the Indiana Pacers, would be all it takes; it would be fitting that this team, sans Kawhi Leonard, sets the franchise record.

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