Toronto Raptors: a mid-season summary

Sep 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas (17) guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during the media day at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas (17) guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during the media day at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports /

While All-Star break isn’t the mathematical equivalent of the NBA season’s half-way point, it’s viewed that way by press and fans. Let’s take a look at how the Raptors have fared so far.

It’s now the middle of the 2015-2016 NBA season and the Toronto Raptors haven’t played that badly – They’re actually second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 35-17 and head coach Dwayne Casey has made it clear they are chasing LeBron James and the Cavaliers for first place.

Jan 18, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) talks to center Jonas Valanciunas (17) against the New Orleans Pelicans at Air Canada Centre. The Pelicans beat the Raptors 95-93. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The trade moves that general manager Masai Ujiri made this past summer have clearly paid off. Last season’s Raptors look like a former shell compared to the new look, defensive, grind out version of today. The disastrous first round blow-out by Washington exposed the would-be contenders for pretenders. The flashy plays and end of shot clock three pointers from Lou Williams proved to have no place in playoff basketball.

Ujiri addressed these issues and presented the fans with a 8th overall defensive team.

Not only have these Raptors played elite defense so far but have still kept their offensive rating top 10 as well, currently sixth overall rating. Key pickups like point guard Cory Joseph and center Bismack Biyombo have given the Raptors’ second unit a lot of energy off the bench.

The Raptors opened up this season on a 5 game win-streak, only to follow it up with a 3 game losing-streak. What does that say about the Raptors? Just like any team getting acclimated to one another, they’re still learning. Inserting DeMarre Carroll into the starting lineup is definitely the biggest change to the roster (although he’s not there for his offense). 

If one thing is for certain, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are still impressive, if not even more so this season. Both are averaging 20 plus points per game, DeRozan 23.2 and Lowry 20.1, combining to make the highest scoring back court in the East.

Lowry is having another career year, shocking the NBA this past summer with the transformation of his body – enter skinny “KLow”. He’s been a constant threat with his three point shooting, averaging 38.9 per cent, while causing havoc in passing lanes leading to 2.3 steals per game, only behind Russell Westbrook.  He’s set the tone for his team time and time again, coming up with key plays in crunch time, not to mention scoring a career high 41 points at home against Golden State (even though the Raptors lost). Simply put, he’s balling out of his mind in borderline MVP fashion – there’s no debate why he’s starting for the East this All-Star Weekend.

DeRozan, another deserving All-Star, is having a career year of his own. If Stephen Curry can’t be stopped from scoring beyond the arc than DeMar can’t be stopped from getting to the rim. He’s been finishing at the rim no matter how many defenders come to help and is all over the highlight reel on a weekly basis. His dribble penetration draws defenders in and spaces the floor to allow drive-and-kick plays or for him to draw fouls and shoot free-throws. DeRozan is showing why he’s gained all the extra muscle mass since coming into league, and putting it to good use (like posterizing Rudy Gobert).

Jan 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during their game against the Detroit Pistons at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Pistons 111-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Jonas Valanciunas and Carroll have been harder to gauge this season than anyone else on the roster due to lack of play from injury. JV suffered a broken left hand November 20th in Los Angeles, CA against the Lakers and did not return to the lineup until December 28th in Chicago, IL against the Bulls. In the span of time he missed a total of 17 games  and it appears he still has yet to hit his stride this season. His defense has looked better with the system coach Casey has implemented this year. He doesn’t have to over help on double-teams and puts himself in better positioning to box-out for rebounds.

Carroll on the other hand has been fighting injury almost from the start, while more often than not, playing through it.  Early he had been playing through a plantar fascia injury but has been inactive since January 6th after deciding to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

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As of late the Raptors bench has been able to provide the scoring load they need with the first unit out. Cory Joseph seems very comfortable running that unit and just as good along side Lowry in Casey’s small guard lineup. Terrence Ross had struggled for while early on after resigning for $33 million over four years. In November he was averaging just 3.6 points per game and showed little commitment on defense. However, in January he’s averaged 9.1 points per game and 40 per cent three point shooting. Patrick Patterson is another player who’s had struggled shooting the ball this season but has found other ways to contribute, either with passing or playing good help defense.  

Dec 18, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh (1) waits for a rebound against Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson (3)and forward Terrence Ross (31) at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports /

The Raptors have also taken a few key wins against other teams regarded at elite level. They’ve beaten the Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Dallas so far this season and have had two close meetings with the beast that is Golden State, losing 110-115 on the road and 112-109. That’s still a closer point differential than both Cleveland’s matches against the Warriors.

One thing is for sure – if the Raptors want to continue there dominance in the East and possibly overtake Cleveland for first, the bench needs to turn its new found spark into something consistent and hope no more injuries riddle the roster. This is a team many are starting to believe have the Eastern Conference Finals as their ceiling.

The Raptors will head into the All-Star break, coming home from a five game road trip, finishing 3-2. They began that trip first-off in Denver, coming off a franchise record 11 game winning streak. Unfortunately, the streak ended in Denver with a 93-112 loss. The real test though, is if the Raptors could maintain the same type of winning basketball going forward or regress into a slump. The Raps definitely showed they weren’t going to let a loss define there play, winning the next three straight games against Phoenix, ending a losing streak in Portland (since 2006), and beating the Pistons with fans chanting “let’s go Raptors” in the fourth at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

However, Minnesota made sure the Raptors will not be heading into All-Star weekend coming off a victory, beating them in a tight game 117-112. Karl-Anthony Towns scored 35 points and 11 rebounds and Andrew Wiggins scored 26 points. The Raptors got into foul trouble throughout the game. Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, and Joseph all finished with five personal fouls, and the Raptors shot 45.3 percent. This was a frustrating game for the Raptors. They can still take this loss headed into the break with a grain of salt and feel proud of what they have accomplished at this season’s half-way point.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are headed to the All-Star game, one being voted in as a starter by the fans and the other as a reserve by way of the coaches. The team’s fine results have been accomplished without DeMarre Carroll, who’s still recovering from knee surgery and now James Johnson who’s day-to-day with a sprained ankle.

These Raptors are one of the top five teams in the league behind Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland. That’s good company to keep if your going to be taken seriously on a nightly basis.

50 wins are right around the corner for this group as long as they keep the same focus they’ve shown in the first half.