PORTLAND, Ore. — The NBA is in the heart of its self-combustion season—with coaches dropping like flies, trade rumors starting to swirl, and some locker rooms wistfully looking ahead to the summer free agency period—and yet the smooth-sailing Raptors’ biggest concern is how the team’s goofy centers keep getting their hands on boom microphones during post-game interviews.
Toronto had just won for the 13th time in 14 games, beating a spunky Portland team at the Moda Center thanks to 59 combined points from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The All-Star guards had blitzed the Blazers with three-pointers and circus lay-ups, playing off of each other with a cohesiveness built up over four seasons together, but both looked perplexed by the wayward audio devices that greeted them at their lockers.
DeRozan delayed his interview, sheepishly, as back-up center Bismack Biyombo commandeered a microphone and waved it closer and closer to his face, a sophomoric gag that’s been around for decades, but nevertheless delighted Biyombo to no end. “Come on, man, focus,” said Biyombo, sarcastically pleading with DeRozan to begin his media session as he choked back deep-voiced giggles. “We got the win.”
The scene repeated with Lowry, who couldn’t understand why a microphone needed to be a few inches from his mouth until he realized that Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto’s starting 7-foot center, was on the other end.
“Hey, that’s expensive, man,” the mischievous Valanciunas shouted, when a working professional tried to bring an end to the hijinks by reclaiming the microphone.
“You can afford it,” Lowry cracked back.
“Next year,” Valanciunas replied, in reference to the four-year, $64 million rookie extension that will kick in for the 2016–17 season.
Lowry joined the crowd of reporters who were guffawing at the exchange. The notoriously hard–headed point guard had spent the night working the officials, stomping around the court with a superstar’s air, and draining dagger triples. But here he was, settling into another evening of the ongoing Laugh Factory routine that has developed during what will almost certainly be the most successful season in Raptors franchise history. One night, Lowry and DeRozan banter like siblings, promising to call each other if they can’t fall asleep. The next, DeRozan creeps behind Lowry during an on-court interview, flashing a goofy face that is instantly turned into a meme.
With the entire NBA set to converge on Toronto for All-Star Weekend, the host city boasts a team that, in spite of its collective lightheartedness, must be taken seriously.
By any measure, the Raptors are legit. They are on pace for 56 wins, which would smash last season's franchise record of 49. Their +4.6 point differential would also be a franchise-best if sustained, surpassing the +3.2 mark set in 2013–14. Toronto has the league’s No. 6 offense and No. 9 defense, making it one of just five teams to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.
Entering Wednesday’s action, the Raptors sat just two games back of the Cavaliers for the East’s top record and enjoyed a 5.5 game cushion over the rest of the conference. What’s more, they’ve claimed quality wins over the Thunder, Spurs, Cavaliers, and Clippers (twice), while pushing the Warriors in two close losses to the defending champs. The Raptors’ success in recent years ensures that they are greeted by their vocal fans at every road game, including in Portland, where one of the team’s television broadcasters was signing autographs before the game and Lowry’s sharpshooting drew loud cheers throughout the night.
The more wins the Raptors have stacked up in recent weeks, the more tempting it has become to include them on the short list of contenders—with the obvious caveat that even blue-chip teams like the Spurs and Cavaliers are living in the Warriors’ world.
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Raptors coach Dwane Casey is still preaching a different message.
“No, no, no, no,” Casey told SI.com, when asked if he’s raising the bar and encouraging his team to think of itself as one of the league’s top clubs. “We are still talking about how much we have to improve. I’ve won a championship [as an assistant with the Mavericks in 2011]. I’m not being braggadocios, but I know what it [takes] to get there. We haven’t earned the respect yet. We haven’t done anything yet.”
The 58-year-old coach, who has been manning the sidelines in one position or another since 1979, then began gesturing with his hands, to demonstrate the progress Toronto has made during his five-year tenure.
“We’re proud of the fact that we’ve taken it from here, to up here,” Casey explained, raising his hand from waist level to shoulder level. “But the hardest thing in the NBA is to take that next step. And that’s where we are. We don’t even talk about being a contender. We’re the underdog still trying to get where we want to be.”
Casey, who was named the East's Coach of the Month for January, is indisputably having a career year in what looked like a make-or-break season back in October. After a pair of disappointing first-round exits and a shakeup of his staff, Casey entered 2015–16 in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
In spite of those adverse conditions, he’s kept the Raptors going despite long-term injuries to Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, he’s successfully integrated a host of newcomers, and he’s continued to foster a positive environment that has seen the Raptors improve steadily since he was hired before the 2011–12 season. Indeed, Toronto’s upside-down transformation from a 22-win team in 2010–11 that was reeling from Chris Bosh’s departure to the current group is remarkable.
Don’t mistake Casey’s cautious approach to the expectations game for a lack of belief in his team. As long as Carroll, who is currently sidelined following knee surgery, returns in time for the postseason, Casey views the Raptors as “by far the most talented and most playoff–ready” team he’s fielded in Toronto.
That assessment starts on the defensive end, where the Raptors’ 101 defensive rating is the lowest of Casey’s tenure. Although the defensive–minded Carroll was signed to a four–year, $60 million contract last summer in hopes that he would give the Raptors some much–needed toughness and versatility, he hasn’t played enough to be a truly transformative piece. Instead, two of GM Masai Ujiri’s smaller moves—Cory Joseph ($30 million over four years) and Biyombo ($6 million over two years)—have helped drive Toronto’s defensive improvement.
“You always look back and see what you could do better,” Casey said, reflecting on the first-round sweep at the hands of the Wizards. “A lot of it was our defense. We were such an offensive-driven team with Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez, and in the playoffs the game slows down and it’s more of a defensive battle.”
Although Williams was the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year thanks to his scoring prowess, Joseph has represented a clear upgrade because his game is so complete. A native of Canada who earned a ring with the 2014 Spurs, the unselfish Joseph boasts a +9.4 net rating and has relished taking on the toughest defensive assignments.
“We’re getting more disciplined and we’re all buying into the system,” Joseph said. “It’s just about going out there and putting forth the effort now.”
Unlike Williams, who needed to dominate the ball and essentially run the second unit to provide maximum value, Joseph fits with anybody and everybody. He can play on or off the ball alongside Lowry, he can initiate the offense when paired with DeRozan and he can be utilized in three-guard looks with both of Toronto’s All-Stars.
In fact, when Joseph shares the court with Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors boast a stellar +10.4 net rating. This is a potent and extraordinarily complementary trio: Lowry is the prototypical lead guard, DeRozan is a skilled scorer, and Joseph works as a spot set-up guy on offense while focusing his best efforts on the other end. When it comes to crunch time in the playoffs, it will be hard for Casey to keep Joseph off the court.
“[Joseph] is an energy bunny,” Casey said. “Defensively, he changes things. He can guard bigger guards, smaller guards, shooting guards, point guards. He’s been a godsend.”
Biyombo, meanwhile, has been found money. After Charlotte gave up on him following the completion of his rookie deal, Biyombo has been the backline anchor for all of Toronto’s highest-performing defensive units. A long-armed shot-blocker who often looked out of sync or out of position earlier in his career, Biyombo has achieved a better level of reliability this season.
Called upon to start when Valanciunas was lost to a hand injury, Biyombo helped Toronto go 11–7 during that critical stretch. If Casey decides he needs to load up on defense late in games come May, Biyombo (98.1 defensive rating) looks like a far superior option to Valanciunas (104.5 defensive rating). Not bad for a footnote signing who is earning a fraction of what Amir Johnson, last year’s frontcourt defensive lynchpin, is pulling down in Boston.
It’s worth noting that the best could still be yet to come for Toronto’s defense: Carroll, Joseph and Biyombo have shared the court with the Lowry/DeRozan pairing for just 31 total minutes this season. On paper, that looks like a money lineup for the postseason, pairing the Raptors’ top defensive talents in a five-man lineup that includes multiple playmakers, multiple ball-handlers and multiple three-point shooters.
Aside from their defensive skillsets, Joseph and Biyombo are representative of another key factor behind Toronto’s success this season. Indeed, it’s the same factor that Lowry and Valanciunas joked about in their aforementioned microphone exchange in the locker room: Money.
Never overlook the importance of the all-mighty dollar when it comes to constructing a winning environment. Since arriving in 2013, Ujiri has done well separating his core pieces from his extraneous rosters parts, while simultaneously spreading the wealth around among those he deemed to be keepers.
Lowry signed a lucrative four–year contract in 2014 and he’s on track for a gigantic raise come July 2017, when he can opt out. Valanciunas’s rookie extension is life-changing in size. Carroll’s big pay day was years in the making. Terrence Ross was taken care of last fall with a rich rookie extension and he’s responded with the most dependable play of his career in recent months. Joseph’s contract represented a huge raise over his rookie deal. Biyombo’s deal was a lifeline of sorts. And then there’s DeRozan, who is playing the best basketball of his career during a contract year that will almost certainly see him earn max money next summer.
What is there to be upset about if everyone feels like he is being rewarded?
“Chemistry–wise, we couldn’t be better,” Casey said. “There’s no egos, there’s no hidden agendas, there’s no guys wanting more minutes. Guys understand their roles.”
That harmony was evident in Portland, as it has been throughout the last month.
When Biyombo took a stray elbow to the head, he seemed to relish wagging his finger, enforcer-style, at the Blazers’ bench. Lowry, meanwhile, rushed over to protect his big man and immediately began campaigning on his behalf. When Portland pulled to within three early in the final period, Lowry effortlessly asserted himself, scoring 11 points in a three–minute stretch. When a string of turnovers accumulated in the fourth quarter, the Raptors maintained their composure and avoided melting down, icing the win away at the free-throw line, just like a tested team should. During his post–game comments, Casey praised his team’s “cohesion, chemistry and continuity.”
“We’re a complete team,” Lowry said after the win over Portland. “Fifteen deep. We always say that and we really mean that. You never know whose time it’s going to be.”
Luis Scola, another low-budget summer addition by Ujiri, stands as perfect evidence of Lowry’s assertion. At 35, the Argentinian big man arrived in Toronto on a one-year, $3 million contract, the type of contract that really only requires its recipient to provide veteran leadership and spot contributions.
And yet Scola has been much more than that, emerging as a starter at power forward. At first glance, a traditional two-big setup involving Scola would seem to be unworkable given his age, limited athleticism and long-standing preference for working in and around the paint. Those concerns have been lessened by Scola’s new-found three-point range: After attempting just 60 total three-pointers over his first eight NBA seasons, Scola has jacked up 91 threes this year at an impressive 44% clip. He drilled two three-pointers against Portland to account for all six of his points, making the Blazers pay for leaving him open on the perimeter.
“He made a conscious effort,” Casey said of Scola’s floor-stretching ability. “We had Sam Perkins in Seattle. He was an interior player. Then all at once, he started shooting threes. Guys figure out in this league, finding a niche and finding a way to fit in and keep a job. [Scola has] high skill and high IQ. People forget how accomplished he is in international play. How many championships. But he hadn’t stepped out past the three. That’s a big step, going from the international three to the NBA three. He’s getting used to it.”
Spacing is at a premium for every NBA team, and that includes Toronto, who must keep enough threats on the court at all times to ensure that defenses don’t overload on Lowry. Every capable shooter helps when both DeRozan and Joseph lack consistent three-point range, Valanciunas needs room to work in isolation down low, and Biyombo is nothing more than a dunker.
“The league is going to go more and more stretch fives and stretch fours,” Casey noted. “The smart guys are the ones who will develop that and work on that in the summertime [so they can] get the trust of the coaches. [Scola] works on it every day after practice. Now he’s doing it in the games.”
For all of these good vibes in February, the Raptors’ principals understand that the next four months will be a referendum on both Casey and Lowry. That’s par for the course for coaches and stars on winning teams, but the scrutiny is magnified here because both are looking to rewrite their postseason reputations for a franchise that has won just one playoff series during its 21-year existence.
All those fans who fly out to road games and rally annually in Maple Leaf Square, waiting anxiously for the latest Ujiri profanity, are ready for something tangible to celebrate. And if it doesn’t happen? Their cheers will instantly switch into calls for blood. Casey makes for an obvious target.
“You always feel pressure as a coach, but do you feel the pressure of losing a job? No, never,” Casey insisted. “My pressure is that I owe it to the players in the locker room to make sure they’re prepared and … that I’m putting them in position to be successful.”
One major step in that plan is a desire to lessen the playing-time load for Lowry and DeRozan down the stretch. Currently, both rank among the top six in minutes played league-wide, and Lowry’s inability to hold up physically down the stretch was a key factor in deciding the series versus the Wizards.
“We’d like to start watching Kyle’s minutes, watching DeMar’s minutes, making sure they’re getting some rest,” Casey said. “That’s going to be our key. How [Kyle] and DeMar are health-wise and physically is going to [determine] where we go in the playoffs.”
Survey these conditions—the strong start, the need to win now, the hole created by Carroll’s absence, the settled nature of the locker room, and their position as the East’s No. 2 seed with a real shot at making a deep postseason run—and the Raptors are perhaps the NBA’s most obvious “buyers” entering the trade deadline season. An extra wing could help keep the minutes off of Lowry and DeRozan. An extra forward could provide a level of insurance in the event Carroll’s recovery drags on. An extra warm body could prove critical when it comes time for Casey to play the match-up game in the postseason.
Whether or not Ujiri fortifies his squad before the trade deadline, these Raptors are fiercer, wiser, steadier and better balanced than last year’s group. Don’t let Lowry’s wisecracking, or DeRozan’s videobombing, or Valanciunas’s microphone goofing or Biyombo’s chuckling fool you: The Raptors look like they mean business this time.