Sneaky MVP candidate and evolution make these Raptors different

We are about halfway through the season, and one of the standard NBA storylines has a different feel to it.

For four straight years, DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors have cruised through the regular season, winning between 48 and 56 games and finishing as a top-four team in the East.

The common narrative, however, has been the Raptors are fake contenders.

They were promptly eliminated in the first round of the 2014 and 2015 playoffs. They managed to advance to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, but were no match for the Cavaliers, losing the last two games by a combined 64 points. And last year they were mercilessly swept by Cleveland in the East semis.

But this season feels different. It feels like this roster, with little turnover, poses a real threat to the Cavaliers’ stranglehold on the East. After 39 games, this looks like the best Raptors squad in franchise history, as they sit at 28-11 (14-2 at home) and second in the conference.

Toronto is currently top five in both offensive and defensive rating, and third in the NBA in net rating, trailing just the Warriors and the Rockets. They are outscoring opponents by an average of 7.4 points per 100 possessions — considerably better than the Cavaliers and the Celtics.

It starts with DeRozan — the three-time All-Star who, much like his team, always has seemed to be an afterthought. Not anymore.

An underrated MVP candidate, DeRozan has upped his game tremendously, expanding his range and proving to be a much better passer in the face of double-teams and traps.

The 28-year-old is averaging 25.3 points and a career-high 5.0 assists, while shooting 48 percent from the field and a career-high 36 percent from deep. His confidence beyond the arc is rising steadily, as he nailed a season-best five treys in back-to-back outings last week, including a franchise record 52-point performance on New Year’s Day against the Bucks.

In Tuesday’s 90-89 loss to Miami, which snapped Toronto’s undefeated January, DeRozan’s would-be game-winner with three seconds remaining was spoiled by Wayne Ellington’s layup just before the buzzer.

DeRozan’s offensive development mirrors the entire team’s improvement. The Raptors are playing with far more pace than ever before, averaging 100.6 possessions per 48 minutes, good for 10th in the league. They are attempting the fourth most 3s per game at 31.9, compared to 24.3 last season and 23.4 in 2014-15.

“It’s a fun way to play,” coach Dwane Casey told the Toronto Sun of the Raptors’ new approach before the season. “That’s the way the game is going, it’s harder to scout. The game is so sophisticated now that teams scout you so well, they know exactly what you’re going to do before you even get the rest of the sentence out of your mouth as a coach. They’re prepared because of video, internet, whatever it is.

“This style, the way we want to go, is hard to prepare for. They can’t help on Kyle [Lowry], they can’t help on DeMar, they can’t double-team them as quickly. They’ll figure it out eventually, but it’ll take ’em a little while if they don’t know where the ball is going.”

In other words, Toronto is finally embracing modern basketball. And it’s working.

Though Lowry, sidelined Tuesday by a back injury, is not scoring like he used to, Toronto’s unexpected surplus of capable role players have picked up the slack.

Rookie forward OG Anunoby has stabilized the starting lineup, which is a remarkable plus-16.9 in 359 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. In 2016-17, the starters were minus-10.4 in roughly the same amount of court time.

With an 8-foot wingspan (the same as big men like Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert), Anunoby’s versatility on defense has been a major reason for the Raptors’ progress on that end.

An extremely young and deep bench — consisting of CJ Miles, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Lucas Nogueira — plays with a ton of energy and is second in the NBA with a plus-minus of 2.7.

Yes, we need to take the Raptors — winners of 17 of their last 21 — more seriously. But the biggest test is right around the corner, with matchups against Cleveland, Golden State, Detroit, San Antonio and Minnesota within the next 10 days.

Time to find out just how real the fake contenders have become.

Since returning from an ankle injury, Steph Curry has been, well, Steph Curry.

The two-time MVP is averaging 35.2 points and 5.6 assists on 57 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3 in five Golden State victories.

The Warriors’ offense is averaging an unfathomable 127 points across those five games.

Remember Shabazz Napier? The former UConn stud has finally found his niche in the NBA, backing up Damian Lillard in Portland and filling in admirably when the superstar has missed time.

In 20.6 minutes per game, Napier is averaging career highs in points (9.9), steals (1.4, also a team high), field goal percentage (49 percent) and 3-point percentage (42 percent). His impressive scoring ability has not vanished, as the 6-foot-1 point guard has dropped 20 or more in four of the last eight outings, with Lillard sidelined for six of those games.

Napier’s PER (18.28) is the third best on the Blazers.


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