TORONTO — It was about 11 months ago that Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri gave a year-end press conference that was almost as fiery as that time he yelled a cuss word at Brooklyn.
With his team having been casually brushed aside by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs, Ujiri was uncharacteristically blunt. “That series was disappointing for us. We thought we could do better,” he said. “I don’t know what it is.”
By the time he was finished, 30 minutes and 4,000-odd words later — I saved the transcript — the man who had guided this franchise to the greatest stretch in its history made clear that he was quite bothered by where it had ended up. He spoke repeatedly of a culture reset, and said he was tired of watching his team stumble in the playoffs, especially against great teams like Cleveland.
“We need figure out how to beat these guys,” he said. “That’s our job.”
No one was sure what would follow, and the Raptors boss himself said he wasn’t close to making any decisions, but the path that seemed least likely is the one that he ultimately chose: a wholesale revamp, but with the same core players and the same head coach.
With his team playing its final home game on Sunday night (a 112-101 win over the Orlando Magic) and soaking up the appreciation for its first-ever Eastern Conference title, the evidence suggests Ujiri made a pretty good call.
Even with some wobbles on their final approach, the Raptors have already done all they could do in the regular-season part of this campaign. They had posted franchise records for wins (58) and home wins (34), and more importantly they have done so while dragging themselves out of the basketball stone age — sorry, dinosaur pun not intended — with a pass-happy offence that emphasized three-point shooting and ball movement.
That the Raptors needed to launch such a reinvention was not at issue; Toronto had been through four straight playoff appearances in which the isolation-heavy offence disappeared for long stretches. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had both been far less effective in the post-season than their All-Star status would suggest. These Raptors had yet to put together an easy series win, and they were 2-8 over two years against LeBron James and the Cavaiiers.
As Ujiri wondered at his ornery year-ender last May: “The one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that, we have to really look at it, look at the league and evaluate the way we play and say, is this working?”
He already knew the answer. But his stars were not obvious candidates to totally change their style of play. Even at their playoff low points, when DeRozan and Lowry could not get their shots to fall, they were defiant about the way to turn things around: keep shooting. Coach Dwane Casey had said amid various spring struggles that his team would “ride or die” with their two stars. When the idea of a change in style would be floated after the Raptors had encountered their familiar playoff failings, Casey would say, not unreasonably, that late spring was not the time for reinvention. This is who we are, he would say.
And so, it was fair to say, as that reinvention was being considered last May: if the Raptors could have transformed themselves under Casey, and with DeRozan and Lowry as the key cogs, wouldn’t they have, you know, already done it?
Such skepticism has, quite obviously, already been thoroughly dismissed. The Raptors went from a team that was last in the NBA in assists per game to one that was sixth in the league. They also went from last in the percentage of baskets that were created by an assist to 11th in the league by that metric. And, where the team was 22nd last season in average number of three-point attempts, this year the Raptors are all the way up to third — this in a league where everyone is shooting bombs like never before.
So, more passing and more threes? Check and check.
As the Raptors head on the road Monday for a mini two-game road trip to close the season and wait to see who they will meet in the first round next weekend, the looming question remains whether that reinvention can reverse their normal playoff script. This is, after all, a team that hasn’t won the first game of a post-season series in 17 years.
Whatever happens, one thing does seem certain: The Raptors will not, as some fans have feared as this record-breaking season has progressed, revert to their former style of play next week, like they are slipping into comfortable old shoes. (Old shoes, that is, that get drilled by the Cavs.) Their evolution was in full display as they dismantled the Magic on Sunday night: 28 assists and 17 made threes, both well above their season averages. The change began in meetings last spring, and in summer workouts, through training camp, and on the way to 58 wins and still counting.
For the Raptors, there is no going back. This is who they are.
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