Coming off the franchise’s first Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Toronto Raptors had a rollercoaster 2016-17 season but thankfully turned it around in time to finish with at least 50 wins for a second consecutive season.
In an exciting NBA season that saw the Golden state Warriors dominate, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers struggle, James Harden's rise, and Russell Westbrook break Oscar Robinson’s triple-double record, the Raptors had their share of excitement. DeMar DeRozan broke various individual and team records en route having the best season of his career to date and the Raptors were involved in midseason trades for the first time since 2013.
DeMar DeRozan's Historic Start
Despite losing Bismack Biyombo to the Orlando Magic in free agency, the Raptors started the new season without missing a beat. Canada’s team ended 2016 with a 22-10 record and the league’s top offensive rating, courtesy of DeMar DeRozan’s scorching hot start on offense. The former USC guard scored at least 30 points in eight of the first nine games of the regular season, a feat last achieved by Michael Jordan in the 1986-87 season. DeRozan did not let up over the season, he scored at least 30 points in 22 games, surpassing Vince Carter’s franchise record of 21 games of such. The Compton native was one of the brightest spots in the Raptors’ season as he averaged 27.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, both being career-highs. However, the key to the season will be keeping that up in the playoffs when the Raptors need him and Kyle Lowry the most.
The 'Other Guys'
Aside from the midrange maestro, other Raptors such as Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell, and DeMarre Carroll also started out the season tearing it up on offense so it was easy to win games since they could count on them and everyone else to score at ease. This would eventually be a problem when the team became a let down on defense and tried to win games by outscoring opponents. Head coach Dwane Casey is known for his defensive prowess across the league so of course, the team play made him furious, and something had to change.
A Tough Start to 2017
The start of 2017 was not kind to the Raptors, the team started poorly and had an 11-14 record heading into the All-Star break, mostly because DeRozan and Patrick Patterson battled injuries and the depleted squad lost defensive focus. Players who started the season playing well, now missed shots and that also resulted in a defensive lapse due to lack of focus.
Desperate Changes Were Needed to be Made
The Raptors’ skid caused Dwane Casey to lose out on All-Star coaching duties to Brad Stevens when the Boston Celtics overtook them for the second spot in the Eastern Conference. Aside from injuries, the Raptors struggled to find productive minutes at the power forward position, as the team needed more than Pascal Siakam’s energy and Jared Sullinger's poor play while rehabbing from his foot injury.
By mid-February, the Raptors called a team meeting to address their woes and Kyle Lowry even openly admitted that something had to change around the locker room. Out in the media, people had the Raptors finishing fifth place or worse in the conference, but it turned out that management had other ideas. The team seemed to be tanking for no apparent reason, the same team that won 21 of their first 32 ended up losing more games than they won early in the year. The reoccurring theme was defense; Raptors tried to outscore teams ignoring the defensive philosophy that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Management decided it was time for a change, Masai Ujiri traded Terrence Ross and draft picks to acquire the service of defensive stopper Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. They also went out and got another defensive-minded player in P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns, giving up Sullinger and a couple of second-round picks in February.
Getting Back to Old Habits
This was exciting news for the Raptors because it meant the team could go back to winning games through defense - 'the Casey way'. After the trade deadline, things were looking up for the Raptors but then bad news rolled in, and it was announced that Kyle Lowry had sustained a wrist injury before the All-Star break and was to be sidelined until the final two weeks of the season. Despite losing the team leader, the season turnaround started when the Raptors faced the Boston Celtics in the first game back from the break. Raptors won the game 107-97 led by DeRozan's 43 points, Ibaka’s 15 points and, Tucker’s 10 key rebounds. The Raptors played like contenders on the court for the first time in the new year and a couple of weeks later, they beat the Chicago Bulls in an overtime thriller at the Air Canada Centre.
The new team proved they were built for adversity as they rallied together to finish the season winning 18 of the final 25 games to finish third in the Eastern Conference. Lowry returned for the final three games of the season and the Raptors finished the season winning 8 of their last ten games. They peaked at the right time and head into the playoffs with confidence.
A Look at the Raptors Playoff Situation
Despite a shaky start,Toronto ended the season with a 51-31 record, earning the first consecutive 50-plus win season in team history but their season will be graded on how much success they can achieve in the postseason. The playoffs commence on Saturday, Apr. 15 when the Raptors take on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks at 5:30 p.m. E.T.
They are favorites to win the first-round match-up, but the bigger task will come in the second round when Toronto possibly face Cleveland Cavaliers, assuming LeBron James and co. get past Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. The playoffs open up a clean slate, and the Raptors are ready to write a new story following last year’s postseason triumph.