Hidden Keys to Toronto Raptors' Successful Season

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

Hidden Keys to Toronto Raptors' Successful Season

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    It began with a trade: The Toronto Raptors shipped their leading scorer and highest-paid player, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings for overpaid, mostly expiring contracts.

    Gay's departure allowed things to fall into place. DeMar DeRozan officially became an All-Star, and Kyle Lowry unofficially did as well. The offense exploded, the defense bunkered down, and the wins piled on top of one another.

    Since that pivotal deal (on Dec. 9), the Raptors have had the league's 10th-best offense, eighth-best defense and seventh-best net rating, putting them above the Phoenix Suns and Indiana Pacers in that last category.

    Besides Gay's trade, what are some other explanations for Toronto's evolution into a feisty playoff team? Here are five, ranked in order of importance.

5. Jonas Valanciunas' Steady Improvement

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    Jonas Valanciunas isn't yet the player Toronto thinks he one day can be. The team is better on offense and defense when he sits, and his defensive awareness is lacking at the end of games.

    But hey, calm down. He's still only 21 years old, getting better every month. Valanciunas will rip a ball off the glass or bulldoze his way to two points on a post-up. This isn't his breakout season by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more than fair to point out his improvement since opening night and how his provided skills are helping.

    As Raptors HQ's Zach Salzmann recently wrote:

    It's been an up-and-down year for Jonas so far, and many of us have wanted to see a little more from a guy who looked great in pre-season and who, let's not forget, was a top-5 draft pick. But big-men time take to develop and Jonas is most certainly a work in progress. Amidst all the euphoria surrounding the Raps right now, it might be wise to have a little patience and take a few deep breaths when it comes to Mr. Valanciunas. 

    He's been a first-quarter ox in March, averaging 6.4 points on 62 percent shooting. And since the All-Star break, Toronto's most lethal five-man unit has had Valanciunas at center, complementing Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross in whatever ways they need him to. Throw in Amir Johnson at power forward, and they're scoring like a top-five offense and mucking it up like a top-seven defense.

    The young big man isn't perfect, but he's gotten better as the season's gone on. In the weeks ahead, he could have a seriously positive impact on Toronto's playoff run.

4. Rebounding

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    Rebounding is important, and the Toronto Raptors are good at rebounding. These two statements would lead one to believe that they aren't a bad team.

    Since trading Rudy Gay, Toronto is eighth in offensive rebound rate, 16th in defensive rebound rate and eighth in overall rebound rate. When games enter crunch time (the last five minutes with the difference in score at five points or less), the Raptors further outrank their competition—they become the best defensive rebounders and second-best overall rebounding team, behind only the Houston Rockets.

    How are they doing it? Toronto has three double-digit rebounders per 36 minutes (Chuck Hayes, Jonas Valanciunas and Tyler Hansbrough), and about 10 boards per game are gobbled up by the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry starting backcourt alone.  

    This team can bang on the boards with anybody, and it makes the most of it. Its 14.3 second-chance points per game ranks fifth in the league.

3. A Three-Headed Dragon

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    When Rudy Gay's shot attempts had to be distributed among his former teammates, several Raptors began breathing more calmly on offense. Three guards were particularly alleviated: Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

    Most opponents don't have much of an answer when those three share the court. Compared to their season average, the Raptors are 3.0 points per 100 possessions better on offense and 0.3 worse on defense with Ross and DeRozan curling off screen after screen and Lowry wreaking his typical havoc on both ends.

    They're small, and most defenses don't even know how to match up. Once Gay left, the trio began scoring at a rate that would lead the entire league. In a recent back-to-back against the Boston Celtics, coach Brad Stevens was changing the matchups constantly, but nothing stuck.

    Overall, the Raptors are sixth in the league for the percentage of made field goals that are assisted, and this trio is a huge reason why. All three can not only score but also move the ball when nothing develops for themselves.

2. Bench Steps Up After Rudy Gay Trade

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    A not-so-ironic result of the Rudy Gay trade was that the team's offense got better as a result of him leaving. What is ironic is that the random NBA vagabonds who replaced him are actually playing pretty well.

    Chuck Hayes' numbers won't drop your jaw, but when he's on the floor, Toronto outscores its opponent by 8.5 points per 100 possessions. Its defense is incredible (Hayes is still a bolder down low), and the offense somehow works. Hayes averages less than 15 minutes of playing time per game, and most of it comes against less-threatening bench units, but those numbers are still surprising given the stumpy center's natural decline.

    Elsewhere, Greivis Vasquez is bombs away from the three-point line and barely hitting enough to make that an acceptable game plan. His defense isn't dramatically improved from last season (when it drew night terrors out of Monty Williams), but Toronto still defends at a rate that's comparable to the league's second- or third-toughest unit when he's out there.

    And he's out now, but Patrick Patterson played extremely well beside Toronto's regular starters before he hurt his elbow.

1. An "Analytical" Approach to Offense

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    Two of the most attractive shots in basketball are three-pointers and free throws. Chances are you'll win the game if you take and make a bunch of each.

    Since trading Rudy Gay, the Toronto Raptors are in the top 10 for the percentage of their shots that come on threes and the percentage of their points that come from the free-throw line. DeMar DeRozan is at his very best running off a pin down screen and catching the ball with momentum toward the basket. 

    Terrence Ross is quietly shooting an impressive 40 percent from behind the three-point line on about five attempts per game. Kyle Lowry threatens defenses off the dribble but puts them to sleep as a catch-and-shoot marksman (45.4 percent from behind the three-point line), and Steve Novak is Steve Novak. 

    This offensive approach isn't the only way a team can find success, but it's certainly worked so far for Toronto.

    All statistics in this slideshow are from Basketball-Reference.com or media.NBA.com/stats (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.