It's been a magical year for the franchise, but not a perfect one. The journey to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference has had its share of speed bumps, with growing pains and inconsistent play sprinkled throughout.
I'm not trying to put a damper on things. A record of 45-32 with five games to go isn't something to turn your nose up at. Winning the first Atlantic Division title since 2007 would be the icing on the cake of an incredible one-year turnaround.
As good as Toronto has been, the team could find itself on the outs quickly if the players are unprepared. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of Dwane Casey and his coaching staff.
If the Raptors have any hope of being more than just first-round fodder, Casey will need to focus his attention on the following three areas to maximize their chances for postseason glory.
Lack of a Killer Instinct
When you have your opponent on the ropes, you don't offer them a hand and help them get back on their feet. You put your foot down and finish them off for good.
Whether it's coming out of the gates slowly to lesser opposition or failing to hold on to big leads, the Raptors don't have that quality that enables them to go in for the kill.
A prime example of this came in a road game against the 14-63 (worst in NBA) Milwaukee Bucks on April 5.
The Bucks shot 58 percent from the field and scored 56 points in the first half. Toronto eventually came away with a narrow 102-98 victory, but earning a win at the BMO Harris Bradley Center was a lot harder than it needed to be.
Casey was not impressed with his team's performance, per Joe DiGiovanni of the Associated Press via Yahoo! Sports: "We let them shoot 58 percent in the first half and I can't accept that. The first half, we were playing in mud. Standing up straight and it wasn't just the starters. Everybody who was in there."
Casey spoke about the need for better starts and focus, per the Toronto Sun's Frank Zicarelli: "We’ve got to learn. A lot of guys have not been in this position where you are being hunted and it’s a different feeling and approach. "It starts with our starters. They’ve got to come out and set the tone and everybody else will follow."
In fairness, both Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson were on the sidelines with injuries on the second night of a back-to-back. However, without two of their key players, the Raptors managed to defeat Paul George and the Indiana Pacers 102-94 on April 4, so it's not as if they couldn't get the job done sans two of their starters.
Some of the blame can be attributed to the weak bench. According to hoopsstats.com, the second unit is averaging 26.0 points, which is 27th in the NBA. That forces starters like DeMar DeRozan (38.4) and Kyle Lowry (36.3) to play more minutes, resulting in greater fatigue.
TeamRankings.com notes that Toronto averages 25.4 points in the first quarter of games (15th in NBA), with that number falling to 24.4 (20th in NBA) in the second. That drop in production can be explained by Casey starting second quarters with a unit consisting of just one or two starters.
You don't want to have to play catch-up in the playoffs. Teams like the Bucks and Orlando Magic aren't waiting on the other side.
The Raptors may have been able to get away with lackadaisical outings against the NBA's bottom-feeders, but that's not going to cut it when the best of the best start duking it out for a chance at the championship.
Protect the Paint
Jeff Adrien, Khris Middleton and John Henson made mincemeat of Toronto's defense during the aforementioned Bucks game, helping Milwaukee score 36 points in the paint in the opening 24 minutes.
By the end of the night, they had combined for 62 of the the Bucks' 98 points, nailing leaners, floaters and highlight-reel jams.
No excuses. The trio is averaging 33.5 points. Against the Raptors, they played like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish down low. It was embarrassing.
Toronto doesn't have a true rim protector on the roster. The starting frontcourt of Johnson and sophomore Jonas Valanciunas average 2.1 blocks between them. The team itself averages 4.2, which is tied for 22nd.
When you don't have an imposing big man who you can stick under the basket to consistently alter shots, all that says to the other team is that they should look to attack as much as possible. Valanciunas has gotten better on defense, but he's still not reliable enough to be a true defensive stopper.
Because of his recent DUI chargers (per CBC Sports), the 21-year-old Lithuanian may even be forced to sit out some playoff games as punishment, forcing Casey to play more small ball.
Over the last three games, Toronto is giving up 49.3 points in the paint, which is 6.7 points higher than what the team has been allowing (42.6) all year (per TeamRankings.com).
In the postseason, the style of play slows down as teams run more of a halfcourt offense. In man-to-man situations after the ball goes into the post, the Raptors will need to consider sending an extra guy for more double-teams.
Proper Delegation of Minutes
The NBA playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint.
As I touched on earlier, Casey loves to draw out the playing time of his starters because of the constant question marks surrounding his bench. DeRozan and Lowry are second and 11th in the NBA, respectfully, in minutes played, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Lowry has missed the past few games with an injured knee, although he's expected to be back for the opening around. Casey knows of Lowry's passion for basketball and his willingness to play through pain, per Eric Koreen of The National Post: "If it’s up to him, he would go on one leg."
That's the warrior Lowry is, although his desire to help the team win games is both a gift and a curse. You can even call him stubborn as he pushes his body to the limit night in and night out until someone or something forces him away.
He should be 100 percent by then, although I'm sure we'll be seeing a hefty load of Greivis Vasquez so that Lowry never runs on fumes.
What about DeRozan? As the leading scorer and lone All-Star, the playoffs could be his coming-out party to the rest of the league. People took notice during All-Star weekend, but it's the postseason where he'll be able to leave a mark.
The rotation is going to tighten up significantly, so DeRozan's 38.4 minutes may continue to hover around that mark as Casey eliminates certain players from the equation. His health hasn't been an issue, so he should receive the go-ahead.
Steve Novak and Nando de Colo, who have really come on as of late on both ends of the floor, will/should only be used under the rarest of circumstances. Tyler Hansbrough has playoff experience as a former Indiana Pacer, so he'll bring value.
Johnson's knee and ankle may not fully recover until the offseason, so his minutes should be monitored. Casey can't wear out his top guys—especially if they're not at 100 percent.
*All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 8, 2014*
Follow Featured Columnist Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports
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