The Raptors are mystifying the league once again. The Warriors? People understand their greatness easily. Stock a team with three or four of the best, most skilled, most versatile players in the league and let them run amok. The Cavaliers? Put LeBron James on a squad with some smart players and capable shooters and watch the fireworks.
But this Toronto team, a team that now owns the second best offense in the league, running neck-and-neck with those same supernova Warriors, how are they doing it? They’ve got two tremendous talents — Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — and then, hmmm, a lot of moving parts. Look on as John Schuhmann literally shrugs his online shoulders in confusion:
%FGA from RA+3PT— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) December 12, 2016
GSW: 68% (5th)
TOR: 58% (25th)
GSW: 72% (1st)
TOR: 50% (29th)
As our friend Will Lou rightly points out, the Raptors get to the free throw line a lot, and rarely turn the ball over. We’ve seen this offense run into trouble in the post-season, which is cause for concern, but it has proven to be an effective way to grind out wins. (And occasionally, as we’ve seen lately, blow teams out in delightful fashion.)
So yes, on paper the Raptors are perhaps a bit of a mystery (Jonas Valanciunas is up and down, the team relies on a rookie starting power forward, DeMarre Carroll can’t play in back-to-backs, Jared Sullinger hasn’t played one second this season): but they’re good in reality.
To the rankings!
First up, DJ Marc Stein of ESPN drops the beat on our favourite team:
4. Toronto Raptors
2016-17 record: 16-7
Did we doom the Raptors to a third loss already this season to Cleveland by bumping them up to No. 2 last week? Blame us if you wish, Torontonians, but the Raps' strong play at both ends during their recent six-game winning streak -- as well as the shock to the system of a three-game Cavs skid -- gave us all the justification we needed. Don't forget that the Raps have won eight of nine to help the locals get through their MLS Cup finals disappointment and are tied with the Warriors for the league lead in offensive efficiency despite playing at a much slower pace. Which ain't easy to do, folks.
Leave it to Steiny Mo to drop a TFC reference in there. It’s cold as hell over here, the snow has dropped, the transit system was on the fritz, and you gotta bring this up? Not cool, man.
Moving on, we get to Mr. Woo of SI who goes short on the Raptors this week and, well, makes a controversial statement:
3. Toronto Raptors (16–7)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +9.8
They lost to the Cavs by four, but have still won a convincing eight of nine. On a non-basketball note, I kind of wish they’d wear those blue Huskies throwbacks every night.
Jeremy, rethink that last part.
Keeping emotion out of it as always, here’s Dr. John Schuhmann of NBA.com, and of the aforementioned Twitter shrug, with some thoughts on the Raptors this week:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 3)
Pace: 97.3 (23) OffRtg: 114.2 (2) DefRtg: 104.4 (15) NetRtg: +9.8 (3)
The Raptors played another close game against the Cavs, but have now lost five straight (going back to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals) to the champs, who they don't play again until the last night of the season. Their mediocre starting lineup was a minus-17 in that game, one of three that they trailed by double-digits last week. But they're 16-3 against teams that weren't in The Finals six months ago after comeback wins over the Wolves and Celtics. The two teams essentially tied for the best OffRtg in the league are the team - Golden State - with the highest assist percentage in 13 years and the team - Toronto - with the seventh lowest assist rate in the same span. There's more than one way to score efficiently.
There is no way you’ll convince me that Schuhmann didn’t want to end this blurb with one of Dwane Casey’s preferred aphorisms. You can practically see the words "skin a cat" burned into the screen before Dr. John pulled up and went with "score efficiently." The cat is safe (for now).
Let it not be said that Matt Moore of CBS Sports, he of many strong takes and fact-based analysis, is not considerate here:
5. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 5)
They've won eight of nine, and their only loss was to the Cavaliers. They are firmly behind the elites, but they are also firmly ahead of the tier behind them. November was DeMar DeRozan's world to shine in, December has been Kyle Lowry's. If you have two All-Stars and play as sound as this team does, you're going to win a lot of games.
Though, hey, the Raptors beat Moore’s number one ranked team the Rockets — in Houston! So really, we’re number one! We’re number one! We’re number one!
Let’s carry the enthusiasm on into the poll.