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Numbers Game: More good times coming?

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Things are actually going really well. So let’s think on them some more.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked at some positive things around the Raptors in spite of Kyle Lowry’s injury and some ugly losses. Well, a week later, we have one more ugly loss, and still plenty of positive stuff going on. Let’s just dive right in.

Look at that Defense

That’s the name of the game with a key player like Kyle Lowry out of the lineup. And they’ve been performing very well on that end of late, as the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker keep paying off.

Last week we noted that the team had improved the defense after the break, with their DRTG* since Lowry went down sitting at 102.8 (a very good mark, putting them 7th in the league in the unofficial second half of the season). The good times keep on rolling, with that mark now down to 101.7, 3rd in the league in that span. The past three games have seen the Raptors post an average DRTG of 98.3, and those games include the disaster against the Thunder, so the past two games have been incredible to make up for it (87.5 DRTG). All signs point in the right direction on this end.

And as much as the team has improved of late (and they have) — this is no short term trend. The team has looked much better defensively for months now. Prior to December 1st, the team had a 106.0 DRTG (the league average was 104 at the time). Since December 1st, the team has a 104.9 DRTG, seemingly a small improvement. But the league as a whole has been scoring far better of late than early on (average DRTG of 106.8 since then), so relative to the league, they have made a huge leap in defensive efficiency, from 2 points above average to 2 points below, and their rankings of 22nd prior to December, and 4th since then reinforce that idea.

*DRTG: defensive rating, an efficiency measure. Points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.

Regard the Shooters

Along the same vein, the team has struggled on offense since the break, and that has continued over the past week, with the team struggling to score in the Thunder and Pistons games. But there have been some glimmers of hope.

One of the big issues for the team offensively, besides missing their best player, has been the role players’ inability to hit shots. As of last week, these were the shooting numbers for the Raptors’ long range threats:

Player | 3PT%*
Patrick Patterson | 37%
Norman Powell | 30%
Cory Joseph | 27%
P.J. Tucker | 21%
DeMarre Carroll | 18%

*3PT%: percentage of made field goals attempted from three point range.

Patterson’s 37% from 3 is pretty solid. Every other player there has an unacceptable 3PT% since the break. Or, had, anyway. Over the past three games (small sample here, but we’re just describing what happened):

Player | 3PT%
Patrick Patterson | 44%
Norman Powell | 19%
Cory Joseph | 43%
P.J. Tucker | 40%
DeMarre Carroll | 46%

Powell has struggled of late, but as a whole, that shooting from the role players has dramatically improved over the past few games. If that keeps up, expect the team to see an uptick in scoring (with the Indiana game, where the team shot 44% from three and posted 116 points on the night as a good example).

But Gosh, They Miss Lowry

This is the part where I could go on about how the team really does miss Lowry. Instead, I’m going to focus on how much they missed other players when they struggled. Because, they really have not struggled since the break.

After the All-Star break, without Lowry, the team is posting a +3.3 net rating*, good for 8th in the league in that time, and second in the East behind the Heat. Before the break, they had posted a +4.9 net rating, good for 5th in the league. Not much of a step back without their best player.

But if you look at only the most recent play of the team, you’ll note that they didn’t exactly hit the break running. Between January 1st and the break, the team actually posted a negative net rating (-0.3), and played like a .500 team (while posting a sub-.500 record of 11-14). Some will call it a slump, but consider the following pieces of information.

Best on-court ORTG* on the team: Patrick Patterson
Highest usage on the team: DeMar DeRozan

Number of games played by Patterson in that stretch: 9/25
Number of games played by DeRozan in that stretch: 18/25
Number of games played by both players in that stretch: 3/25

Team ORTG in that stretch: 107.6 (15th)
Team ORTG prior to that stretch: 113.8 (1st)

*ORTG: offensive rating, an efficiency measure. Points scored per 100 offensive possessions.
*Net rating: difference between ORTG and DRTG, a pace adjusted point differential.

Many like to peg that stretch as regression, that the elite offense was never sustainable. I don’t think that can be concluded, considering the above information about the missed games from perhaps the team’s most important offensive role player and most heavily relied upon offensive weapon.

Now consider that the team has 22 different three-man combinations that have gotten over 350 minutes played. Of those 22 units, by far the best is Patrick Patterson, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, with an on-court net rating of +26 in 414 minutes played. The team has 27 two-man combinations that have gotten over 500 minutes played. Of those 27 units, Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry have by far the best on-court net rating (+19) in 846 minutes.

Patterson and Lowry have played together in only 9 games of a possible 38 since January 1st.

Patterson, Lowry and DeRozan have played together a total of 3 games and 50 minutes since January 1st.

The team has been without by far their most prolific combinations of players and still, since January 1st, they have posted a positive net rating and rank in the top 10 in DRTG.

The good news? Assuming Lowry comes back healthy, they will have all three players back in the fold for essentially the first time this calendar year. And if they can recreate the magic (read: player combinations) that led the team to the best ORTG in the league before that point, and combine it with the third best defense in the league since the break, they just might be able to do some real damage in the playoffs.

All stats per NBA.com.