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The Raptors are still a work-in-progress at escaping defensive traps

Detroit sprung some bizarre-looking traps on the Raptors on Wednesday. It should be a good learning experience.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Opposing defenses used to treat the Raptors like a meandering bear in the woods. They’d spring traps, clamp down on Toronto’s very identity, and the results were inhumane.

Milwaukee’s long-armed blitzes nearly sent the Raptors spiraling towards a rebuild. Cleveland’s brought the 2017-18 season to an unceremonious end. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry weren’t totally to blame — at times they’d break through doubles only for DeMarre Carroll to botch a drive or for Patrick Patterson to aggressively pass up an open three — but it’s not as if they were turnover or dumb shot-proof when facing extra attention.

For this season to be any different for Toronto, a more deft approach to wriggling out of traps was going to be essential. And for the most part, Toronto’s stars have successfully amped up their elusiveness.

DeRozan’s dishing dimes at a higher rate than ever before, and the team’s offense has emerged from ball movement hell into the top third-ish of the league in assists, secondary assists and three-point shooting. Against lax and uninspired regular season defenses, Toronto’s offense has coasted along, new and improved. In the few instances in which opponents have tried to hearken back to the good old days of trapping the Raptors into submission, DeRozan and friends have responded admirably. Their 3-0 record in games against the aggressive likes of Milwaukee and Cleveland this month is a marker of the Raptors’ growth.

Detroit’s eighth-ranked defense wasn’t quite as easy to elude as Jason Kidd’s idiotic scheme or the Cavs’ collection of wrinkled olds. During their 96-91 win over the Pistons on Wednesday, the Raptors’ new offense was confronted with a wonky brand of traps that seemed to puzzle its ball-handlers. The result was a much clunkier offense during stretches of the final three quarters, and a Sixers-esque 20 turnovers.

“They were doing something a little bit different defensively,” said Dwane Casey after the game. “That kind of threw our rhythm off a little bit with their traps, but again, hats off to them because they really got after us and we made things hard for ourselves.”

Asked to elaborate on where the curveball in Detroit’s scheme was coming from:

“It’s different ... I don’t wanna get technical but it’s different,” said Casey. “They were jumping out on one guy, and then hanging another guy and then coming back with timing. They were taking the roll guy out and you had the find the weak side.”

Oral descriptions of highly visual movements are highly riveting and informative, as you know. Combing through footage of the game, this seems like the most clear example of what Casey’s describing. Dwane, if you’re reading this (lol) an I’m woefully misinformed, I’m sorry.

There you see Ish Smith flash away from his man Lowry to act as a deterrent (albeit a little tiny one) against a pass toward the rolling Jonas Valanciunas. Andre Drummond is free to hang up high, DeRozan’s outlet isn’t quite as apparent as it would normally be, and the result is one of DeMar’s five turnovers on the night. It’s the kind of subtle defensive wrinkle that DeRozan and the Raptors could probably crack over the course of series, but in a one-off regular season match-up, it’s an offbeat pain in the ass.

“They funked the game up tonight,” said Delon Wright. “They did a great job of trapping us, not letting us play very comfortable ... They had a great game plan on us and kind of caught us off guard.”

Normally an offensive steam train, Toronto’s win on Wednesday was built on grime and a crummy, bottom-10 Pistons attack that couldn’t make good on the Raptors’ many hiccups. More important for the long game than Toronto’s 30th win, though, were the instances in which the Raptors successfully carved through Detroit’s in-your-face front. Seeding will be important come April, but significantly less so than Toronto’s ability to diagnose and treat the traps that were so cancerous to the last few post-season editions of the team.

This deconstruction of the Pistons’ D is a chef’s hand kiss in shrewdly screen-grabbed video form:

And here’s yet another example of DeRozan’s metamorphosis from so-so to bitchin’ passer:

DeRozan doesn’t make that pass as little as nine months ago. More than halfway into the season, DeRozan’s improved play making is more than an aberration. If there’s a single reason to believe the Raptors’ offensive success can be sustained come playoff time, it is DeMar’s court vision and decision-making.

C.J. Miles and his liberal three-jacking philosophy certainly helps too. Against Detroit, Miles played a season-high 26 minutes, and in the process of scoring 21 points, illustrated why that total should be closer to his nightly norm than the 18.6 minutes he’s currently averaging. Earlier I referenced the Raptors’ secondary scrubs of last season — as an accurate, quick-trigger shooter, Miles is the Raptors’ best hope to wash away the dark memories Patterson and Carroll’s playoff’s under-performances. Toronto’s young dudes are all joyous and great, but they’re not the dependable release valve Miles is. Opposing teams are going to have to guard in him with an attentiveness they won’t have to pay to say, Siakam.

Siakam or Wright taking 12 threes in a post-season game will be opponent-designed; Miles doing so will make Casey smile.

“He really spaces the floor, he allows you, if teams are double teaming, to pick them apart and we took advantage of that a few times.” said Casey of Miles’ 5-of-12 night from outside on Wednesday.

“He was gettin’ em up today,” said Wright. “He’s one of the best shooters in the NBA. Whenever he gets a look at the rim everyone on the team is encouraging him to take that shot.”

A glance at the jumbled East playoff race makes it easy to envision a 2-7 or 1-8 Raptors-Pistons match-up in round one. First round playoff series are an ordeal for this fan base, and the happenings throughout Wednesday’s game illicited all sorts of Pistons fear-mongering from weary Raptors Twitter folks.

One uneven performance shouldn’t be enough to dissuade anyone from believing in the positive strides the Raptors have made this year. When trapped this season, DeRozan’s made like a cloud of steam escaping an Erlenmeyer flask, if a cloud of steam also happened to be really good at tossing dope passes.

Those passes are finding the waiting arms of guys who inspire actual, earnest confidence — a quality that the Raptors clearly possess when it comes to their abilities to adapt and learn. A drawn out series against an outside-the-box defense like the one Detroit deployed Wednesday doesn’t seem all that worrisome.

“It was the first time playing them this year, and they did a good job,” Wright said. “I think the next time playing them we’ll be able to dissect it.”