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On top of the league, the Raptors makeover is working

In reflecting on the Raptors’ changes since last season, it’s hard not to remember how far Toronto has come since their disaster last May.

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 58-24 regular season overview, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The expectations for Raptors fans are higher than ever before. A hot 21-6 start will do that. But this time it’s different. There’s a genuine championship feeling — or at least a strong contender vibe — that is running through the city. After all those years of being hopeless, sub-par, or Cleveland’s whipping boys, the Raptors have found some happiness and the sweet spot they’ve been searching for all this time. We’re 27 games into the season, but early indications say this team has come a long way since the clean sweep last May.

We all remember that LeBron James shot. That buzzer beater in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals that ripped out the hearts of Raptors fans. I was there. I remember the 15-point half-time deficit. I remember thinking should I stay or should I go. I remember the gritty comeback: the 38-26 final quarter. I remember the OG Anunoby corner three that tied the game. I remember LeBron’s run and dribble with 5.7 seconds remaining and the clutch bank shot that made Quicken Loans Arena shake. I remember the city of Cleveland lighting it up that night on East Fourth Street, littered with number 23 jerseys, which only reminded me that the Raptors needed more than just a strong bench to become a title contender.

Last weekend I drove down the I-90 back to Cleveland, back to the house that holds such bad memories. Toronto took the game in ugly fashion 106-95. It wasn’t a memorable game. The pace was often slow. Both teams could barely hit a bucket. And the Raptors’ turnovers and missed shots helped the now 5-20 Cavs stay in the hunt for most of the game. As much as the Raptors have changed, so too have the Cavs. Cleveland no longer has the King. Kevin Love is injured yet again. And their roster resembles a mix of youth potential, castaways and veterans. Even though the win was expected, the Raptors showed signs they have evolved — and not just during the Cavs game, but since the season has started.

For now the Raptors look like they have all the trimmings to be contenders. This year they have the third best offensive rating in the league, with the second best field goal percentage (behind the Warriors) — despite, yes, the recent shooting woes. The Raptors have tightened up on defense too, with a top ten rating. Of course, they have their weaknesses too — their three-point shooting is 23rd most accurate in the NBA, their rebounding numbers could use some work — but Toronto has the tools to compete. Even with a lot of ball left, and with the knowledge of how one injury could shift the scales, we know where the Raptors could be heading.

The Raptors also continue to be a fun team to watch, a squad where any player can potentially produce a highlight on any given night. Most of this year has been about the heroics of Kawhi Leonard, but it’s also been about spreading the scoring around. And when teams start sharing the ball more, have multiple scorers, they become harder to shut down because, who do you stop? The Raptors are becoming that kind of team.

It hasn’t taken coach Nick Nurse long to make his impression on the NBA. The first-year head coach was awarded Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for October and November that came with an NBA best 19-4 record. That record included key wins over Boston, Philly and the Warriors.

“I feel like I’ve been given a Lamborghini to drive and I’m just trying to not drive it like a 1973 Dodge Monaco or something like that,” Nurse said. “I’m just trying to drive it like a Lamborghini.”

This season Nurse has continued on from Dwane Casey’s team-first culture. This week on Inside the Green Room with Danny Green, the 51-year old cited the Nuggets 3-point loss as a game where he had to stand up for the players after a ref call went south. “I believe I’m a competitive dude and I’m going to fight for the players as much as I can,” Nurse said. “Even on a Monday night against whoever in the middle of December.”

On Friday Nurse offered praise to long-time starting centre Jonas Valanciunas and how he’s handled his new, more limited, bench role. As the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith wrote, Nurse wants guys who are good people, good humans, good teammates. He wants guys that are focused on the collective. “[Jonas is] a guy who cares a lot about our team winning and his impact on that,” Nurse said. The team-first approach seems to be giving Raptors players a sense of contribution and accomplishment no matter how big or small their roles have become. And at 21-6, it’s working.

The Raptors have geared up since the Cavs sweep last May, but they’re also a few tough luck situations away from unraveling. A lot hinges on whether or not the Raptors can sustain their good play, their stingy defense, and quick transitions for 48 minutes per game, all season long. Of course there will be flat periods and losing streaks but it’s how they dig themselves out that will help define them in 2018-19. Bearing scars and being battle-worn makes for good playoff preparation.

The biggest question is whether Kawhi can play the year out without injury or incident. His recent numbers indicate he’s trending up. In his last five games Kawhi has scored 166 points at 33.2 per game, including 17 threes. He’s also played eight games in a row, the longest stretch so far this year. These are good signs for the Raptors. Every team needs their blue chip players fit, healthy, and producing to be able to compete at an elite level. If Kawhi’s recent production is any sign of what’s to come, there’s no ceiling for the Raptors.

Who knows what will happen beyond this year for this Raptors roster. The franchise is happy living in the now with a strong starting five and the continued development of OG, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Pascal Siakam, this year’s breakout player. There’s a lot to like here. The collective seems harmonious, even with all the emotional acrimony behind the DeMar DeRozan trade. Kawhi is fiting in, the young guys are trying, the JV-Serge Ibaka experiment is working. The Raptors chase deficits down. And if Nurse continues to innovate it’ll keep opposition teams guessing, and that’s a good thing too.

Few predicted the Raptors to be the top team in the NBA after 27 games. The season looked unpredictable in September, but since then we’ve seen signs of where this team can go. Unlike last May, right after that brutal moment in Game 3 in Cleveland, this Raptors squad could seriously challenge for a title this year. All that’s left to do is bring it to fruition.