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C.J. Miles is the missing piece the Raptors have always needed

The Raptors are on the verge of something special this season, and the recent form of C.J. Miles may prove to be a key element in their successful playoff run.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Offense and three-point shooting have become the undeniable blueprint for success in today’s NBA. The Golden State Warriors have confirmed the new paradigm: a three-point shooting team can win multiple league titles. While it used to be that “defense wins championships,” the NBA has now clearly morphed into a shooters’ league.

The Raptors experienced this firsthand last year, shooting a dismal 33 percent from deep throughout their short playoff run. This year could be very different however, with the addition of sharpshooter C.J. Miles, who has given the Raps a dimension they’ve been seeking for years.

Since Masai Ujiri’s arrival in May 2013, one of his priorities was finding three-point shooters. That year, he took a flyer on guard D.J. Augustin, who ended up having a very respectable shooting season. The problem was that he was absolutely terrible in his stint with the Raptors, shooting an abysmal 9 percent from three. After ten games, Toronto released him. The Bulls snapped him up, and he went on to shoot 41% from three on five attempts per game, ranking in the league’s top 25 long range bombers.

Next up was Steve Novak, obtained from the New York Knicks as part of the Andrea Bargnani offload. He shot 42 percent in 2013-2014 but his defense was so poor that he only played 10 minutes a game, attempting a measly 2.3 three-pointers per game.

In 2015, Ujiri thought he had his shooter when he signed free agent DeMarre Carroll, who was coming off a stellar campaign with Atlanta, averaging 39.5% shooting from the arc on 4.3 attempts per game. But Carroll was limited to only 26 games in 2015-2016 due to injury, and never found a groove. The next season he stayed healthy, playing 72 games, but was unable to consistently find his shooting stroke. He averaged 8.9 points per game and shot just over 30 percent from three. Last off-season, the Raps put an end to the DeMarre experiment when they traded him to the Nets. It cost them a first round pick and a future second to dump his pricey contract.

This offseason, Ujiri took a completely different approach. Instead of signing an expensive three-and-D wingman, he traded for an established three-point shooter in C.J. Miles. The 13-year veteran joined the Raptors after a solid season with Indiana, shooting 41.3 percent from downtown. That ranked 15th in the league in three-point field goal percentage. He was exactly the piece the Raps needed to add to their rotation.

Miles started the season slowly. In the first four months he averaged just 9.9 points off the bench, shooting 37 percent from three. This conversion rate wasn’t terrible due to his shot volume — he was taking over six three-pointers per game. Still it wasn’t a percentage that rivalled the league’s elite shooters.

Since February, the Raptors have been on an absolute tear, going 13-2 and taking command of the Eastern Conference. Their starters have had a huge hand in this surge, with leader DeMar DeRozan recently earning Conference Player of the Week honours for a second time this year.

The bench has also been central to the Raptors’ run, and is now widely considered as one of the best second units in the league. Miles has played a central role in this success. During the 15 game stretch, he’s averaged 11.6 points per game while shooting a team high 42.6 percent from beyond the arc. He’s had three 20-plus point outings, two of which occurred against top eastern teams in the Celtics and the Wizards. In these three games, Miles caught fire from deep, hitting 17-of-25 shots (68%) from downtown. He has shown that he can explode off the bench on any given night. That’s a weapon the Raps haven’t had since Sweet Lou Williams wore the red and black back in 2015.

And it could well be the missing ingredient for a long playoff run in 2018.

A testament to C.J.’s confidence is the fact that during March, he’s increased his three-point attempts per game by almost two full shots, from 6.7 to 8.5. Usually such an increase results in a drop in shooting percentage, but that hasn’t happened to Miles, who is still converting at a 41 percent clip.

With just under 20 games to play this season, the Raptors are on the verge of history. They are on pace for 60 wins, which will almost certainly assure their first Eastern Conference banner in franchise history.

But the real challenge will be in April come playoff time. The East is stronger than it has been in years with a wealth of budding superstars like the Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Victor Oladipo. And no one should neglect LeBron James, who is on a quest for an eighth straight Finals appearance as part of his rejuvenated Cavs team.

Miles’ recent performances have demonstrated just how well-rounded and flexible Dwane Casey’s squad is. As the playoffs loom, the rotation will no doubt shrink, but C.J.’s minutes will remain and his importance will only increase. His ability to provide a constant outside threat, and his habit of going off in key games, will provide the Raps with one more weapon in their hunt for an NBA championship.