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Toronto’s Game 1 win displayed the difference a year makes

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For the first time in a few years, the Raptors don’t need to change their identity on the fly to survive in the post-season.

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

Dwane Casey told on himself in the moments after Toronto’s Game 1 loss to the Milwaukee last year.

Over the course of a six-minute grilling after the spritely Bucks flambeed the Raptors 97-83 — a game in which the Raptors registered just 15 assists, made only five threes on a dinky 23 attempts, and had just two double-digit scorers — Casey said the quiet part loud, subconsciously laying out all the reasons why the old Raptors were never going to work in the playoffs.

“We’re gonna go the way Kyle (Lowry) goes,” said Casey of Lowry’s four-point outing on 2-of-11 shooting. “He’s our guy, he’s our All-Star, he makes a lot of decisions for us. He’s gotta continue to be aggressive, make or miss, he takes 15 shots, misses 15 shots, he still gotta take ‘em. A lot of our stuff revolves around him being aggressive.”

“I thought DeMar (DeRozan) played with force in the first half,” Casey said of his team’s 1B, “we gotta carry that over in the second half. Our other shooters, they have open shots, they gotta take ‘em.”

“We gotta make sure we have movement to find the opening and not stand and watch Kyle and DeMar play,” the coach added.

“Bad offense carried over into our defense and took our energy even more,” he chimed.

“There were assist opportunities there,” Casey said of the pass-averse offense. “The roller was open, the swing pass, the next pass, at the end of the day those next guys have to make a play, make a shot. I don’t know if you’re gonna change your playing personality at this time of year.”

“We’re not gonna change who we are.”

Casey was right about that last part. While Lowry’s second-round injury helped the Raptors somewhat save face at the end of their sweep against the Cavs, the contradictions in Casey’s spiel three weeks prior laid all of the limitations of the old Raptors bare.

Lowry and DeRozan were the Sun to the rest of the offense’s Mercury. For four seasons, Toronto’s coaching staff green-lit them to dictate the attack, only for them to be coerced into ceding control by the limbs of trapping playoff opponents.

Remember this line? “We gotta make sure we have movement to find the opening and not stand and watch Kyle and DeMar play.”

Without regular season reps in finding said movement and openings, it’s no shocker that Toronto’s secondary options were liable to wet themselves when called into action against opponents armed with the knowledge that the Raptors’ “go the way [INSERT STAR GUARD HERE] goes.”

Practice makes buckets, and Toronto’s supporting cast never had enough of it.

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Fast forward a year and a Culture Reset™ later, and those concerns have faded as the roster has become empowered. Returning for a fifth kick at the can, Toronto’s never had a regular season formula more worthy of playoff replication than the one it employs now. Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that after a Game 1 victory, a breakthrough finally appears nigh for Casey’s team.

Saturday’s 114-106 busting of the Raptors’ Will-Ferrell-in-Old School ass streak of getting exposed in Game 1’s unfolded the way most of Toronto’s 2017-18 regular season games did. Considering the East’s no. 1 seed finished with 59 wins and a +7.6 NET Rating this year, that’s exactly what the Raptors should have hoped for.

After this playoff opener, there were no pleas for players to adopt a style they’ve yet to meet the acquaintance of. Toronto didn’t have to go as Lowry and DeRozan did; that old-guard approach was beaten out of the Raptors’ fabric this year by designed egalitarianism. Casey didn’t utter the phrase “we’re not going to change who we are,” post-game, but if he did, it would’ve been because for once, there’s no reason to.

Instead, Casey and his players waxed about how it was their season-long process that made Saturday’s 116.6 Offensive Rating, 16 made threes and 63.4 Assist Percentage possible.

“You know, in the past everybody always gets on those guys for being double teamed and trapped in the bog, and again, guys have to make plays when they give it up,” said Casey of DeRozan and Lowry’s 15 combined assists. “Other guys gotta make plays around them. Tonight guys did.”

“Again it kind of goes with the theme that we’ve tried to develop the entire year of ball movement, man movement, and it’s not just two guys outscoring the opponent. It’s the Toronto Raptors outscoring the other team.”

DeRozan, who shot 7-of-21 with one measly assist against the Bucks in last year’s playoff opener, spoke of the comfort he feels within Toronto’s new fun-for-everyone offense.

“It’s great. We’ve got the utmost confidence in our teammates,” said DeRozan at the podium after a mostly deferential 17-point, six-assist effort. “The way we’ve been playing all year, the style of play we’ve been playing is having trust in our teammates to make the next play.”

“We invite the traps on us, honestly.”

Nine months ago, on his way out of Toronto, DeMarre Carroll remarked on the disconnect between the Raptors’ All-Stars and their teammates. On Saturday, Carroll’s de facto replacement C.J. Miles highlighted just how quickly and drastically things done changed.

“They believe in us, which is another reason why we’ve been able to make plays and grow as a unit all year,” Miles said.

In practice, that belief looks like this.

Comb through last year’s post-season film and find one possession with the verve of the one leading to Wright’s daggerous late-game three, I dare you. Were this the 2015 series against the Wizards, DeRozan almost certainly puts up a contested jumper over Marcin Gortat with 16 on the clock. Last season, Kyle Lowry takes that three with a closing hand in his face, or puts up a tricky floater on the drive. If it’s Cory Joseph or Patrick Patterson standing on the wing, they probably remain an ignored flicker in Lowry’s periphery.

Deciphering where to lay blame for Toronto’s inept playoff offense was always a bit of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. DeRozan and Lowry clearly weren’t thrilled to defer after hogging the controller all season long — but Patterson’s travels on wide-open three point looks and Carroll’s bricky off-the-bounce game kind of justified that reticence. Whether Patterson, Carroll, Joseph and friends had the chops to keep the offense rolling when asked is up for debate. But they didn’t even get a chance to audition.

Miles, Serge Ibaka and Delon Wright formed a sturdy bridge between stars and support in Game 1. Their 10 combined threes were just five fewer than Carroll and Patterson contributed during the entirety of Toronto’s 10-game run last spring.

The difference between this year and previous ones is that role player outbursts aren’t sporadic. Saturday it was Miles, Ibaka and Wright who did damage — in Game 2 it might be Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. Grooming a 12-deep roster for six months has left Casey with two arms overflowing with dependable options. Jakob Poeltl uncharacteristically struggled to keep the ball away from Washington’s swiping reach in 4-on-3 scenarios in Game 1. Enter Lucas Nogueira, now the owner of the most important 1-1-1 line in Raptors history.

“Lucas is an excellent passer. He’s smart. His IQ is off the charts and just his awareness, I like that when they were double teaming Kyle and DeMar and getting the ball out of their hands, he can make plays ... he’s been doing the same thing all year, nothing new.”

There’s that running theme from Game 1’s post-game reaction again: nothing new, they’ve been doing this all year. For the first time in the Casey/DeRozan/Lowry era, the Raptors aren’t looking to change the manuscript after the book is due for publish. For 82 games Toronto’s been rehearsing and fine-tuning in the interest of playoff sharpness. Early returns suggest that, finally, Toronto’s regular season success won’t get lost in the playoff transition.

“We just gotta go out and do what we do,” said Casey, “I think 82 games is a good sample size of who we are.”