For the last few seasons, the Raptors haven’t experienced playoff success despite finishing with 48+ wins every year since the 2013-14 season. Yet, despite the regular season success, the Raptors in the last four seasons have two first-round exits, one quarterfinal loss (4-0), and one ECF loss (4-2), both to the Cavaliers. While making an appearance in a conference finals isn’t something that should be overlooked, the Eastern Conference has been very inferior to the Western Conference, and the Raptors have looked lost against the Cavs (except for game 3 +4 of 2015-16 series).
After losing to the Cavs 4-2 in the 2015-16 playoffs, the Raptors needed to make changes to better compete with the Cavs. On February 14th of 2017, the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka from the Magic to help the Raptor’s frontcourt. Ibaka averaged 14 points a game and helped the Raptors frontcourt, but the Cavs steamrolled them 4-0 in the 2016-17 playoffs.
Once again, the Raptors needed to improve. While the Raptors greatly improved their bench with the acquisations of OG Anunoby (draft) and CJ Miles (trade). Development of second year players Jokob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam have strongly enhanced their frontcourt depth.
But, an improved bench will only take a team so far. Once the playoffs comes rolling around, teams shorten their rotation, and teams that generate success are led by stars.
This season, the Raptors have started off 25-10 and are on pace for 58 wins. While the improved bench has assisted Toronto, the enhancement of Demar Derozan might help the Raptors carry their regular season success into the playoffs.
Coming into the season, Derozan was a three-time all-star who was a season removed from a career year, averaging 27.3 points per game. But, one big flaw for Derozan has always been the lack of a three-point shot. In a game that is built around the three-pointer, Derozan failed to modernize his game, as he shot 26.6% from three and averaged 1.7 three’s attempted per game.
But this season, Derozan has added a three-point shot to his arsenal, which has elevated not only his play, but his team’s play. Adding a perimeter game has forced defenders to play tighter on Derozan, allowing him to use his stellar dribbling and finishing ability more effectively.
This season, Derozan is shooting 35% from three and is averaging 3 three’s a game. The addition has increased his field goal percentage by 2 % (now 48.5%). Derozan is averaging a career-high 5 assists per game and is taking three less shots a game.
Derozan celebrated the new year with a 52-point outburst against the Bucks, as he led the team to a comeback win while shattering a franchise record for points in a game. In the win, Derozan shot 59% including 5 three’s (1 shy of a career high). And not only did Derozan score 52, he added 8 assists, showing his improved vision. Derozan’s improvement has led to fellow star Kyle Lowry to play less minutes and contribute less wins (win shares). Lowry has been injury riddled throughout his career, so the opportunity to take a backseat until the playoffs should allow Lowry to be fresher come playoff time.
While the Cavaliers are still the team to beat and the Celtics are on the rise, the Raptors should put up more of a fight in the playoffs. If the Cavaliers can’t catch up to the Celtics, the Raptors might run into the Cavaliers in the second round for the second straight year.