By Rob Ficiur
As playoff fever spreads across the land, Toronto fans have an unexpected strain of the fever. On March 13 the Maple Leafs went into LA, and defeated the Kings who were on an eight game losing streak. The Leafs were solidly into a playoff spot. Sportsclubsstats.com calculated on that day that Toronto had an 89.6% chance of making the playoffs. The seven game losing streak that followed put the Leafs in a hole they never recovered from. For the eighth time in the last nine years the Toronto Maple Leafs missed the playoffs.
Newly hired Team President Brendan Shanahan has the responsibility of figuring out what when wrong and how to fix it. A good start would be to note that the 2014 Maple Leafs set an all-time record by allowing an average of 35.6 shots against per game.
Even more surprising than the Maple Leafs sudden collapse has been the Toronto Raptors turn around. On December 8, the Toronto Raptors were 7-12; their .368 winning percentage had them well on their way to a sixth straight non-playoff year. Experts felt the team was tanking the season (hoping for a high draft pick) when they traded their top scorer Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings.
Since the Sacramento trade, the Raptors had a record of 41-22. Their .658 winning percentage since the trade would have ranked them about sixth in the league. I can’t remember a team trading their top player and then doubling their winning percentage to make the playoffs.
In their twenty year history the Raptors have made the playoffs five times; winning one series. What changed to turn around their season?
1. Raptors learned to play like a team. Before the trade, the team had only three games where they had 20 or more assists. After the trade the Raptors had twenty or more assists in 41 of 51 games. Another way to look at it is that before the trade they had twenty assists in 15.7% of their games; after the trade they had twenty assists in 75.9%. Of all the team sports, basketball has more focus on individuals. Without Rudy Gay they knew they had to pass the ball around and play as a team. (Interesting to note that Sacramento went from a .315 winning percentage before the trade to a .349 winning percentage after the trade; in other words not much change in Sacramento.)
2. Players bought into the coach’s plan – In his three years as Raptors Head Coach Duane Casey always preached defense first. After the trade it the team bought into the defense first approach because their key offensive weapon had just been moved. As they began to win, playing defense first became a habit and a trade mark of the team.
3. New Roles for Rising Stars – With Rudy Gay out of the picture, two Raptors moved into new roles. DaMar DeRozan became the team leader scoring leader, averaging 22.5 points per game. Last year he averaged 18 points per game, so the numbers are not the only change. DaMar became a first time All Star because he was dependable at key times of the game.
Second year forward Terrance Ross moved from a bench player to a starter and excelled in his new role. His points per game went up from 6.4 last year to 10.9 this year. Many sophomores struggle with higher expectations from their team, T – Ross improved.
3. Depth Builds a team – Rarely mentioned in the articles about the Sacramento trade are the players the Raptors got back. However, during the impressive run by the team three of the four new Raptors were the first players off the bench. Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivas Vasquez rank sixth, seventh and eighth for the Raptors in minutes played and points per game. Vasquez and Salmons ranked second and fourth in assists per game. The Raptors traded their number one offensive player but added solid depth, which won games.
In game where a starter was hurt or struggling the newly acquired players filled in. Often in close game Salmons or Patterson came in and played a defensive role in the final minutes. Without the depth Terrance Ross could have been forced into a defensive role he may not have been ready for.
4. Come back team – On December 22, the Raptors overcame an 11 point deficit to defeat the Oklahoma Thunder. It was the Thunder’s first home loss of the season. On January 22, the Raptors overcame a 21 point deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks (and former Raptors Star Vince Carter). As the Raptors began to win more, I began to watch more games.
The January 5 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat, defined for me what the Raptors have become this season. After falling behind early in the game, the Raptors pushed back in the second half. By the end of the third quarter the Raptors were up 84-79. Miami had a great fourth quarter, and the Raptors made mistakes. With a minute to go the Raptors pulled within one point of the defending champions before losing the game. The Raptors have proven they can play with any team. They can overcome a lead against any team.
The Toronto Raptors have not won a playoff series since 2001. With home court advantage, the Team, (spelled with a capital T) has the potential to give Toronto and Canada its worst case of basketball playoff fever ever.