Offence shines again as Toronto Raptors creep closer to .500

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TORONTO – Twenty-five games into the campaign, the Toronto Raptors seem to have finally found an identity, although it’s not exactly the identity that they expected to find.

For years, Nick Nurse’s team has prided itself on defence, but recently, as they’ve started to turn the corner and dig themselves out of an early-season hole, they’ve been winning games on the strength of their offence, with Wednesday’s high-scoring affair serving as the latest example.

“The offence is growing, everyone can see that,” head coach Nick Nurse said following his club’s decisive 137-115 victory over the Washington Wizards.

It was the fifth straight game in which they scored at least 120 points – tying the longest streak in franchise history, as well as the longest streak in the NBA this season. But, most importantly, it was the Raptors’ fifth win in the last six games, as they creep closer to the .500 mark.

“I think [the offence is] functioning better in general,” said Nurse. “I think we’re continuing to teach a lot of our concepts, we’re getting some reps at some of our concepts. I think, yeah, some of it is shots are going in, too, but I think we’re getting better rhythm.”

There are a number of reasons to explain Toronto’s offensive eruption in February. The most obvious, as Nurse suggested, is that some of those good shots that they were taking and missing a few weeks ago are simply starting to fall – the wonders of regression. Two of the Raptors’ primary offensive contributors – Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell – are playing their best basketball of the season, which surely helps as well.

Mostly, though, it seems to be the product of a comfort level that wasn’t there earlier in the season. Nurse and his coaching staff have settled on a rotation, players know what their roles are going to be, and guys are building chemistry with each other. At times, not too long ago, it looked like they had never met, let alone played together. They would go through long stretches in which they’d struggle to score, or commit silly and unforced turnovers. Now, there’s a synergy to the offence.

“I think it’s more so understanding the team and who’s on the floor and who’s going to take the shots,” said Kyle Lowry, who drained five of his eight threes and scored 21 points against Washington. “Guys have been working so hard and are kind of getting into a rhythm and understanding where shots are going to come from. I think it makes it a little bit easier, understanding the offence a little bit more rather than forcing this or that.”

The Raptors hit 53 per cent of their shots on Wednesday, including 19 of their 32 attempts from beyond the arc. Siakam, who’s scored at least 25 points in five of his last seven games, had 26. Powell, who’s recorded at least 18 points in nine straight contests, had 28. Seven players scored in double figures, including the red-hot Chris Boucher (who had 17 points) and two others (Terence Davis and DeAndre’ Bembry) off the bench.

Over the last six games, they’re averaging 124.5 points while hitting 44 per cent of their three-point attempts, up from the 38 per cent they were shooting going into this month.

Another big factor is that they’ve minimized those lengthy scoring droughts that were plaguing the offence almost nightly earlier in the year. The Raptors were held under 24 points in 23 different quarters over their first 19 games. However, in doing away with those frequent scoring lulls, they’ve recorded at least 25 points in every quarter over the last six contests.

As Lowry pointed out, they’re still prone to the occasional bad possession or two, or perhaps even three or four, but they’re doing a better job of mitigating those lapses and responding before they become momentum-shifting stretches. On Wednesday, that make-or-break moment came early in the fourth quarter.

They were stuck on 108 points for more than two minutes, as the Wizards made their run and cut the Toronto lead to five. Instead of letting it slip out of their hands, as they may have a month ago, Lowry hit a deep three, then Boucher knocked down a pair of free throws, Powell and Siakam each made big shots, and they were able to pull away.

With a tough loss in Portland back on January 11 – their second straight one-point defeat to cap off a disappointing road trip – the Raptors fell to 2-8, tied for the worst record in the NBA. At 12-13 one month later, they’ll have a chance to even their record for the first time since opening night with a win over the rival Boston Celtics, this time coming at the end of a largely successful road trip, and possibly with OG Anunoby back from the calf injury that’s kept him out of the last seven contests.

They always believed they’d be able to right the ship – “we knew we weren’t that bad of a team,” Lowry said after the win over Washington – but they probably wouldn’t have guessed the offence would be fuelling their resurgence.

Their defence continues to show flashes, but it’s been nowhere near as dialled in, or as consistent, as it was last season, when they ranked second on that end of the floor. Through 25 games, they’re ranked 18th in defensive efficiency. However, they now boast the league’s sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113.9 points per 100 possessions. Over the course of a full season, that would be the highest in franchise history.

Given the option, Nurse would almost certainly prefer those rankings be the other way around, and you know he’s not going to stop preaching defence, but he also understands that you’ve got to coach to your team’s strengths. And, right now, this looks like an offensive team.