The surge of the Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ recent success couldn’t have come at a better time for Toronto sports fans.

The Toronto Raptors are 18-17 after 34 games this NBA season, including 12-5 since trading away Rudy Gay. Nevertheless, the good run of form shouldn’t be attributed to his departure but to a complete change of team identity.

The 2013/14 season started off with a lot of promise for the Raptors. The team had a go-to guy in Gay and the right pieces around him to make a genuine push for the playoffs, but, as usual, the team disappointed. The Raptors started off the season 6-12, and the team’s new general manager, Masai Ujiri, knew it was time to make a change.

The trade was announced before the Raptors were to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Kobe Bryant’s much-anticipated return from an Achilles tendon injury that kept him sidelined for nearly seven months. The trade saw Raptors send Gay, along with Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy, to the Sacramento Kings in return for Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes.

“At the time of the trade, all I could think was ‘Here we go again,’ ” says James Chavez, a second-year visual communications student. “Another season with so much promise has come to a stop, and now we’ll be looking forward to the draft where we can hopefully get Andrew Wiggins.”

At the time of the trade, it seemed like the Raptors had thrown in the towel on the season after just 18 games, and were hoping to be bad enough to get at least a top-five pick in the upcoming draft. The Raptors’ trade also seemed like a salary dump, since they owed Gay the equivalent of C$40.4 million for this season and the next, including a player option of 19.6 million next season. It seemed like losing Gay ruined the Raptors’ chances, until something unexpected happened: the Raptors started winning games.

The Raptors have won against top teams in the league, including the Dallas Mavericks, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Indiana Pacers, who are currently on top of the Eastern Conference division.

“I don’t know what it is. I’m an avid Raptors fan and I watch the games when I can, but these days when I watch the games it’s like something’s different,” says James Tseroni, a third-year linguistics major.  “Our shots are falling and the players seem to be playing with increased energy, and overall they just seem happy to be playing, which is something I haven’t seen in a while from them.”

The Raptors’ shift seems to have happened overnight, but it’s actually been brought about by the efforts of head coach Dwane Casey, who took the position last season. Casey, who was part of Dallas Mavericks’ championship-winning team in 2011, is a strong defensive-minded coach who preaches a team game concept. His intensity on the sidelines is one of the reasons the Raptors have improved so drastically. His coaching style won Casey the NBA Coach of the Month title for December, making him only the second coach in the Raptors’ history to do so.

Since Gay’s departure, the team has improved their game both offensively and defensively. Gay specializes in post-up and isolation plays, which meant that there was little ball movement and little return on offence if he didn’t shoot a good percentage from the field. Since Gay’s trade, the Raptors haven’t had to rely on just one player to make things happen—they win games through teamwork.

Demar DeRozan has improved his scoring and is now averaging 21.2 points per game this season, the first time he has averaged over 20 points in his career. Throughout the winning streak, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry has taken a starring role in the team’s successes, averaging over nine assists per game and keeping offence running more efficiently than it has all season. Second-year guard Terrence Ross, known for his dunking abilities, has also stepped up this season by improving his shooting and becoming more reliable on the defensive end, which has led to him being given more playing time.

The Raptors are slowly finding their identity in an Eastern Conference with few competitive teams. Four teams in current playoff spots have a less-than-winning record, which says a lot about the competition in the East. The Raptors are currently on top of the Atlantic division and sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. For a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007/08 season, where they lost in the first round, their chances of making the playoffs this season are better than they have been in a long time.

If the team manages to sustain their recent performance, they may have a chance not only to reach the playoffs but also to make some noise in the Eastern Conference post-season. Even if the Raptors don’t make the playoffs, they’ve at least brought some new life and excitement to a Toronto sports scene that’s been itching for something to cheer for.

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