Everybody knows how the Rockets and Warriors are blitzing the rest of the National Basketball Association (NBA) this season. With the playoffs looming, they’ve won about eight of every 10 matches en route. And, certainly, their continued excellence has discounted the efforts of the Raptors, who occupy the third spot in league standings, just three and a half games behind and sporting a similar point differential in the positive high eights.
Indeed, the Raptors have made progress that is best described as significant. Having crowded the top of the East in recent memory, their potential to rewrite their narrative as almost-but-not-quite-there opponents in the LeBron James era has improved considerably. The primary reason? A change in the mind-set of head coach Dwane Casey and his brain trust. Whereas they used to ride their starters to exhaustion, they now bank on their extremely productive bench to create separation.
All things considered, it’s fair to argue that the NBA remains star-driven, and that the Raptors’ fate will hinge heavily on the exertions of top dogs DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Yet, it’s precisely because outcomes depend on their efforts in the crunch that their capacity to rely on others earlier in contests is crucial. It’s why their numbers point to a more egalitarian offense, and why their engagement on defense is similarly focused on the collective being greater than the sum of its parts.
Consider this: The Raptors are employing their bench at a rate typically seen in lottery-bound or injury-plagued squads, and yet their net differential when not a single starter is on the court tops the league. It’s even better than those of the Rockets and Warriors, and the advantage is compounded when a specific set of substitutes burns rubber together. Needless to say, it’s quite a feat for the red and black, whose previous campaigns were met with promise but nonetheless ended in disappointment.
True, Casey will need to prove that his commitment to a 10-man rotation is firm, if not absolute, even when the playoffs arrive. And, true, the Raptors must then earn the trust by continuing to perform with efficiency when the stakes are higher. Which, in a nutshell means they can’t blink, not when the Celtics and Cavaliers are breathing down their necks, and not when the Rockets and Warriors will likely stand between them and ultimate success.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.