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Lowe: These Raptors might be real, and only getting better

As DeMar DeRozan finished practice on Dec. 19, he noticed one Toronto Raptors higher-up after another — Bobby Webster, the team’s GM and three highest-ranked coaches — file into team president Masai Ujiri’s office. Then someone summoned him.

“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” DeRozan recalls. “I thought, ‘S—, I know I can’t be traded.’ It was like I was being called into the principal’s office.'”

It was clear by then that Toronto had reinvented its offense after too many playoff stagnations. They had one more hurdle.

DeRozan, a proud native of Compton, California, grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had retired Bryant’s two jersey numbers the night before. DeRozan had surely watched. Ujiri told DeRozan he could be Toronto’s Kobe — a lifetime player who defines a franchise and, maybe, brings it championship glory. But to get there — to push this live-wire Toronto team to its full potential — DeRozan had to start shooting more 3-pointers.

Everyone in the room knew how much work DeRozan had put in to be ready for this moment. He was officially dabbling with the 3-pointer, about 2.5 attempts per game, but he had tried zero or one in six of 10 games. They needed more. Just taking them, coaches said, would draw attention and give everyone else more space. It would spare DeRozan contact. Possessions would flow more naturally.

They empowered DeRozan because they knew he was prepared. “When everyone has that kind of confidence in you — that you can carry a franchise — it gives you that extra confidence,” DeRozan says. “For them to say I could be in [Kobe’s] position — it was an honor accepting that fully.”

The next night against Charlotte, DeRozan went 3-of-4 from deep. Two nights later in Philly, he drained 6-of-9 — a performance so stunning, the shots flying off his fingertips so fast, you had to check to make sure it was actually DeMar DeRozan, king of the midrange.

“I wanted to jump out of my seat watching,” says Chris Farr, DeRozan’s longtime trainer, who has watched DeRozan launch thousands of 3-pointers in summer workouts. “He has worked so hard. I always say, he’s not Beyonce. He didn’t wake up looking like this.”

DeRozan has jacked almost four 3s per game since — off pindowns and random cuts he never executed before, in transition, when guys duck under picks, even from a standstill.

It was the final step of Toronto’s evolution into the best team in franchise history. They have surged past Boston and Cleveland, and by any metric, they are closer peers to the Western Conference superteams than to anyone in the East. They are the only team ranked in the top five in both points scored and allowed per possession.

Cleveland is vulnerable, though Kevin Love‘s return will help. Boston is without Gordon Hayward until further notice. The Raptors are real. They have home-court. If their revamped offense carries into the playoffs, they will deserve “favorite” status in the East.

They are getting better as the season goes along. They know it, too. They feel it. They are comfortable in their own skin, and hungry. They have the same sense playing you do watching: That they’ve figured out something profound about themselves. That something special might be happening.

The team that almost tanked four seasons ago is ready.

“We’ve been through the heartaches and the letdowns,” DeRozan says. “This time, with this new approach, we feel comfortable.”

The new approach started the day after another postseason humiliation, when Ujiri promised a “culture reset.” No one knew precisely what he meant. “I still don’t really know,” jokes Kyle Lowry, the symbol — along with DeRozan — of a star-driven offense that sputtered in April and May.

Ujiri didn’t fire anyone, even though he had the political capital to do anything he wanted. He re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka. The “culture reset” was a mandate for stylistic change: Our offense doesn’t work in the playoffs. Change it. The subtext was obvious: If we don’t, more drastic changes will come.

Change was the goal when the Raptors hired Nick Nurse, an offensive guru from the (then) D-League, in the summer of 2013. Nurse came in for an interview, and on an office whiteboard drew the offense he envisioned: different starting points, reads, passes, options. “The framework of what we are doing now,” Nurse says, “was up on that board.”

Dwane Casey, the team’s head coach, liked Nurse’s ideas. For various reasons, they never made it onto the court for long. Perhaps no one felt enough urgency until Cleveland swept them and Ujiri spoke out.

“We were working so hard,” says Jakob Poeltl, Toronto’s precocious backup center, “for not very good shots.”

Nurse started with the young guys — Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet — at informal workouts in Los Angeles, and then in Las Vegas for summer league. As James Herbert of CBS Sports detailed, they played pickup with new rules: Corner 3s earned four points, and any shot between the paint and the 3-point arc counted as minus-1. Nurse strongly encouraged anyone who grabbed an offensive rebound to dunk or kick the ball out to a 3-point shooter, though he did not mandate it as he had during his time in Houston’s D-League lab. (Back then, he banned midrange shots in practice.)

Players passed up good shots for great ones. They stretched their playmaking skills, and that was the point: When opponents keyed on DeRozan and Lowry, these guys — these unknown kiddos — would have to do something. So would Ibaka and Valanciunas, behemoth screen-setters who froze outside the paint. Touching it more might invigorate other parts of their games, and inspire more focused effort on defense.

Selling DeRozan and Lowry might prove harder. “Go to any superstar and say, ‘We’re changing our offense, and we’re taking some of your minutes away,'” Casey says. “So many would look at you sideways and tell you to take a leap.”

DeRozan was diligent, but it wasn’t easy at first. Lowry verbalized his frustration early in the season. “They were a little resistant at times, to be honest,” Nurse says. “Even still, Kyle has these moments when he’s kicking out passes, and guys are missing, and he’s getting pissed.”

But they saw it working, and surrendered some control. DeRozan got better at the random, improvisational bobs and weaves the offense requires. The results are inarguable: Toronto ranks third in points per possession, jacking almost nine more 3s per game than last season. They’re only a so-so shooting team — it is their most worrisome weakness — but trading 2s for 3s increases their margin for error.

Toronto has assisted on 58 percent of its baskets, up from a league-low 47 percent last season, per They are throwing almost 30 more passes per game without any uptick in turnovers.

They are unpredictable, harder to grasp. Casey has mothballed a lot of set plays. Toronto pushes hard, and initiates semi-random screening action with 18 or 19 on the shot clock. Everyone else orbits the ball in patterns that fall somewhere between random and scripted. They have general rules, but riff — cut backdoor or fly toward the arc? — within them.

Everyone is free to launch 3s and drive. Even Ibaka, who once played as if dribbling were illegal, is attacking with a new decisiveness. “We don’t want Serge taking a 20-footer,” Nurse says. “We want him to put pressure on the rim. We want him to make the next play.”

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