By Frank McLean
It was ironic that the schedule maker for the NBA decided to have the Toronto Raptors close out the calendar year of 2015 with a game against the Washington Wizards.
You remember the Wizards don’t you Raptors fans. They were the reason 2015 stunk. The Wizards four game sweep of the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs killed the dreams of a long playoff run.
However, you can trace the demise of the 2014-2015 season to exactly one year to the day of the Wizards rematch December 30th 2014.
The Raptors were sitting at 24-7 and lost an overtime game to the Portland Trail-Blazers.
DeMar DeRozan was still out with an injury and Kyle Lowry was just plain exhausted from carrying the team on his back for the entire month of December.
They lost eight of their next 11 games and finished up 25-26 over the next 51 games. They did win their second straight Atlantic Division title, but that and $1.50 buys you a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s.
Which all lead to that giant playoff disaster against the Wizards.
As a result GM Masai Ujiri spent the summer rebuilding the Raptors. Getting forwards DeMarre Carroll and Luis Scola to change the dynamic of the team’s starting line-up.
To add strength to the bench Ujiri picked up Bismack Biyombo to give Jonas Valanciunas help with the heavy lifting at center and local boy Cory Joseph was brought home by Ujiri from San Antonio to help out DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry at guard.
These four changes were brought upon because of that four game sweep by the Wizards in the playoffs that exposed weaknesses showing the Raptors were nowhere near the contender people thought they were.
So as we close out 2015, we see the Raptors sitting at 20-13 in third place as part of a tightly bunched Eastern Conference just two and a half games back of first place Cleveland.
As I wrote at the beginning of the season, this 82 game regular season schedule that we are a third of a way thru is a giant preseason.
The changes that were made by Ujiri were to set this club up for a long playoff run, which is something this franchise has not accomplished in their 21 years in the NBA.
“We were scoring a lot of points and we were winning with our offense instead of our defense,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said of the Raptors performance last year. “I knew that it wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t and I think I said it the entire year last year. We’re scoring a lot of points and getting 100-plus every game, but we were winning with shooting and when tough times hit or playoff times hit those same shots are not going to be there.”
What does Casey think of how this year’s squad is heading?
“I think this year we’re grittier, it’s not as pretty, but I think we’re grittier, grimier and I think those type of games help you win against good teams down the stretch or in tough situations. Does it make you win every night? No, but it gives you a better chance and that’s the difference between this year and last year is just our entire disposition. We have a tougher disposition, I think, from a coaching standpoint.”
As we said, it’s still a work in progress. The real season starts in the middle of April. These final 49-games of the season are all to get ready for a long playoff run in 2016.
It will be interesting to watch.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.