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How the Raptors learned to evolve to avoid getting left behind

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are sharing the ball more this season. (Getty)

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry knew this season would be different the day after the Toronto Raptors’ latest ignominious postseason departure — a second-round sweep to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that prompted team president Masai Ujiri to say the organization needed a “culture reset.” The Raptors’ All-Star duo and potential buddy-cop movie tandem didn’t exactly know what that meant nor to what extent.

“He said we needed a culture change, and I didn’t know if I was a part of that culture change or not,” Lowry, who was entering free agency last summer, told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to be here, but you never know. You’re kind of like, ‘[Expletive]!’ ”

Ujiri calmed Lowry’s concerns early in the free-agent negotiation period by agreeing to a three-year, $100 million contract and sparing his All-Star point guard from chasing a lucrative payday away from the place that had become his NBA home. And later that summer, Raptors coach Dwane Casey sat down with DeRozan and Lowry to let them know the isolation-and-pass-out-of-desperation style of play to which they’d grown accustomed — the style that landed them both nine-figure salaries and brought Toronto three straight 50-win seasons — was no more. The game was evolving and the Raptors were either going to adapt or let the rest of the league walk on by.

That meant DeRozan, one of the last remaining holdouts for the old-man, midrange game, had to embrace shooting the 3-ball. That also meant both DeRozan and Lowry would need to move the ball more and trust their teammates to make more plays and shots. Since the reset only involved some minor roster tinkering, a massive change in thinking was required for the plan to take hold.

So far, it has, with the Raptors quietly finding themselves on the north side of the Eastern Conference standings, trailing only first-place Boston and staying percentage points ahead of three-time defending conference champ Cleveland despite their recent two-game slide. They have gone from last in the league in assists to just outside the top 10 and jumped from 22nd in 3-point attempts to being in the top five, a startling turnaround that wouldn’t have worked without the stars buying in. And they’ve done it all while remaining an elite defensive team.

“We could’ve easily said, ‘Uh, nah. Eff this, we gonna do our thing.’ We want bigger things. We know we’ve gotten close and had a regression, but now we’re trying to get back to the point where we get close to a championship,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “We know as individuals, we need help and we’ve got to grow and we need everybody. We can’t do it ourselves. We’re not superheroes. We’re not 6-9, 270, if you know what I mean. We don’t shoot the ball extremely well like KD and Steph. We know we need a full team. That shows myself, DeMar, we care more about winning than our individual stats.”

Toronto is having the most successful run in franchise history but two first-round flameouts and a second-round flop that came a year after the team’s only conference finals appearance made it easier for Casey to make the pitch to his stars for a switch. “When you get to certain positions and fail, you wonder how you could be better. I think that’s the approach, definitely, we took,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’re showing that now. You can’t key in on just me and Kyle. The way we’re playing now, it’s hard to do that.”

The Raptors were sixth in offensive efficiency last season — “We weren’t chopped liver,” Casey told Yahoo Sports — but again were predictable in playoffs, as teams would load up on DeRozan and Lowry and dare their teammates to beat them. Lowry would either vanish or succumb to some physical ailment, and DeRozan would stubbornly attack the double teams until a large volume of shots produced an adequate number of makes.

“It’s an insult to both of them that all we can do is play iso basketball. I take offense to it, because it says you can’t coach a system. And I’ve been in this 30-something [years], and I’ve been in all kinds of systems and taught all types of systems. You have to coach to your personnel,” Casey told Yahoo Sports. “DeMar DeRozan is one of the top one-on-one players in the league. And there was a method to the madness. But what we incorporated was ball movement, man movement, equal opportunity. We changed our philosophical approach. Is DeMar going to change his game totally? No. But he and Kyle both bought in, which changes how we want to play.”

Ujiri added versatile shooter C.J. Miles last summer and Serge Ibaka, a trade-deadline acquisition who was re-signed and given a full training camp to acclimate. But the Raptors have made strides in developing their impressionable youngsters and letting one of their relative old dogs practice a new trick.

DeRozan had taken pride in being different when it came to shot selection, the basketball equivalent of someone who preferred a portable CD player to a Beats Pill. He saw the 3-point line there, but to him, it was there merely for aesthetic purposes. He bragged about being a throwback to prime Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan before him, an elite scorer who didn’t need the shot that rewards the most points. Now, DeRozan is averaging nearly three long-distance attempts per game and recently had a Reggie Miller-like eruption in Philadelphia — with career highs in makes (six) and attempts (nine) — that produced a career-high 45 points. He still kills in the post with those turnaround fadeaways but also enjoys keeping teams honest with the threat of something else.

“It’s just something [where I’m] finding my comfort zone. One of them things to where I put my mind to it, just to do it,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “We’re moving the ball a lot more to where I’m not in a lot of them iso situations that I was in before. It makes it a lot more easier to understand … If I’m behind that line, shoot it.”

The new pace-and-space scheme has helped DeRozan thrive as a distributor. DeRozan is averaging a career-high 4.8 assists, while Lowry continues to lead the team in that category despite his lowest usage rate since joining the Raptors six seasons ago. Both players are also scoring less with a more balanced offense. Watch Toronto play and it’s obvious that this isn’t the same old, same old.

“It’s a team, team. It feels like any given night, anybody can do something. It feels good,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “We still have the talent to go get 30, 25, and do it ourselves … but we have to make sure we do it within our schemes and within our offense. I think that’s what’s been great for us, we want to stay within the transformation of our team. You need us two to lead it and everyone else will follow.”

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