With Cavs, Celtics in rearview mirror, Raptors running out of time to find right rhythm

As great a season as it has been in Toronto, there has been some trouble with the dismount. For a Raptors team that has routinely disappointed when the postseason has come around, this is a problem.

On Saturday morning, Raptors coach Dwane Casey stood in a gym on Huntington Ave. in Boston and did what he’s done so many times this season: answered questions about the positive changes Toronto made in the past year, about the play of the bench, the improvement of the defense and the diversification of the offense. It’s been a remarkable year for the Raptors, who stand two wins from the best season in team history, and will enter the playoffs with the franchise’s most realistic chance at busting through to the NBA Finals as the top seed in the East.

“Right now, one of our goals is to finish at home, finish at the top of the conference,” Casey said. “That’s what we started the year out with and we are right there in the hunt. That’s what these games mean.”

Yet, the last two-and-a-half weeks have brought a familiar angst north of the border. Going back to March 18, Toronto has lost five of eight games. Six of those games have come against teams in playoff contention, and the Raptors went 1-5 against those opponents.

As great a season as it has been in Toronto, there has been some trouble with the dismount. For a team that has routinely disappointed when the postseason has come around, this is a problem.

This week was lined up to be especially significant. The Raptors had road games on the schedule against Boston and Cleveland, followed by a home game against Boston and another against Indiana. That’s four games against three of the four teams immediately below them in the conference.

So far, there have been losses to the Celtics and Cavs. In those games, the Raptors saw what has become a familiar pattern during this subpar stretch: an inability to defend the 3-point line, a lack of defensive ball pressure and opponents racking up huge scoring nights. Even the vaunted Toronto reserve unit, the best in the league this season, made little impact.

That’s been all too familiar for the Raptors in these eight games. The offense has been humming along pretty well, and for the season as a whole, it’s been those offensive changes — more ball movement, less reliance on the pick-and-roll, more open looks — that have attracted the most attention nationally.

But the Raptors’ success this year has been as much a product of their defensive effort as their offense. Before their current slide began, they were fourth in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions. Since March 18, though, that has ballooned to 113.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks dead last in the NBA in that span.

The 3-point shooting they’ve allowed has been the biggest culprit. Toronto is good at running shooters off the 3-point line, but lately, the defense has not been good at defending those shots when they’re taken. Before March 18, the Raptors were seventh in the NBA in terms of opponent 3-point percentage at 35.1. In the last eight games, they’ve allowed a whopping 44.8 percent from the arc, worst in the league.

There’s probably some fatigue and effort issues mixed in. Until the last eight games, the Raptors were third in the NBA in deflections (15.4 per game) and ninth in turnovers forced (14.9). Over the last eight games, though, they’re 29th in deflections (10.4) and 28th in forced turnovers (11.8).

Maybe there’s some solace in that — effort problems are easily fixed. Even as they’ve pared back the minutes of stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors have played full-throttle all season, and that’s hard to maintain as the finish line nears and you’ve still got the top seed in hand. The start of the playoffs tends to kick teams out of the late-season malaise.

But the Raptors come into this time of year with a good deal more baggage than most, swept out of the playoffs last year by the Cavs in the second round and three years ago by the Wizards in the first round. They reached the conference finals in between, but took seven games to get out of each of the first two rounds before losing to Cleveland in six games.

That history is, of course, in the front of Casey’s mind as he gets the team ready for the postseason. He was asked about the efficacy of resting some of his players down the stretch, but said he prefers to get his team playing well.

“I think the rest thing is a little bit overblown,” Casey said. “For us, I think it has been rhythm — we tried the rest way to go, but I think some guys can miss two weeks. I know in Dallas, we had Dirk (Nowitzki) and Jason Kidd take the last couple weeks of the season off but come back in the playoffs ready to roll. But we haven’t had a lot of success with that, so to speak. It didn’t help us against Cleveland the last couple of years.

“So I think rhythm, having a style of play, playing within your identity going into the playoffs, is very important.”

If that’s the case, then, the Raptors don’t have much time left to pull together their flagging defense and get it back to the level it had achieved for the first five months of the season. There’s a lot at stake this season for Toronto, and they’re a long way from getting themselves into the right rhythm.