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 its 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.