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How the Raptors are doing it

Toronto is every bit as good as it was this time last season, despite losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard for nothing in free agency. How?

Pascal Siakam embraces Fred VanVleet.
The Raptors are rolling a year after losing Kawhi Leonard.

The reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors are 15-4 after walloping the Utah Jazz on Sunday. This equals where the Raptors were at this point last season. The Raptors, you may recall, won the NBA championship last season, and then lost two-time Finals MVP and Maybe Best Player In The World Kawhi Leonard in free agency. The Raptors are a game better than the L.A. Clippers, Kawhi’s new team, in the standings, despite L.A. being preseason title favorites.

The Raptors, you may have heard, lost Kyle Lowry to injury earlier this campaign: the 33-year-old All-Star hasn’t played since November 8. The Raptors are 9-2 without him.

Some suspected Toronto would remain good this season despite losing Kawhi because of what the Raptors still had. But who would have thought the Raptors would be as good as they were in a season they won the title, and in fact one of the very best teams in the entire NBA again? Yet here they are with the third best record in the NBA and No. 2 net rating in the league at just about the quarter-pole of the season.

How are the Raptors doing it? Here are five reasons Toronto is still so damn good.

The defense remains amazing

As of Monday morning, the Raptors have the No. 2 defense in the NBA, just behind the Denver Nuggets and ahead of the vaunted Bucks, Sixers, and Celtics. Defense is half of the game at the team level! As decades of San Antonio Spurs excellence has taught us, you can build an elite defense without a bevy household name superstars. The Raptors have a superstar defender in Siakam (more on him momentarily) and are good defensively at every position. That’s adding up to an elite defense at this point. The math is pretty easy from there: if you have a top-3 defense and a top-10 offense (Toronto is No. 5), you’re going to be an incredible team. Ergo, Toronto is incredible.

What’s fascinating is that Toronto hasn’t missed a defensive beat despite losing Kawhi, perhaps the best individual defender in the NBA. But this was evident even last season when Leonard sat out games for load management. What may have appeared to be a team effortfully hanging on without their captain was actually an elite defense doing its job without a key cog.

Pascal Siakam’s superstar climb is real

Mike Prada wrote about Siakam’s bizarro style deeply and smartly — make sure you read that if you haven’t to better understand what makes Pascal so alluring a talent. Nothing about this is a fluke: this is a supreme talent who works hard and is unlocking everything you’d expect a rising offensive star to unlock without losing what made him a unique player in the past and without giving up an inch on defense.

Something else about Pascal’s game that’s hard to measure or nail down is his fearlessness. Consider Sunday: going into the teeth of Utah’s elite defense and absolutely shredding it to the tune of 35 points in 34 minutes on 14-22 shooting (5-9 from three). He doesn’t care if he misses some shots or gets blocked or whatever. Chalk that up to some combination of inner fire and good coaching (whether from Nick Nurse, Dwane Casey, trainers, or people from his past).

The Raptors believe in math

When it comes to the modern math of pro basketball, the focus is usually on the Warriors and Rockets. But Toronto believes in it, too. The Raptors are No. 7 in the percentage of field goal attempts that are three-pointers and have the fifth lowest share of points from the mid-range, per Toronto can shoot, too: despite taking so many threes, the Raptors have the best hit rate in the league at 40.2 percent. That’s a huge benefit to their offense, which has been surprisingly resilient without Kawhi all season and Kyle Lowry lately.

No championship hangover

We’ve witnessed several championship hangovers in the last decade of NBA basketball. Not always: the 2015-16 Warriors, for example, came out of their summer celebration even stronger and more dominant (until they went up 3-1 in the 2016 NBA Finals). The 2012-13 Heat are another example of a team coming off a championship parade and right back to the full-time grind. Maybe there’s something about hunger after a first title of what the team hopes will be many.

Whatever it is, the Raptors have it. There are no quiet nights for Toronto: the team plays hard every time out, without fail. Lowry deserves credit for setting a tone with the team even though he’s in street clothes right now, and the team is full of professionals like Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Siakam, and Fred VanVleet. Nurse deserves some credit. Casey deserves credit eternally for his work with this core. Do the Raptors have something to prove, that the ring wasn’t all just about Kawhi? They sure are acting like they have something to prove.

Masai Ujiri is a certified basketball genius

I am constitutionally unable to write about the glory of the Toronto Raptors without spreading the gospel of Masai Ujiri. It’s hardly controversial to call him the best executive in basketball right now. Look at the results. He plucked Siakam and VanVleet from surplus, and he built a basketball structure to turn them into great players. (I’m ready to begin the VanVleet All-Star campaign. Who’s in?) The Gasol trade. Keeping Lowry around for a swan song (or more). CHRIS FREAKING BOUCHER. It’s victory, all the way down.

Ujiri deserves the next three Executive of the Year awards, no matter what happens with Toronto. Give the man is due.

(And keep him away from James Dolan.)