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The Raptors found a formula to save their season

After a 2-8 start, Toronto is fully back.

The Toronto Raptors had the worst record in the NBA after their first 10 games of the season. The Raptors had easy excuses for their 2-8 start, but finding potential answers was proving to be more difficult. The team would be dislocated in Tampa Bay for the entirety of the season because of the pandemic. The center rotation was struggling badly after losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka over the offseason, Pascal Siakam was off to a slow start, and a defense that ranked No. 2 in the league last year was suddenly outside of the top 20.

The Raptors had been a picture of consistency since the Dwane Casey era, winning at least 58.5 percent of their games for seven straight seasons. Was this the beginning of the end?

We should have known better. After 110-103 win over the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, Toronto is now over .500 for the first time all season at 16-15 overall. The Raps would be the No. 5 seed if the playoffs started today. They’re now top-10 in the league in both point differential and net rating.

The Raptors have won nine of their last 12 games with two wins over the Bucks, a win over the Nets (in the game Kevin Durant was pulled because of the health and safety protocol), and the win over Philly. Where Toronto’s ceiling ultimately lies is still up for debate because of a thin bench and a lack of size, but for now head coach Nick Nurse has found a formula to turn the season around.

Here’s how the Raptors have stabilized after such a poor start.

Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are one of the league’s best backcourts

VanVleet and Lowry should be easy to expose on paper. It’s the league’s smallest starting backcourt with both players only listed at 6-foot. Neither player puts much pressure on the rim as a driver. Lowry will turn 35 years old next month. VanVleet has never dunked in his career, and Lowry hasn’t in a regular season game since the 2007-2008 season. This pairing shouldn’t work in the highest leverage situations against the league’s best teams, but somehow both players always seem to rise to the occasion.

The Raptors gave VanVleet a four-year, $85 million contract in the offseason, and he’s responded with a career-best season. While he’s only shooting 40.8 percent from the field and his scoring efficiency is slightly below average, VanVleet has emerged in some metrics as one of the league’s most impactful players. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR WAR stat has him as the league’s third most valuable player right now behind only MVP front-runners Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

VanVleet is a master at creating shots for himself and his teammates. He’s one of the NBA’s best pull-up artists, taking 4.1 three-pointers off the dribble per game and hitting 36.5 percent of them. He’s also top-15 in the league in assists per game and is averaging a career-best assist rate of 28 percent.

VanVleet should be way, way too small to go head-to-head with Giannis Antetokounmpo and come out on top, yet his quickness and tight ball handling ability makes him so hard to stop.

VanVleet also plays much bigger than his size defensively. VanVleet is posting a steal rate above two percent again this season, and somehow has already set a new career-high in blocks. In his first 31 games this season, VanVleet already has 23 blocks. Last season, he only had 17 blocks in 54 games.

VanVleet never backs down against bigger players. Once again, just ask Giannis.

Lowry has also been as solid as ever even as he’s battled multiple injuries, including a thumb injury that kept him out of the recent win over the Sixers. Lowry has so many tricks as a scorer in his old age. He’s shooting a remarkable 70.2 percent at the rim per Basketball Reference and is making a career-best 52.6 percent of his two-pointers.

The Raptors have somehow won their last 16 games without Lowry. Trade rumors have started to swirl around as he plays out the final season of his contract, but the veteran guard very much remains the heart and soul of the team. Unless Toronto gets an offer they can’t refuse, expect Lowry to be leading the charge for the Raps in the playoffs, just as he does every year.

Chris Boucher has blossomed into a dependable contributor

Boucher is the least likely player in the NBA as someone who didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 19 years old and bounced around two junior colleges before landing at Oregon. He tore his ACL in his final year with the Ducks and went undrafted in 2017. Two years ago, he won G League MVP. Last season, he was a sparsely used big man off the bench, averaging only 13 minutes per game in the regular season and often earning DNPs in the playoffs.

Now 28 years old, Boucher is fully tapping into the talent he’s flashed since his college days to become one of the great stories in the league. He’s averaging 13.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and two blocks per game so far, all easily career-highs.

Boucher’s combination of length and shooting makes him an ideal fit in the modern game. He’s been a capable shooter since he was at Oregon, but he’s never been a good shooter at the NBA level. Now he is: Boucher is making 45.1 percent of his threes on 3.6 attempts per game from behind the arc. His release might be slow, but his shot is becoming more and more dependable.

Boucher’s 65.2 true shooting percentage is No. 11 in the entire league right now.

His defense has been a revelation, too. Boucher is second in the league block rate at 8.7 percent behind only Myles Turner. He’s also top-20 in individual defensive rating. While Boucher can have problems against bigger and stronger centers, his shot blocking is becoming a huge asset for such a small team.

The Raptors are simply a better with Boucher on the floor. His net rating of +8.1 is tops on the team for any regular rotation player.

The offense has found its rhythm

Even when the Raptors posted the second-highest winning percentage in the league last season in their first year without Kawhi Leonard, the offense was just barely above average. Toronto finished No. 13 in offensive efficiency. Most of its success could be attributed to the league’s second-best defense.

The script has flipped for the Raptors this year. After a slow start, they’re now up to No. 9 in the NBA in offensive efficiency. The defense has also shot up to No. 12 overall, but given the general lack of size on this team, it feels like the offense is going to have to carry them.

Toronto has the No. 4 shot profile in the league right now, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re taking more threes than ever, hoisting a triple on 45.5 percent of their possessions (up from 42.1 percent last year), which is the fourth-highest mark in the NBA. Toronto takes mid-range shots on only 24 percent of its attempts. Only Houston and Indiana attempt fewer mid-range shots.

Nurse pulled Aron Baynes out of the starting lineup just before his team swept the Bucks in the two-game series last week. Toronto is committed to a small ball lineup with Siakam and OG Anunoby up front which has helped open up new offensive actions to breathe life into the team.

The Brooklyn Nets are emerging as the favorites in the East after the James Harden trade, but Toronto has the coaching and shot-making to give anyone in the conference trouble in the postseason. Toronto is a flawed team, but it’s one that’s learning how to make the most of its pieces.

This isn’t going to be the year the Raptors fall apart.