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Faster, more athletic Raptors hope to change playoff mojo

POSTED: Oct 22, 2015 7:28 PM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker

NBA.com

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The Raptors are the best team in the Atlantic Division, winning the last two division titles around a young, athletic core. That hasn't, unfortunately, translated into postseason success for the Raptors, as Toronto has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The most recent playoff exit, a sweep by the Washington Wizards, was particularly disappointing for the rabid fans up north. This summer the Raptors made a few moves to get faster and more athletic, while also giving coach Dwane Casey more lineup flexibility.

ICYMI

The Raptors made a big splash in free agency by signing DeMarre Carroll from Eastern Conference rival Atlanta. Carroll should bring a defense-first mentality to the T-Dot. ... 2013 No. 1 overall Draft pick (and Toronto native) Anthony Bennett got bought out in Minnesota, but was signed by the Raptors just before training camp. Perhaps familiar scenery will help him finally find an NBA home. ... Lou Williams was Toronto's third-leading scorer last season, and the winner of the Sixth Man of the Year award. But he left for Los Angeles, and fan favorite center Amir Johnson decamped for division rival Boston. ... Patrick Patterson has a Raptor skull in his living room.

THREE POINTS

1. After being an upper-tier defensive team in 2013-14, last season the Raptors finished 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating. The addition of Carroll should help tremendously, as he can defend most opposing team's top scorers, regardless of position. The Raptors will also have a renewed focus on team defense in training camp, per Coach Casey.

2. Kyle Lowry showed up in perhaps the best shape of his professional career, although he declined to give an exact amount of weight lost. DeMar DeRozan said Lowry was "more aerodynamic."

3. The Raptors lost a popular locker room presence in Johnson, but Luis Scola seems to be filling that void already. "He's been a friend now for years," said Lowry. "I played with him three and a half years in Houston, and when I seen that signing, I actually really smiled and I was excited to get back here. I know his family, his kids, I look forward to seeing him now."

MAN ON THE SPOT

After years of feeling undervalued and overlooked, last season Lowry finally began getting his due. After signing a four-year extension in the summer of 2014, Lowry made his All-Star debut in NYC in 2015. But after carrying a heavy load through the first half of the season with DeRozan out injured, Lowry struggled post All-Star, averaging just 15.1 ppg after the break and missing 11 games to recuperate from nagging injuries. By the time the postseason rolled around, Lowry was mostly ineffective, averaging 12.3 ppg and 4.8 apg during the first-round sweep by the Wizards. The Raptors will only go as far as Lowry can carry them.

STARTING FIVE

Kyle Lowry | 17.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.8 apg
If Lowry has been this good for years without being in the kind of shape he's in now, watch out, NBA.

DeMar DeRozan | 20.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg
Missed 22 games last season. Looks to return to All-Star status with game in Toronto this year.

Jonas Valanciunas | 12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.5 apg
Nice summer after signing a long-term deal with the Raptors and playing well in Eurobasket 2015.

DeMarre Carroll | 12.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 apg Z
Thrived in Atlanta's read-and-react system; will be interesting to watch adjustment to Toronto.

Patrick Patterson | 8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.9 apg
After a peripatetic few seasons, seems to have found a home in Toronto.

KEY RESERVES

Cory Joseph | 6.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg
Canadian native spent four seasons with the Spurs, should assume larger role in Toronto.

Terrence Ross | 9.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Former starter moves to full-time bench role with arrival of Carroll.

Luis Scola | 9.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
Thirty-five-year-old vet can still score the ball and grab boards.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Raptors still probably have enough raw talent to be the best team in the Atlantic Division, but with divison standings now irrelevant when it comes to playoff seeding, it may not even matter. Anyway, the Raptors are at the point where postseason results trump regular-season standings.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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