“The game is changing,” Coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s a 3-point and scoring game. You have to be able to score.”
The philosophical shift is a gamble for the Raptors because they have been good, but not great — and that became the problem. Last season, they were 51-31 and made their fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs behind their All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who combined for nearly 40 percent of the team’s scoring. But Toronto ranked 24th in the league in pace, 22nd in 3-point attempts and dead last in assists, which was one of the clearest indications of the team’s overreliance on one-on-one play.
The playoffs were another. After struggling with the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It hardly helped that Lowry missed the final two games of that series with an ankle injury. But Ujiri had made up his mind: Being good was no longer good enough.
“We have to figure out how to make that jump,” Ujiri said.
In the wake of last season’s playoff exit, Ujiri staged a memorable news conference. After prefacing his remarks by saying that the whole exercise was pointless — “I can’t tell you I’ve made a decision on anything,” he said — he declared that the organization needed a “culture reset” and pointed to the team’s offense.
“It’s easy to defend, in my opinion, when you play one-on-one,” he said at the news conference. “It’s predictable. We feel we have to go in another direction. I don’t know what that is. Maybe it will be the new thing in the league that wins. We’re trying to be progressive thinkers and not just continue to pound, pound, pound something that hasn’t worked.”
Yet if Ujiri was planning an organizational overhaul, he intended to do it while keeping most of the team’s pieces in place. In addition to bringing back Casey, whose contract runs through the 2018-19 season, Ujiri re-signed Lowry (for three years and $100 million) and Serge Ibaka (for three years and $65 million). DeRozan has four years left on his deal.
Change, in other words, would need to come from within.
Enter Nick Nurse, a 50-year-old assistant coach who was charged with shaking up the offense. After a recent practice, Nurse was explaining the general importance of passing the basketball when he motioned to Jonas Valanciunas, the team’s starting center. Valanciunas, Nurse said, was no longer tethered to the low post.
“This guy loves it,” Nurse said. “He’s touching the ball a lot more.”
He added: “I think for a lot of the roster, it’s a lot of fun. It might not be as much fun for the guys who aren’t quite used to it yet.”
But there are clear signs of progress for the Raptors, who were 11-5 before their game Wednesday against the Knicks. Through Monday, they ranked fifth in the league in scoring, sixth in 3-point attempts and ninth in assists, all seismic jumps from last season. Nurse said the coaches had been preaching a sharing-is-caring approach.
“Our goal is that, in the playoffs, we’re a little more unpredictable and better able to handle the different situations that come up,” he said. “I’m pretty tickled where we are, to be honest.”
He seemed especially pleased that every player on the roster except Jakob Poeltl, a second-year center, had attempted at least one 3-pointer this season.
“Poeltl’s the only guy I’m disappointed in,” Nurse said, deadpan.
(All Poeltl has done is shoot 65.7 percent from the field.)
Nurse came to the Raptors in 2013 after spending two seasons as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the N.B.A. development league affiliate of the Houston Rockets. In each of Nurse’s two seasons with the Vipers, they led the league in 3-point attempts. They won the championship in 2013. Nurse was ahead of the analytics curve in his view that layups and 3-pointers were efficient shots — and that midrange jumpers were not.
In Toronto, Nurse has weaned the Raptors from their midrange addiction. Only 14.9 percent of their field-goal attempts this season are midrange shots, down from 24.1 percent last season.
“We’ve got a pretty strict shot spectrum that we follow,” Nurse said.
The outlier is DeRozan, whose ability to draw fouls mitigates (kind of, sort of) his steady diet of 17-foot jumpers. As a result, Nurse said he was willing to make allowances. But DeRozan’s general…