The Toronto Raptors can't help their reputation. Not yet, at least.
Any conversation about Toronto is either cut short - or doesn't happen at all - because it always comes down to the Raptors' postseason record. That's why they aren't taken seriously as a contender, even though there's hardly any shame in winning three playoff series and two playoff games against LeBron James since 2016.
Until they don't, and whether the label is fair or not, the Raptors are known to shrink under the bright lights. It's up to them to change the narrative.
Ask them and they'll tell you it doesn't matter, because to a man, the Raptors believe they're not that team anymore. And they've got a body of proof: They dismantled the Cleveland Cavaliers by 34, smashed the Boston Celtics by 20, hung punch for punch with the Golden State Warriors, and on Friday snapped the Houston Rockets' 17-game win streak.
Every standout performance was a statement to the rest of the league that the old narratives no longer apply.
Toronto's playoff struggles have mostly come down to its predictability on offense. Last year's team ranked dead last in assists and was completely dependent on Lowry and DeRozan to create offense off a high screen.
The Raptors lived and died by contested midrange shots and cynically awarded free throws, all of which dried up in the playoffs when teams sent double teams at Toronto's two All-Stars. Unable to adjust, the Raptors' offensive rating plummeted by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions.
This year's team is constructed differently. Toronto ranks seventh in assists and eight Raptors have scored over 20 points in a game this season. Lowry and DeRozan are still the main pieces, but they're posting their highest assist rates over the last five seasons in this redefined drive-and-kick offense that features plenty of neat big-to-big passing and off-ball cutting.
Toronto no longer lives at the free-throw line since the team's found more efficient shots at the 3-point line. Everyone from DeRozan to Jonas Valanciunas are stepping beyond the arc, and while the Raptors hardly shoot a strong percentage, the sheer volume of their attempts (third-most in the NBA) makes the math work.
For the first time in five seasons, Lowry and DeRozan are trusting the pass more than they trust their own stubbornness. Save for crunch time, there's no need for anyone to take over, and so the Raptors swing the ball side-to-side until cracks inevitably begin to form.
Empirically, the Raptors are only scoring one more point per 100 possessions than last season, but the quantitative outlook is blind to the bigger picture. Defenses can no longer focus on Lowry and DeRozan, so much as they need to stop the whole team operating as one. The opposition needs to find a new way to stop the new Raptors, and so far, no defense has found the answer.
Toronto's other weakness was its supporting cast - it always came down to DeRozan and Lowry because they were the stars with little to no help.
That was the main takeaway after Toronto was swept by Cleveland last year. DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson combined to scored a grand total of 13 points over the series, while defensive specialist P.J. Tucker did nothing to stop James.
Those three pieces, along with hometown favorite Cory Joseph, were shipped off last summer in favor of a completely unproven youth movement. President Masai Ujiri took a huge risk in building half the rotation out of unproven rookies and sophomores, but that was all part of the plan.
Save for inconsistent Norman Powell, each prospect has blossomed beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Toronto's entirely revamped second unit leads the entire league in net rating and bails the team out on a weekly basis. And as a byproduct of the bench's dominance, the starters have been given plenty of rest ahead of the postseason.
Delon Wright was an upgrade over Joseph, as he brought an element of playmaking on top of the same slashing game and intense ball pressure. Nobody misses Patterson because Pascal Siakam has grown into a point-forward that guards every position. It would have been nice to retain Tucker, but OG Anunoby is doing the same job for a fifth of the price. Jakob Poeltl's emergence as a hyper-mobile shot blocker who finishes everything around the rim is just a bonus.
The most miraculous development of all, though, was the unexpected emergence of undrafted point guard Fred VanVleet. He spent last season as a seemingly superfluous fourth-string point guard, but has since ascended to the role of bench captain and is now a core fixture in Toronto's closing lineups.
It was VanVleet who took the most shots for the Raptors in the fourth quarter of their win over Houston. He darted to the rim for daring layups and drilled a key three while also putting the clamps on Chris Paul down the stretch, to stave off a hard charge from James Harden.
Think about that: An undrafted sophomore, trading daggers with the runaway MVP favorite while locking down the best point guard of his generation.
VanVleet was also the hero in Wednesday's win as he drilled the game-winner in overtime over the Detroit Pistons.
He perched patiently in the corner while DeRozan drove the ball the full length of the floor, engaging three defenders along the way, before delivering a picture-perfect pass that set up the dagger.
The play was a microcosm of how the Raptors have grown. It speaks to how the team is wiser in how it goes about its business. DeRozan would have been right to take the glory for himself, especially after he scored 18 points in the fourth and overtime, but he made the right play and trusted his teammate, trusted that it would work out.
Trust is the reason why the Raptors are the only team in the league ranked in the top five in offense and defense. Trust is what made their offensive changes possible. Trust is why head coach Dwane Casey can extend his rotation 11 deep while seamlessly integrating G-League call-ups. Yes, there are teams with more talent than the Raptors, but no other team plays with the same level of trust.
Toronto needs all these reminders ahead of its fifth straight trip to the playoffs. The Raptors trust themselves and believe in themselves, but they still have to earn trust and belief from everyone else. And as long as they continue to trust each other, they will prove it: These aren't the same old Raptors.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)