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NBA Daily: Can The Toronto Raptors Make A Move?

The Toronto Raptors have risen to the top of the East against one of the league’s lightest early schedules. Can Toronto stay on top?

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By a quirk of the schedule, the Toronto Raptors have played six fewer games than the Boston Celtics and have moved ahead of them into first place in the Eastern Conference on the heels of a six-game win streak. With Boston losing Gordon Hayward and the Cleveland Cavaliers facing point guard issues, could this be the season for the Raptors to emerge as genuine contenders?

In addition to a lighter schedule, the Raptors have also played a lot of games against sub-.500 teams. The entire current win streak has come against teams currently out of playoff position and Toronto hasn’t played a team in playoff position since beating the Pacers 120-115 on Dec. 1. Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who called his team in for a practice on Christmas night, said the light early schedule can be both a blessing and a curse.

“When you’re playing pretty good basketball, you’d much rather keep them coming,” said Casey. “That’s why we brought guys back tonight, Christmas night, to get some work in, to get a rhythm. We’re in the marathon right now. So we’ve got to try to get as much [work] in as we can, even on Christmas night.”

After Saturday’s win over the visiting 76ers, Casey said his team doesn’t take anything for granted against teams lower in the standings.

“Last year we struggled with teams that supposedly had bad records or didn’t have .500 records,” said Casey. “But I can see an air of confidence, especially here. And we’ve got to continue that.”

A big part of the team’s confidence comes from the play of DeMar DeRozan, who is averaging a team-high 24.9 points and is on pace for a career-best 24.1 Player Efficiency Rating.

“He sees the game at a different speed than we all do,” said Casey of DeRozan. “He has a confidence no matter who’s on him, who’s guarding him. Guys are also doing a good job of spacing around him.”

DeRozan agreed that he’s been in a zone this season.

“When you study and pay attention to everything out there on the basketball court, you kind of see things before they happen and understand your comfort zone,” said DeRozan. “Once you get into that kind of mentality out there on the court, everything looks real simple.”

In addition to being on pace for the most efficient offensive season of his career, DeRozan is also shooting above 34 percent from three-point range for the first time in his career. DeRozan had career highs in points (45) and three-pointers made (six) in Thursday’s win in Philadelphia before hitting four more threes at home against the 76ers on Saturday. According to ESPN’s Lawrence Murray, it was the first time in DeRozan’s career that he made at least four threes in consecutive games.

“I just always got caught up in my comfort zone of being dominant in my midrange and getting to my spots,” said DeRozan of why he hasn’t emphasized stretching out to the three-point line in the past. DeRozan is attempting 2.8 three-pointers per game, a full shot more than the 1.8 per game he attempted in 2015-16 when he enjoyed his best full season from distance (33.8 percent). He added that his delivery and release on threes shows that he hasn’t tinkered with his form while seeking to expand his range.

“You can tell by the way I shoot it, by the way I let it go, it’s the same way if it was a midrange,” said DeRozan.

Casey said that the confidence DeRozan has shown, both with his shot and his overall game, has been a catalyst. The team has been following his lead all season.

“We need that spark and for him to stretch to the floor also the way he does,” said Casey. “He’s been playing at a high level.”

In addition to DeRozan’s increased proficiency from long range, power forward Serge Ibaka is on pace for a career-best 40 percent from three on 4.3 attempts per game. The Raptors continue to be proficient in the pick-and-roll, with Jonas Valanciunas scoring an efficient 1.15 points per possession as a roll man and Ibaka just behind him at 1.07. If Toronto can continue to stretch the floor around its potent pick-and-roll attack, the team will be that much more dangerous.

The schedule will inevitably stiffen for the Raptors as more condensed stretches and more games against playoff contenders lie ahead. But Toronto can only play the games the NBA puts on the schedule, and thus far the Raptors have handled their business and put themselves in position atop the East. The Cavaliers and Celtics have looked potent in the early going, but the Raptors will have something to say about which team ultimately emerges as the best in the East this season.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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