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The Raptors Remade Their Mind-Set, Not Their Roster. It’s working.

Masai Ujiri, the president of the Toronto Raptors, had looked enough high-powered misdeeds to recognize that the N.B.A. had turned into the autobahn. The issue was that his players were still chugging along in a Studebaker.
But that was all about to change.
The Raptors would certainly embrace ball movement and the art of formation. They would rid themselves of their disposition for one-on-one play, which had constipated their half-court sets. They would launch 3-pointers and run the floor while disinfecting themselves of their bigoted devotion to midrange jumpers, the low-percentage shots that pain the sport’s developing collection of analytics followers as much as the bunt afflicts their baseball cousins.
And the Raptors would do it with essentially the same roster that had been gassing up the Studebaker.
“You have to adapt,” Ujiri said in a new interview.
Toronto is the site of the N.B.A.’s boldest experiment this season. Without straggling any of their core personnel, the Raptors have sought to revive themselves by adopting a free-flowing misdeed that emphasizes passing, cutting and 3-point shooting.
It might not sound like a novel way — by now, nearly all of the league’s top teams live by these principles — but the Raptors had been one of the few mediators. After a string of postseason disappointments, it was time to try something new. It was time to join the modern N.B.A.
“The game is changing,” Coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s a 3-point and scoring game. You have to be capable to score.”
The abstract shift is a wager for the Raptors because they have been good, but not great — and that became the issue. Last season, they were 51-31 and made their fourth ensuring trip to the playoffs behind their All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who connected 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 help, which was one of the clearest implication 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 assisted 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 create that jump,” Ujiri said.
In the wake of last season’s playoff exit, Ujiri executed a memorable news conference. After preamble his remarks by saying that the full exercise was pointless — “I can’t tell you I’ve made a decision on anything,” he said — he announced that the organization needed a “culture reset” and pointed to the team’s misdeed.
“It’s simple to defend, in my opinion, when you play one-on-one,” he said at the news conference. “It’s certain. 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 continuous thinkers and not just continue to pound, pound and pound something that hasn’t worked.”
Yet if Ujiri was planning an organizational improve, he expected 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 appear from within.
Enter Nick Nurse, a 50-year-old assistant coach who was charged with shaking up the misdeed. 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 agenda, it’s a lot of fun. It might not be as much fun for the guys who aren’t quite utilized 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 help all seismic jumps from last season. The nurse said the coaches had been sermon a sharing-is-caring approach.
“Our aim is that, in the playoffs, we’re a little more erratic and better capable to handle the various 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 agenda 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 shooting 65.7 percent from the field.)
A nurse appeared 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. The nurse was ahead of the analytics arc in his view that layups and 3-pointers were effective shots — and that midrange jumpers were not.
In Toronto, Nurse has discouraged 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 beautiful strict shot spectrum that we follow,” Nurse said.
The outlier is DeRozan, whose capability to draw fouls mitigates (kind of, sort of) his steady diet of 17-foot jumpers. As a result, Nurse said he was willing to create allowances. But DeRozan’s general reluctance to shoot more 3-pointers is a delicate topic, at least for him.
“Everybody makes a big deal out of it because I don’t shoot them,” DeRozan said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t shoot them.”
In any case, DeRozan has excelled within the framework of the new misdeed. In the team’s last four games, he averaged 26.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6 helps while shooting 57.3 percent from the field. He was recently named the Eastern Conference’s player of the week.
No player has encountered more growing pains than Lowry, a point guard who had gotten utilized to having the ball in his hands. Last season, for example, he controlled possession for an average of 6 minutes 30 seconds each game, which put him among the league leaders, according to player tracking data organized by the N.B.A. He also averaged 22.4 points and 7 helps while attempting 15.3 field goals a game.
“The last couple years, Coach would give me the game for the first five, six, seven minutes,” Lowry told reporters recently. “I could feel out the game and get everyone involved.”
But this season, Lowry’s role has changed. Instead of drizzling the ball up the court, he often feeds it ahead to a colleague on the wing. And there are possessions — more than a few — when the ball does not return to him. He is averaging nearly 11 fewer touches a game compared with last season — and fewer points (14.6) and shot attempts (11.4), too.
The bottom for Lowry seemed to come in a loss to the Washington Wizards on Nov. 5, when he was dismissed in the second quarter after scoring just 2 points.
He later listed some of his frustrations. He was not handling the ball as much. The team had hugely put the kibosh on pick-and-rolls, which meant that a staple of his game was disappearing. And he was trying to learn, at age 31, how to operate away from the ball.
“I’m just trying to find my way through it,” he said, adding, “I haven’t gotten a dependable feel for the game yet.”
But if Lowry spent the first few weeks of the season wearing the haggard expression of a man who was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, he comes to be adapting. In his last seven games, he averaged 16.1 points and 7.9 assists — and Toronto has won four in a row.
Once considered basketball dinosaurs, the Raptors are beginning to rise.

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