For a playoff team like the Toronto Raptors, a win over an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder in the first month of the season probably shouldn't register as a statement game. But that's exactly what November 11th's comeback win over the Orlando Magic was. The victory, which pushed the Raptors blistering start to 7-1, proved to be monumental in forming the identity of the team that now sits in the East's second seed.
In addition to spawning the short-lived "#WetheFourth" moniker that Raptors fans only wish they could tweet with pride now, that 104-100 triumph established the Raptors bench as one of the very best in the NBA.
Toronto's starters, who up to that point had been outscoring opponents by a monstrous 34 points per 100 possessions, were sluggish all night long. Jonas Valanciunas was a non-factor. DeMar DeRozan shot 4-15 and Amir Johnson was out-muscled on the boards by Tobias Harris.
After three frames, Toronto trailed 83-72, and were lucky to even be that close.
As the fourth quarter began though, the Raptors bench caught fire. Two mid-range jumpers from Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson, a made free-throw, and a pair of three balls from those same two reserves later: tie game; in just two minutes and eleven seconds.
From there, the Raptors closed out the win on the back of more clutch shooting from Williams and Patterson, James Johnson's ferocious rebounding and some tenacious defense. DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross returned to close out the final moments. But make no mistake - the win belonged to the five-man bench unit of Williams, Patterson, Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and Tyler Hansbrough.
November 11th was the first example, but the brilliance of the Raptors bench rotation was apparent on a consistent basis throughout the early part of the season.
To this point, the original Raptors bench group has been the 36th-most utilized line-up in the NBA this season. That number carries little meaning until you consider that of the 35 line-ups that rank ahead of the Vasquez-Williams-Johnson-Patterson-Hansbrough combo, each and every one features either five starters, or four starters plus a sixth man.
That's right. Toronto's original bench unit sits just barely below many teams' starting and/or crunch time line-ups in terms of how often they are relied upon. And it's hard to argue with Dwane Casey's decision to deploy them with regularity early on. The group has even out-performed the Raptors' most used starters in terms of overall efficiency:
|Line-Up||Min.||OFF Rtg||DEF Rtg||NET rtg|
Those numbers aren't overwhelmingly shocking when you consider just how many times the bench has bailed the team out this year. Lou Williams has notched 14 games of 20 or more points, with many of those coming on nights when Lowry and DeRozan failed to live up to their All-Star statuses. Vasquez has provided solid three-point shooting. James Johnson has been a defensive stalwart. Patterson has been a dependable jack of all trades. And then there's Hansbrough, who has somehow compiled the best NET Rating on the team by trying really, really hard.
What's shocking though, is the scarcity with which the quintet has been used in the last month and a half. Since DeRozan returned from his injury on January 13th, the original bench unit has only played 18 minutes together; a change in rotational complexion that has correlated with the team's most disappointing stretch of the season.
In the 37 games the team played prior to January 13th, Toronto's bench averaged 40.2 points per game. DeRozan's 21 missed games, along with minor nicks to the Johnsons and Valanciunas limited the "Original Five" to coming off the bench together in just 18 games; but in those games the bench scoring totals jumped to 43.0 per contest.
Continuity has been kind to the Raptors this year. The team went 12-6 in those 18 games. And even though both Vasquez and Johnson started games during DeRozan's absence, the third most utilized line-up during that time was the original bench five. Toronto was 25-12 up until DeRozan re-joined the team.
In the last 22 games, things have not been so smooth though. Lowry has gone cold, DeRozan's offense has dried up, and the bench has only netted 38.0 points per game en route to the team going 12-10.
While that's a respectable mark for a bench to score each night, a lack of continuity in recent weeks has dulled what was once the brightest aspect of the Raptors. Furthermore, the changes have negatively affected the cohesiveness of the entire team.
Shortly after DeRozan returned, Vasquez took over Ross' starting duties, and all but eliminated James Johnson's playing time. Vasquez also joined Williams, Ross, Patterson and Hansbrough for the majority of the team's second-unit time and while that line-up performed well together, the starters struggled mightily following the line-up tweak:
|Line-up||Min.||OFF Rtg||DEF Rtg||NET Rtg|
Removing James Johnson from the regular rotation caused the existing holes in the Raptors defense to open even further, and messed with the cohesion that has been crucial the squad's success.
Vasquez was then moved back to the bench when Casey switched to Johnson-squared as his three-four starting combo ahead of the San Antonio game. In the four games after the alteration, the newly configured five-man bench put up just 36 per game - and the team scored just 92.2 points/100 possessions. Then a pair of disruptions muddled the rotation's stability once again.
Williams missed the team's clash with Houston, and returned to a Patterson-less bench for the next game in New Orleans. Missing those key reserves in consecutive games incited a pair of horrendous outings from the short-handed bench:
Per math wizard @Mike_Ganter, with one of Lou/Pat out in each of the last two games, Raps' bench has been outscored 103-38— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) February 25, 2015
Like when James Johnson was relegated to keeping Bëbë company, the loss of role players Williams and Patterson was akin to when Toby Flenderson left "The Office" after Season 4. They aren't the stars, but their presence is crucial to the effectiveness of the whole operation.
That's the reality with a team like the Raptors. Their stars aren't super enough to keep the team on track when complementary roles are being filled.
Take James Johnson's stopping ability out of the equation - the defense struggles. Lose Williams' scoring punch - the offense on the bench isn't enough to augment the middling group of starters. Remove Patterson's versatility - the Raptors bigs quickly become plodding and vulnerable to floor-spacers. And when the line-ups are continuously altered, the team's celebrated chemistry gets thrown off-balance.
Toronto has seemingly been stuck in a rut since DeRozan's return, searching for the recipe needed to regain their early season form. Guys have been benched and the starters have been jumbled multiple times - including Patterson subbing in for Amir Johnson against Golden State.
Maybe the answer is an easy one though. It could be simple matter of rolling out the NBA's most relied-upon five-man reserve unit once again.
Perhaps then games will start unfolding a lot more like November 11th's win over Orlando.