Raptors guard Norman Powell appeared to be over-matched in the closing minutes of Saturday's game against the New York Knicks. After admirably failing to slow down Carmelo Anthony in DeMarre Carroll's stead for much of the night, Powell’s assignment changed on the fly. In crunch time of a see-saw game, Dwane Casey appointed Patrick Patterson to take over against the scorching Anthony. Kristaps Porzingis became Powell’s new defensive check.
You may not see a more hilarious juxtaposition of size on an NBA court this season. The gangly-but-enormous Porzingis has nearly a foot on Toronto's second-year reserve. Predictably, New York altered its Melo-centric approach, opting to feed Porzingis in the post for consecutive possessions late in the game. As the Raptors goaded the Knicks into altering the strategy that had succeeded for most of the night, Powell stood up to the challenge. With the help of his trapping partner Lucas Nogueira, Powell overcame a couple hiccups - chiefly a pretty Porzingis assist to a slashing Derrick Rose - and bottled up the Knicks big man enough to throw New York’s offense out of sync. Swarming defense like this down the stretch helped seal a 118-107 win for the Raptors.
As he worked his way through the Porzingis mismatch, Powell in a way resembled the man who put him in that position in the first place.
Based on how he’s been discussed over the years, you get the impression that Casey looks like a 6’4 guard next to a 7’3 Latvian when stacked up next to the NBA’s elite coaches. Despite the sustainable culture he’s helped foster in Toronto, it’s typically been perceived that Casey is outgunned when it comes to X’s and O’s, adaptability and suit choices.
But the early days of 2016-17 have provided a canvass on which Casey has illustrated his growth. Saturday’s unorthodox use of Powell late was just one example of the heightened level of ingenuity Toronto’s coach is operating with. The decision provided the Raptors an edge in a game that didn’t supply many.
A night earlier, in Charlotte, Casey put similar faith in Powell, tasking him with shutting down Charlotte’s no. 2 option Nic Batum, while enlisting Nogueira to take part in some aggressive trapping of Kemba Walker, who ripped Toronto’s net for 32 points on 14 shots in quarters one through three. Casey’s adjustment cooled Walker from blistering to a mere rolling boil, while limiting the contributions of Charlotte’s secondary contributors. Raptors win, 113-11.
Even under impossible circumstances, Casey has put his team in great positions to succeed. This week will be referred to for the remainder of the season as the one that featured the “back-to-back from hell.” Two nights, two NBA finalists and an endless list of impossible-to-guard opponents.
Lineup creativity has never been in Casey’s standard bag of tricks. He rides the lineups he trusts in the moments he’s accustomed to deploying them. Casey values rotation continuity so much that backbench players are usually just one injury away from leap-frogging an entrenched bench cog and landing in the starting lineup.
We saw an uncommon amount of deviation from the norm this week as Casey tried to toggle match-ups against the Cavaliers and Warriors. It’s common place to see the Raptors use 10 or 12 different lineup combos in a given night. Per NBA.com, Casey tinkered on his way to using 22 in both halves of Toronto’s cruel back-to-back.
Wednesday against the Warriors was particularly intriguing. As Casey pointed out following the 127-121 loss, Golden State’s freaky talented small lineups gave the Raptors all sorts of problems.
“They take a guy like Jonas (Valanciunas) out of the game, they take a guy like Lucas out of the game,” said Casey of the Raptors centres who played just 18 and 13 minutes respectively. “Those guys can come down, handle the ball, pick-and-roll – whatever they’re gonna do. They’re [Kevin Durant and Draymond Green] basically a guard that’s a centre. Very unique match-ups, same as last night with Frye at the five spacing the floor.”
Valanciunas’ lack of minutes was startling on the surface. In the opening 24 he scored 12 points on perfect shooting, and was a load that none of Golden State’s old and/or undersized centres could handle. At the same time, Golden State’s high-IQ cutting and passing exposed Valanciunas’ spacey and lead-footed defense:
On that play Valanciunas’ eagerness to pester a non-shooter like Zaza Pachulia left an unprotected basket for Kevin Durant to cut towards. On others, he was unable to lunge out far enough to bother Steph Curry on the pick-and-roll. Golden State’s collection of weapons highlighted the flaws in his game, and kept him from touching the floor as the Raptors mounted a second half comeback. There were just better defensive options Casey could go to (although even good defenders are often made foolish by the Warriors).
One of them was Pascal Siakam, who for the bulk of the season has occupied the minute-consuming role originally defined by Luis Scola in 2015-16. Casey has been careful not to over-extend him, using him almost exclusively with starter-heavy units in the opening stretches of halves.
On Thursday, Casey trusted him against the league’s most frightening offense.
“I thought he brought us energy. His youthful enthusiasm, his bouncing around kept us going,” Casey said of Siakam, who played a career-high 30 minutes Wednesday night.
“We were able to switch with him some. We played him at five. I thought his energy was great coming out and switching on pick-and-roll, trying to guard a guy like Curry and Durant ... Really loved the way he played and what he brought to the table.”
Casey found a pairing that better held up to Golden State’s one-to-five skill in Siakam and Patterson - a front court combo he rode for 10 minutes. Tiny sample size caveats apply, but the 103.6 Defensive Rating the pair surrendered together was the fourth-best mark posted by any tandem of Raptors in Wednesday’s loss; Siakam figured in to two of the top three of those duos as well (Siakam-Lowry: 103.4 in 25 minutes, Siakam-DeRozan: 101.5 in 23 minutes).
“When I’m out there with Pat I just know that we can switch everything,” said Siakam. “So it’s more like a defensive approach to the game where we have the latitude to just switch on a lot of things. It’s great, I can roll to the basket and he pop and we can hit shots.”
Every time Valanciunas sees his minutes eaten into by one of his more mobile but less offensively gifted teammates, there seems to be a referendum on both player and coach. You can gripe with Casey’s decision to leave his low post brute on the bench when he was clearly too much for Golden State’s big men to handle. At the same time, scoring wasn’t the issue for Toronto on Drake Night. Despite the loss, it’s hard to criticize Casey opting to roll with the defensive versatility Steve Kerr’s team demands.
Even if you disagree with Casey’s process, the results can’t be ignored. Toronto had no business hanging with the Warriors just hours after a high-strung shootout with the defending champs - a game in which Casey stuck with Valanciunas with the game on the line. Maybe he hasn’t optimized the former fifth-overall pick, whose skills sometimes clash with the central motif of Toronto’s game plan.
He has, however, squeezed every last win out of his rosters over the past three-plus seasons, all the while exhibiting tremendous growth in his coaching style. “Pound the Rock” is still embroidered on the inside of the Raptors’ locker room door, but Casey’s philosophy has expanded far beyond that repetitious imagery.
Like players, coaches can improve. There’s something to an organization letting it breathe, and easing off the quick trigger finger that often results in the premature firing of coaches still in the midst of establishing themselves.
Patience with Casey has paid off handsomely, and these past few games have showcased his evolution into a more malleable and inventive tactician. He accentuates the strengths of his star players, at times compromising aesthetics to do so. Once adverse to trusting inexperience, he has come to rely on players like Powell, Siakam, Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl in crucial moments and helped harvest the seeds Masai Ujiri has planted with his roster building strategy.
At this point, all Casey has left to do in order to truly find himself shoulder-to-shoulder with the NBA’s best coaches is find himself a tailor to help spruce up his suit game. Based on the job he’s done with Toronto, he should have plenty of time to root around the fashion district to find one.