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Toronto plays with garbage time to great effect

Low stakes, small samples, can’t lose.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Garbage time in the NBA is precious. There’s something endearing about those waning minutes of an utter blowout where teams trot out second and third-stringers, and the on-court product only loosely resembles professional basketball. It’s a time for scrubs to throw their inhibitions aside and aim to impress. It’s a time to get weird.

This is why everybody loves garbage time. Everybody except for, you know, the team that is getting shellacked, that team’s fans, neutral television viewers, broadcast crews who are short on material and analysts trying to draw meaningful conclusions from what they’re watching. Perturbed by the fringe NBA players, rampant miscues and lack of macro-importance, these people tend to check out, change the channel or head for the exits as the scores rise and the clock melts away,

Monday night in Philadelphia illustrated why those people are missing out. Beyond the ogreish exterior of the fourth quarter of Toronto’s 122-95 win over the Joel Embiid-less Sixers, was a raucously entertaining 12 minutes of almost-basketball.

Terrence Ross provided a compelling junk time under card before the benches took total control of the court. Ross has found comfort this season. He’s isn’t burdened as a miscast starter the way he was a couple seasons ago, and there’s an ever-thickening cushion of trust insulating Ross from relegation to the dog house

Ross is being looked to as the focal point of the Raptors’ bench units — even when he shares the floor with Kyle Lowry. Instead of it just being an impulse, it’s become Ross’ responsibility to rise up for shots once he finds space. And he’s making them. Ross tightened Toronto’s grip on Monday’s game with a 15-point explosion on 5-of-5 shooting in seven fourth quarter minutes. He finished the game with 22 on 8-of-11 from the field, leaving his shooting line at a positively J.J. Redickian 50.8 / 44.8 / 94.7. Ross isn’t the complete package the Clippers’ sharp-shooter is, but it’s hard not to the see similarities when the Raptors are drawing up plays like this for their sixth man.

Ross isn’t playing like a typical shoot-first reserve. Following Monday’s game, Dwane Casey pointed to Ross’ improved defensive focus as a reason for him ditching the enigma tag he’s been branded with in the past.

“Consistency’s been huge for him,” said Casey. “I know he got 22 points but I think the most important thing was just his defensive focus. I liked the way he was moving his feet ... he got out and got the baseline cut off.”

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s playing free.”

Ross’ early junk time explosion left the Sixers far enough in Toronto’s wake to facilitate the real thing: a full-scale youth movement in the final 3:34 of action.

For true garbage time pessimists, this would have been the final cue to disengage. Ross’ wet jumper might have been enough to keep some eyes fixated as the Raptors extended their lead to nearly 30, but a lineup of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl would have been an instant deal breaker for anyone who needs their basketball to mean something.

Those three and a half minutes of supreme garbage time were inconsequential when it came to the game. But that doesn’t mean they failed to produce entertaining, sometimes hilarious nuggets that rewarded those who stuck around until the final buzzer.

I Wanna Go Fast

Norman Powell is electric. When the ball is in his hands and he’s pushing it up the court, the Raptors’ frantic-meter runs the risk of breaking. Add the always-sprinting Pascal Siakam into the mix and things get exhilarating.

Powell doesn’t quite have control of his physical gifts at this point — his in-close finishes tend to be heavy-handed, often ricocheting clean off the backboard and into the arms of a waiting rebounder.

Even if the execution isn’t always clean, Powell running a break is a pulse-pounding experience. It’s a regularity when he gets the chance, too. In the final three and a half minutes the baby Raptors, aided by Powell’s motor and a trio of steals, played at a blistering 110.36 possession pace.

“I think it’s natural,” said Poeltl after Monday’s win. “None of us are over like 22, 23 years old. We’re all pretty fresh. We can just go out there and just run and play our game and I think that’s why it ends up being a little bit faster.”

After watching the Raptors grind things to a halt for the last season-plus as one of the NBA’s slowest teams, getting to see the Raptors’ prospects excitedly zip up and down the floor is a welcome shift. Unsustainability be damned.

The Answer on Defense?

Battered by a tricky schedule and some uneven performances, the Raptors sit 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency. It’s not a space Casey wants to occupy, and it seems film room sessions these days have been all about repairing the leaks.

If small samples are to be trusted — which they of course are and should always be — the Raptors mop-up squad might provide some answers for Casey. Look at this possession, in which the Raptors match up seamlessly in transition before helping and rotating on a taught string until Siakam snatches the ball away.

That’s Casey’s ultimate vision for the defense. But shaky perimeter guarding and some cumbersome play from the center position has eaten away at Toronto’s score-stopping effectiveness.

The defensive rating for Toronto’s all-children unit: 68.5.

Who says you can’t extrapolate the lineup’s 214-second stretch and assume it would be the NBA’s fastest best defensive group over the course of a full season?

In all seriousness, it’s a bonus to have players like Poeltl, Powell and Siakam who seem to be advanced in their defensive understanding and ability at such young ages. That’s quite a head start to have over most first and second year players around the league.

Adventures with Bruno

At this point, Bruno Caboclo’s path to NBA relevance is as a comically long, defense-first, hybrid forward. Even in tiny doses, the highs and lows of Caboclo’s defense are staggering.

On his first defensive possession on Monday, for example, the juxtaposition between Caboclo’s inexperience and natural tools was delightful.

Off the hop, Caboclo just seems to lose interest in guarding Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Jakob Poeltl even tries to nudge him back towards his assignment for a couple seconds before just rotating over to the corner himself. But because you can never be either fully in nor out on Bruno, he eventually swallows the possession with a contest at the rim, almost as if to remind you that he has a seven-block D-League effort in the bag this season already.

He soon followed that roundabout possession with this steal straight out of a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, kick-starting a Powell-Siakam connection.

“It’s fun playing with Bruno. He’s just everywhere on the court,” said Poeltl. “It’s part of his frame, and how he has like these super long arms. He has the ability to not move to much and still be everywhere on the court.”

Getting Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan some relaxing bench time is nice, even critical to the Raptors’ long-term viability. But the real gift of Raptors blowouts are the brief windows into the development of Toronto’s curious project. Caboclo is no where close to logging meaningful minutes for a team with lofty expectations like the Raptors. But in games against clearly inferior opponents, the potential of a Bruno spurt is reason enough for even the staunchest of garbage time haters to keep the channel locked.