DeMar DeRozan has the Raptors’ Basketball Reference page looking crooked. To the dismay of no one but Mike James, Friday’s game marked the fifth-straight game in which DeRozan surpassed the 30-point mark. It is, per Elias, the first such stretch since a dude named Michael put one together in 1986.
He’s been downright robotic with his efficiency, firing at a 55 percent clip from the field and posting a LeBronian PER through five games. Don’t let the 38.5 Usage Percentage or the fact that DeRozan is more than doubling his next closest teammate in point production fool you, though. No level of singular brilliance can support a team on its own — just ask Anthony Davis. Unlike the Pelicans’ stranded star, DeRozan has had plenty of assistance in the early part of the season.
Augmenting the Raptors’ alliterative two-guard during the team’s breezy 4-1 start have been the widespread contributions of an eclectic roster that, through five games, has proven to be deep and bouncy and exciting.
This wasn’t supposed to be the case. Jared Sullinger’s foot surgery, Lucas Nogueira’s ankle and the cloud of uncertainty that comes with employing two rookies all suggested the Raptors were going to have eek out wins with a shorthanded rotation until full health was achieved. Not so through 10 days of regular season play.
The surprises start with the aforementioned rookies. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam have shown tinges of green at times, but there have also been flashes of competence, even supreme effectiveness. Friday night’s 96-87 win over Miami was the best showing yet for both of them. Siakam ran the floor in transition like a gazelle and Poeltl guarded the rim like he was channeling another certain highly-drafted Utah big man. Poeltl and Siakam are proving they belong, and in the process taking a stand against dealing for one-dimensional, injury-prone 76ers big men.
Poeltl’s defensive agility and smarts were so pronounced against Miami they rivalled a second quarter Terrence Ross explosion in pure entertainment value. With Jonas Valanciunas having a cumbersome evening, Poeltl embraced the challenge of slowing Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside got his numbers, sure, but Poeltl’s vertical leaps in the restricted area were crucial in limiting the Heat to just 40 percent shooting in the paint Friday night.
A side note on the topic of that Ross outburst: his line of 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting was the latest example of him realizing his full gunner potential. There’s something beautiful about an enigmatic talent like Ross throwing consciousness to the wind and embracing the role of human microwave. If this is in fact the new normal for Ross, he chose a damn near perfect time to join the ranks of J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford.
Amid the punishing body blows provided by defense-first players like Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and Norman Powell, Toronto’s reserve units could use a certain hay-maker element. Ross has provided that the last two games, launching silky smooth pull-up jumpers and burying the wide-open threes the offense creates for him. Maybe even more encouraging than the converted shots is that Ross looks unafraid to take them. Gunner culture prohibits apprehension. With a clearly defined job to do, and a seemingly stable nightly allotment of 15-20 minutes, Ross should be in the right frame of mind to shoot first and worry never. He’s not trying to live up to starter’s expectations anymore. His team-best three point shooting and the lurking potential of the next heat-check game are factors Casey can’t afford to bench in the wake of a bad game or two.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Toronto’s stumbled-upon depth is that it has developed out of necessity. Valanciunas’ on Friday wasn’t the first example this season of a key Toronto cog having an off-night. Kyle Lowry’s shot has been a roller coaster, and DeMarre Carroll’s two-way game has been directionless the last couple times out. He was so off-kilter on Friday that he sat the entire fourth quarter after going scoreless on two shots in 20 minutes. He went to the locker room in the third quarter, but the Raptors later confirmed that he just went to change his shoes. Still, it’s hard to watch Carroll right now and think he’s functioning at his physical peak.
With such uneven starts from multiple starters, the Raptors easily could have stumbled out of the gates if it weren’t for their diverse set of reserves filling in the cracks. An ineffective Carroll, for example, is less of a concern when Ross is filling the bucket and Powell, the tenth man in the rotation who was sparingly used during opening week, can regularly turn in defensive possessions like this one in crunch time against Miami:
Not many back-benchers can adequately fill in for a starter, let alone clearly outperform one for extended stints.
“I thought down the stretch we needed defense,” said Casey on why Carroll sat for the fourth. “And Norm Powell was giving it to us.”
Masai Ujiri’s grand vision has been vindicated so far this season. A roster stockpiled with uncertain but moldable prospects has buoyed the Raptors in the early going and framed the health concerns of Sullnger, Nogueira and Carroll in a different light.
Considered to be crippling blows to Toronto’s depth two weeks ago, they’ve forced Casey’s hand and accidentally revealed an unforeseen level of roster utility. When Toronto’s front court returns to health and Carroll finds his comfort zone, the rotation may start to closer resemble preseason expectations. However, waiting behind Toronto’s established contributors will no longer be the spectre of the unknown. Instead, Casey a secondary wave of reserves to fall back on — reserves with experience in games like Friday’s, where they successfully propped up some substandard play from the starters.
“It’s a team win. One guy may be up, it may be his night one night,” said Casey after the Heat win. “Norm Powell’s night one night. It could be Cory Joseph’s night one night. We’re gonna need everybody. Pascal came in, he ran the floor, created open floor opportunities for us. Everybody contributed in some way. And it’s not about one guy - it’s this guy’s night, this guy had a bad night. It’s a team win.”
A theme may be starting here. If it weaves itself through the season, it can only mean good things for the Raptors this season and beyond.