Masai Ujiri's roster-building strategy coming into the 2015-16 season was all about the long game: sacrifice short-term depth, load the end of the bench with long-term projects and rely heavily on a 10-man collection of reliable NBA players to carry the load throughout the season.
But as injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas occurred early in the year, Ujiri's plan was tested. Players like Lucas Nogueira, Norman Powell and Anthony Bennett were asked to do something that wasn't expected of them coming into the season: provide meaningful contributions to a team with lofty goals in the Eastern Conference.
Over the course of the following months, the Raptors bench has coalesced - via strong rookie contributions, savvy-not-sexy roster moves and an increased work load for its spare parts - into a lengthy unit rich in functional depth.
Toronto's 105-100 win over the Orlando Magic Sunday showcased just how much growing the Raptors' roster has done this year.
Down five of the original 10 guys tasked with powering the Raptors (Valanciunas (hand), Patrick Patterson (ankle), James Johnson (Achilles), Carroll (knee) and Cory Joseph (rest)), the Raptors relied on a balanced attack from eight players, three of whom didn't figure into the team's immediate plans to start the campaign.
On top of the customary strong outings by DeMar DeRozan (25 points, four rebounds, five assists on 6-16 shooting and 13-16 from the line) and Kyle Lowry (18, five and seven), Dwane Casey got real production from his newly-found usable end-of-benchers.
Norman Powell wasn't much of a factor in a first half that featured some nonchalant Toronto defense. His second half showing was much better though. He shot just 1-of-6 on the night, but he grabbed a few rebounds, made a couple of smooth drives and kicks and was so sturdy defensively that Casey called in him in crunch time when the Raptors were defending a narrow lead.
Powell's draft classmate Delon Wright was everything you could want from a rookie point guard. He was quietly solid, putting up 6 points on a tidy 3-of-5 shooting line while adding in a pair of assists without turning the ball over at all in his 16 minutes of playing time. He may not be as tantalizing as some of his more spectacular peers in this rookie class, but he is getting visibly more confident running the offense with every opportunity he gets.
Jason Thompson's eight-point, 10-rebound effort was an odd one. For the first three quarters he looked lousy on defense, confusedly leaving the likes of Andrew Nicholson and Ersan Ilyasova wide open on the perimeter. His offense was iffy as well. A 2-of-7 shooting night for a guy who operates around the rim isn't exactly inspiring.
That said, he was great late in the game. One sequence stood out in particular, during which he grabbed a heavily contested defensive rebound, ran the length of the floor, scooped up a Raptors miss and dropped in a put back lay-in that put the Raptors up 93-91. They never trailed again.
Guys like Thompson, Powell and Wright may never have stat lines that pop, but it's performances like the ones they turned in on Sunday that will allow Casey to preserve his top players for the playoffs, like he did with Joseph tonight.
Casey had this to say on his mindset as it regards to rest as the season winds down.
We're trying to be strategic. No disrespect to any team we're playing - believe me we're going into these games to win. It's not vacation time. It's just giving their bodies time to recover from a stressful season. To make sure we have them fresh. What we don't want to do is hold everyone out the last two weeks and be out of rhythm once the playoffs start. That's hard to do; ramp it back up from zero to 100 once the playoffs start.
Toronto certainly caught a break or two against Orlando as well. In addition to Orlando's best scorer Nikola Vucevic missing the game, Ersan Ilyasova, normally a Raptor-killer and the exact type of player that gives Luis Scola fits, was an ugly 4-of-13 on the night with multiple air balls. It also helped that the horrifying match-up advantage Aaron Gordon should have had over Scola didn't really get time to manifest itself. Scott Skiles held Gordon to just 18 minutes on the night.
Still, it took 40 minutes from Kyle Lowry and some nervous fourth quarter moments for the Raptors to take their 48th win of the season. It was far from pretty. But down so many crucial pieces, you could have hardly expected it would be a breeze.
Thanks to the modest-but-meaningful roles played by guys 11 through 13 on the depth chart, Toronto will now go on the road with a high probability of returning as the first 50-win team in franchise history. That would certainly be a pretty thing to see.
What did you think of tonight's game?