It's not new for the final home game of the season to be completely void of importance for the Raptors franchise. Such games have typically been the realm of the Omar Cooks and Ben Uzohs of the world, anonymously running down the clock on yet another fruitless season.
This year's home-closing affair took on a different, more optimistic-feeling sort of meaninglessness. Toronto is playoff bound for a third-straight year, entrenched in the second seed with no control over its first-round opponent. As a result, Tuesday's game against the 10-win Sixers provided one of the final opportunities for the Raptors to tinker and toy ahead of the most important set of games this team will have played under the rule of Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey.
Eleven different players touched the floor for the Raptors Tuesday night, with no player getting into fewer than nine minutes of action.
The most important span of minutes, as far as the Raptors' playoff plans are concerned, was the 21-minutes logged by DeMarre Carroll in his third game back from knee surgery. It was the bulkiest chunk he's received since returning against the Hawks last week, as well as the most effective.
It wasn't just that Carroll was a +30 on the night, or that he hit two of his five three point tries, or that he kept the offense constantly moving with 26 passes (most on the team among non-point guards, and as many as Norman Powell in 17 fewer minutes, per NBA.com) that was encouraging. His presence continued to unlock some wonderfully effective small configurations for the Raptors to considering using in the playoffs.
"Tonight they were small," said Casey of Philadelphia's creative lineups. "He (Carroll) came in and was able to switch a lot of the stuff. [Robert] Covington was able to get loose because we had a bigger lineup in. DeMarre comes in and we're small, it gives us the flexibility to some things defensively that take them out of the things they wanna do.
With Carroll back in the fold, lineups with him at the four - some of which the Raptors used to great effect early in the year - are back in the playbook. Most notably from Tuesday, a lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas outscored the Sixers by 12 in just eight minutes. That's a small sample if there every was one, and a lot of lineups throughout the league have outscored the Sixers by wide margins in small spurts this year, but those results are indicative of how versatile and deadly the Raptors can be with all hands on deck.
Carroll's road back is by no means complete. While his offensive game was smooth and not-at-all forced against Philly, his defense is still not at the level it will need to be if the Raptors advance deep into the playoffs. If Nik Stauskas was able to blow past Carroll for a dunk, what could LeBron James do to him?
Lateral quickness issues aside though, it's tough to not be excited by Carroll's insertion back into the mix.
Elsewhere, Casey executed a perfect plan for such a nothing game in regards to Lowry and DeRozan. Sitting stars out for full games in understandable in the never-ending battle against injuries, but having Lowry and DeRozan play 26 and 22 minutes respectively felt like a perfect way to split the old "Rest vs. Rust" debate right down the middle. Having Lowry refine his ever-improving pick-and-roll chemistry with Valanciunas, and getting Carroll working in tandem with the starters once again is a benefit the Raptors afforded themselves by clinching the two-seed so early. Holding guys out completely would be a waste of some game-speed practice time ahead of the playoffs.
"You give them credit: they're getting ready to go into a playoff series," said Sixers coach Brett Brown. They're trying to find some level of a rhythm."
Neither DeRozan or Lowry touched the court in the fourth quarter, by the way.
Valanciunas was simply brilliant in 17 minutes - he put up 17 points (many of which came by way of Lowry, as alluded to above) and 11 rebounds in a game that will certainly pad his already sterling 22.4 PER on the season.
And lastly, Norman Powell continued his ascent up the rookie power rankings. In his team-high 38 minutes, Powell put up 18 points (also a team-high), four rebounds and three steals on 6-of-10 shooting.
The exclamation point came when Powell capped the Raptors' home schedule with a windmill dunk as time expired in the fourth, bringing the fans to their feet one last time, and ensuring the mood in the building at the very end of regular season would be the same as it will be when the playoffs get rolling this weekend.
Speaking of which, with Indiana's win and Detroit's loss, the Raptors know they will be paired with the Pacers in Round 1. Get your Larry Bird, Gordon Hayward, Reggie Miller and Jerry Gergich jokes ready.
What did you think of tonight's convincing win?