The first question on everyone's mind before Game 2 of the Raptors' series with the Pacers was simple: would head coach Dwane Casey get the rotation sorted out? After a Game 1 loss that saw curious all-bench lineups and a strange see-sawing of minutes between DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Norman Powell and Terrence Ross, more nervous questions abounded. Who should start? How much run should Luis Scola actually get? Is it DeMarre Carroll or Terrence Ross or Norman Powell who should be getting heavy minutes? For Toronto, the situation was fraught with anxiety.
It was announced just before tip-off that Carroll would start in Powell's place (not Scola's), which seemed to suggest -- given the Raptors usual go-to Kyle Lowry plus the bench lineup -- that Powell would find himself just outside the playoff rotation. The reasoning for this change remains sound.
"Somehow, some way, we've gotta get DeMarre [Carroll] going," said Casey afterwards. "Get him integrated into the lineup, and one way to do that is start him, get him starters minutes... get him in the flow of the game along with Paul George. That way he's not coming in when George is already heated and then, now DeMarre's gotta come in and turn off the water."
The idea, however, remained only sound in theory. In practice, Carroll got tagged with two quick fouls trying to stay with George. And, due to the Raptors' desire to keep that bench unit together, Casey's first rotation decision was made for him: in came odd man out Norman Powell to do his best human fire extinguisher impression.
Though he finished with only three points and a 1-of-6 shooting night, Powell's presence was felt on the court. He was +21 for the night, and gamely did what he could to slow down George. Sure, the Pacers' leader still managed 28 points on 8-of-15 shooting anyway, but as Casey said, after referring to Powell as a "cool customer," he responded well to the pressure. Norm's bright smile when asked about his role suggested he knew this to be true.
Carroll would be back for stretches -- someone has to play those minutes -- but as the game wore on it was clear that he's not quite 100 percent. Casey was quick to say Carroll's knee is fine (I remain unconvinced), but his game conditioning and timing are not all there. It showed, particularly on the offensive end where Carroll's been largely a non-factor. His forays to the rim have been mostly disastrous and the Raptors offense hasn't found a way to swing him the ball for open 3s. Here's hoping for something better in Game 3.
Carroll's insertion into the starting lineup was not all bad though. It led the Raptors back to the group that annihilated teams for much of the regular season: the aforementioned Lowry plus bench unit of Cory Joseph, Ross, Patterson and Bismack Biyombo. This is the lineup that outscored teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. It was also a lineup we barely saw in Game 1.
Still, the rotation questions kept coming. After an unfortunate collision between DeMar DeRozan and Ross, the latter had to be taken out of the game per the league's concussion protocol. Casey had no choice but to go back to Powell again, to slow George and to fill the role of Ross in the Raptors dynamite Lowry plus the bench lineup. (We need to give this group a nickname.) As the tight (sphincter) third quarter gave way to the rollicking fourth, the Raptors finally looked to have found their groove.
But these substitutions were done out of necessity, injury and foul trouble essentially forcing Casey's hand. The final decision was much more powerful: DeRozan, the Raptors' other All-Star, sat the entirety of the fourth quarter.
"I think he [DeRozan] understands that group was running, rolling pretty well," said Casey afterwards. "He'd be the first probably to tell you 'let that group roll'." It was hard not to notice every time DeRozan sat last night, the Raptors looked a touch sharper on defense, and a step faster on offense. The ball moved around more coherently, with possessions going in a stronger direction. This is not all DeRozan's fault, as he is being checked by George, one of the elite defenders in the world. But it does not exactly help DeRozan's resume, or possibly his sense of self (though he won't admit that), to have his lunch eaten by the Pacers' disciplined defense.
"It's funny, a lot of people think I feel a certain way, that I didn't go back in the fourth," said DeRozan. "Lot of times, I'll tell the coaches, keep going. The group of guys in there, whoever's in there, keep rolling." In a strange way it is calming to hear DeRozan talk like this, even as the 30 minutes he did play saw him get consistently knocked out of his comfort zone. He shot 5-of-18 (after a 5-of-19 Game 1) and didn't get to the free throw line at all. And while DeRozan still showed his preternatural ability to can jumpers from hither and yon a couple times, it really was not enough to play him down the stretch. The players on the court were rolling after all, and all those pesky rotation questions had been answered. So, should DeRozan be worried?
"No, I don't care," said DeRozan. "It happens. It's two games. I don't think too much into it. I'm not dwelling over it. It happens. All I care about is we won this game."