Jonas Valanciunas game close to making his return from a sprained ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game that he came close to inserting the team's usual starting five in for Bismack Biyombo, who was two fouls deep, late in the second quarter with the Raptors up big.
Ultimately, Casey chose against disrupting the status quo that had been keeping the Cavs shackled to that point.
"I almost did, right before half time, right before Biz got the third foul," said Casey after the game. "That's when I thought about it. But it was such a short time, and it was a defensive possession and he'd been sitting there the whole first half ... It was close. I thought just the game was so intense. For him to go in there not loose, coming back from a turned ankle, it would have been tough for him to get in the flow of the game in a crucial situation."
Given the way Valanciunas demolished the Pacers and Heat in the first nine and a half games of the playoffs, you'd think the Raptors would be delighted to have him back and available for duty. But against this Cavs team, it's not as simple as plugging Valanciunas in and making a double-double magically appear on the box score.
Cleveland has been at its best in the playoffs when taking advantage of the stretchiness of its big men. Channing Frye has dropped almost three triples a game on the Raptors in this series at an insane 57.9 percent rate. Valanciunas has struggled with shooting bigs all season, and would be rendered useless on the defensive end for the 20 or so minutes Frye is on the court - as well as any minutes the struggling Kevin Love plays at the five.
One benefit to having Biyombo consuming 90 percent of Toronto's minutes at centre in this series has been the versatility he provides the Raptors in terms of how they try to slow down LeBron James. He's of a menace at the rim - as James as learned a couple times - but also has shown to be capable of switching onto smaller players and may in fact be the key to breaking up the Lebron-at-the-four lineup of despair that almost stole Game 4 from Toronto's grasp. By altering the coverages to have Biyombo guard James instead of Frye, Casey might be able to dilute the potency of the poisons the Raptors have to choose between in that configuration.
At the same time, we can't ignore how devastating Valanciunas looked in late April and early May. In addition to the improved rim protection he flashed, Valanciunas was an out of control wrecking ball in the pick-and-roll - he couldn't be contained. In 37 playoff instances as a roller (still third-most in the playoffs) before going down, Valanciunas put up a tight 1.16 points per possession. And if you remember, that stretch of great play came at a time where Biyombo was mostly a non-factor.
As poorly as Toronto's defense held up in the final 12 minutes on Monday, the Raptors faced little more resistance than a stiff breeze on the other end with Frye as the centre. Perhaps adding Valanciunas into the mix would victimize Frye (or Love) to a point that Tyronn Lue is forced to use more traditional, lighter-shooting lineups?
It's a difficult balancing act, and it's something that Casey and his staff have certainly been grappling in the lead-up to Valanciunas's return.
Will the Raptors start Valanciunas to take advantage of the Tristan Thompson match-up? Will Casey bring him off the bench and test him against Frye as the centre? Could he be purely a break-in-case-of-emergency option if the Raptors are in dire need of a dependable third scoring option?
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