Take a snapshot of Dwane Casey on the sideline, and you’d think he’s lost it. Even as his young team transitions into adulthood, he’s still a drill sergeant out there — barking orders, verbally willing his team to defend, to get out and run.
It’s easy to look at Casey on the sidelines and imagine he’s a man without a plan. Fair or unfair, when the Raptors lose, a segment of observers will blame Casey first.
He’s earned that criticism in the past. He’s drawn up simplistic late-game plays and he’s strict in his playing time for youngsters. He defers to his superstars, and is mostly unwilling to call them out.
Casey is enigmatic and likeable off the court, though, full of strange metaphors for how his team is playing. In life, you’re either the statue or the pigeon, as summed up by Casey after Game 4. When the Raptors fail, Dwane Casey is the statue.
In most scenarios, though, it’s a confluence of factors that cause the Raptors to lose — not just Casey’s decisions. It’s hard to blame the coach for the Game 3 drubbing by the Bucks, as it’s on the players to come out and dictate play. Nobody on Toronto gave much of a care on Thursday night, and they lost by 29 because of it. No change in lineup or play call was going to change that outcome.
In response to that loss, though, coaching did have to play a role in adjustments. The Raptors were getting outworked by the Bucks. The first part of Casey’s master plan to fix this? A change to the starting lineup, one that looked baffling on face value.
Cooler heads dictate that the Raptors would be best served with P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka playing as many frontcourt minutes as possible. Since their acquisition, the two-man pairing of Ibaka and Tucker have a net rating of 13.7; when you throw Patterson into the mix, it’s hard to find a top five-man lineup without two or more of them involved.
Yet, Casey decided to start tenth man Norman Powell and move DeMarre Carroll to power forward in Game 4. The Powell decision is defensible (especially considering how he played), but keeping Carroll in is less so.
To say Carroll has struggled lately would be an understatement; his -18.1 net rating is only outpaced by Cory Joseph’s -22.3. Carroll is shooting 27.3% from three in the series on 2.8 attempts per game and is posting a rotation-worst defensive rating of 110.8. He is neither “three” nor “D”, but still played 20 minutes in Game 4. The easy lineup change would be to sit him and allow Tucker and Patterson to eat those minutes.
The decision didn’t blow up in Casey’s face, though. Thanks to great games by Powell, Lowry, and DeRozan, the Raptors were only a -1 in the 16 minutes this starting lineup was on the floor.
It's crazy how Casey and Norm have this relationship where Casey leaves him planted to the bench and then calls him and says save my job.— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) April 22, 2017
The smaller starters were only part of Casey’s adjustments, though. Toronto went with an almost hockey-like approach to substitutions in Game 4. They experimented with lineups, made quick changes, then experimented some more — from opening tap to the final buzzer.
On this point, Casey should be both lauded and criticized. Let’s start with the biggest positive: that fresh bodies allowed the Raptors to put in their best defensive game of the series.
In the midst of another bad shooting night — 41.3% from the field and 22.7% from three — the Raptors were able to hold on to their second half lead with defense. Throughout the game, Toronto showed outstanding activity. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas both positioned themselves well to help, while the guards were able to gang rebound.
On three straight possessions early in the fourth, the Raptors were able to defend Milwaukee drives to the bucket, then swat at the ball to secure rebounds from an uninhibited Greg Monroe.
This madcap activity was present throughout, and especially shown by Kyle Lowry, Norm Powell, and P.J. Tucker. Late in the game, they were able to effectively cover for Valanciunas, allowing Casey to get away with his minutes. This possession shows it all, as stifling defense and a guard rebound turns into an open Powell three in transition.
The Jonas decision ended up being a savvy one. With Ibaka shooting a quick trigger 4-for-16, the Raptors were better off running everything on offense through Lowry and DeRozan. With Jonas as a low maintenance basketball vacuum, Casey found a most unlikely closer.
The defense held Milwaukee to 76 points on 37% shooting. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were a combined 10-for-32. While their aggressiveness was tempered down the stretch, some of that can be attributed to the Raptors’ intensity. They were swarming, no matter who was out there playing with each other.
The downside to this was a swath of Raptors lineups who, while able to play defense, were doomed to fail on the other end.
The best example of this came late in the third, as the team tried to get Lowry some rest. To do this, Casey went with a backcourt of Delon Wright, Cory Joseph, and DeMar DeRozan. Paired with Tucker and Valanciunas, there simply wasn’t enough shooting here to create anything of value on offense, and they went a -3 in just over two minutes.
There was also the decision to bench Patrick Patterson for much of the game. Patterson would play just eight minutes, going 0-for-2, while Casey opted to go with one centre and four guards throughout the afternoon. It worked out, but it’s hard not to think the Raptors could’ve narrowed the 50-41 rebound discrepancy with a more able body in there.
Washing away these concerns, though — as they usually do — were Lowry and DeRozan. With 51 points between them, they both surpassed the 40-minute mark and ably carried the offensive load for their team. Powell, too, was vastly important. He came in cold and hit all three of his long bombs, finishing +15 with 12 points. It’s hard to see the Raptors changing their starting lineup in Game 5, given the performances of those three together.
Unfamiliarity didn’t hamper the Raptors too much in Game 4. Even though they didn’t play their best lineups, they were able to mix and match, frustrating Milwaukee’s best players with active defense. Now it’s on Jason Kidd and the Bucks coaching staff to make adjustments in response to Casey’s plan.
There was reason to criticize what Dwane Casey did in Game 4. Like his roars on the sideline, the moves were bold. A lot of it was unexpected too. In the end, they worked out, and the series is tied heading back to Toronto.