It’s taken some time and work-shopping, but Dwane Casey seems to have established the nine-man rotation he is going to roll with for the foreseeable future in the playoffs. The utility of Toronto’s roster runs well past the ninth slot, of course. The contributions of guys like Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl are among the many reasons it’s been so tough for Casey to pin down a set collection of players to use.
As was apparent in Toronto’s Game 5 domination of Milwaukee, the Raptors’ ceiling bursts through the roof when the team’s role guys are propping up its stars.
Every member of Casey’s nine-man lineup made significant contributions to help push the Raptors to the brink of advancing. If they can replicate those efforts in Game 6, Toronto could be looking at a series win in less than the maximum number of games for the first time ever.
That stat alone is still incredible to think about.
Kyle Lowry beat traps with his brain
Lowry attempted just nine field goals in the Game 5 win. Normally, such a low usage from the team’s best shooter might be a red flag; on a day in which his back was flaring up, it could be construed as downright concerning.
Worry not. Lowry’s sparsely dotted shot chart was merely a side effect of his most cerebral game of the series. Rather than fire up tricky shots through sprawling Bucks’ limbs, Lowry darted passes that split Milwaukee’s traps like peas. Three examples stand above the rest.
Remember what it looks like for a Raptors big man to score on a pick-and-roll?
Here, Lowry looked like LeBron James minus eight inches and a dead-eye three-point shooter in the corner. A DeMar DeRozan lay-in works, though.
And lastly, how about a touch pass to Jonas Valanciunas in prime deep position.
Lowry threatening to force shots after the Game 1 loss never made much sense. His brain is his best asset, and ill-advised chucking would run counter to his high-IQ reputation. If Milwaukee’s blitzing scheme is going to persist into Game 6, look for similar dimes from Lowry. It’s beginning to feel like he’s solved Jason Kidd’s scheme.
Norman Powell had a podium game
The biggest knock against Norman Powell’s game this year was his inability to create as the go-to guy off the bench. In spot start minutes, Powell was consistently fantastic, averaging 15.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 40 percent shooting from long range. Able to blend in as a low-usage accessory to the offense, Powell gave off peak Wesley Matthews-in-Portland vibes.
It’s interesting then that he seemed to be overlooked in the endless calls to alter the starting five. P.J. Tucker quickly replaced Powell as the obvious starting solution.
Ample credit goes to Casey for choosing Powell for the in-series promotion. Listening to the coach discuss Powell’s strengths after the game — attacking weak side closeouts, shooting off the catch — it feels obvious that he’d excel against the Bucks’ “anyone but the stars” mantra on defense.
“He’s a spark plug. He’s the x-factor. So many times you’re so concerned about DeMar and Kyle, rightfully so, that next next spark plug, that next guy, that next instigator is ‘the guy,’” explained Casey. “He’s done an excellent job of playing off those two and taking what the game is giving him whether its a three point shot or taking it to the basket.”
Powell’s utility could very well dry up should the Raptors move on to round two against the Cavaliers. Until then, though, expect him to get plenty of chances to one-up the two thunderous jams he put down against the Bucks in Game 5.
Norm ends Thon Maker. pic.twitter.com/OpEqowmytl— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) April 25, 2017
We can't keep up with the Norm highlights. pic.twitter.com/03vQZfroVD— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) April 25, 2017
DeMar DeRozan didn’t force the issue
Lowry’s late-season injury was by no means an ideal situation for the Raptors, but it came with its silver linings. Most importantly was the pressure it put on DeRozan to refine is skills as a facilitator. This wasn’t known at the time, but Lowry’s absence put DeRozan through a five-week crash-course in how to handle the Milwaukee Bucks.
With Lowry sidelined, DeRozan was the focal point for opposing defenses. Heavy trapping was more often than not the strategy of choice. On nights where aggressive schemes kept his shot from heating up, DeRozan was able to expand his score-first mindset and distribute to great effect. Games of six, eight or even 10 assists were common for DeRozan down the stretch.
His 18-point, 14-shot and six assist performance in Game 5 isn’t the breaking news it might have been in the past. Like Lowry, DeRozan was able to dictate the game without heavy dependence on self-creation. With balance, the Raptors become nearly unguardable.
DeMarre Carroll revived himself
Hand-wringing over the starting lineup is a tradition as old as this era of Raptors basketball itself. Since the power forward position’s constant state of flux was resolved with the Serge Ibaka deal, Carroll’s job as the starting three has been the object of fan angst. The calls for his job have been understandable; Carroll’s three point shot fell off a cliff post-All-Star and P.J. Tucker’s bad MF-er aura quickly endeared himself to the fan base. A one-for-one swap in the starting unit would have appeased just about everyone.
Casey did of course make a tweak to his starters, but not the one most would have called for. Carroll kept his spot, and slid down to the four while Norman Powell took over for Jonas Valanciunas. The results: a 103.7 / 84.4 / +19.3 NET efficiency slash-line in 32 minutes over two games, including helping to start a 17-0 run in the first quarter of Game 5. Carroll looks more comfortable. Smaller and speedier to open games now, the Raptors are more able to switch and provide Carroll support in his efforts to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. Game 5 saw Carroll regain his offensive touch as well, including this and-1 on a 20-freaking-foot floater after a heads up steal on the other end.
That sequence alone was worth all of Carroll’s spurts of poor play in the starting five.
Jonas Valanciunas rebounded
Tough-to-diagnose trapping, transition scoring, Giannis being the best player on the floor and Toronto’s unsettled rotation were all areas where Milwaukee potentially could gain advantages against the Raptors. Rebounding was never supposed to be included on that list. Boosted by their deadline moves, the Raptors closed the season as the league’s second-best rebounding team; Milwaukee was the second worst post-All Star.
It was perplexing, then, that Milwaukee had essentially drawn even on the glass through the first four games. Heading into Monday’s game, the Bucks had out-rebounded Toronto 169-168 and 37-27 on the offensive boards. That Toronto wasn’t crashing for their own misses made some sense. Milwaukee’s transition game (essentially just Giannis running fast and dunking) is death, so retreating into defensive formation was paramount.
Still, giving up nine second chance boards a game to the Bucks was crushing. Greg Monroe had spurts where he looked like Valanciunas circa any game he’s ever played against the Pacers.
Valanciunas wasn’t perfect in Game 5. His post-ups were almost universally blown up by Thon Maker. But he did reclaim his title as the series’ best glass-cleaner. In his 21 minutes, Toronto grabbed 100 percent of available defensive rebounds and 73.9 of all available misses — the best marks of any non-garbage time participants.
Cory Joseph found his shot
Joseph has found himself in a funk akin to the first half of the season for much of the first round. Other than the odd made three, his shooting as been terribly erratic. On defense, his 6’3’’ frame has been exploited by Milwaukee’s over-sized assembly of guards. Wright’s length has been Casey’s preferred options at times.
What Wright can’t provide is the scoring output a properly functioning Joseph can offer. Pickering’s finest regained that shooting touch Monday in a 10-point effort (4-of-8 FG) that featured some of his greatest hits — a floater (and-1), a mid-range pull up around a screen, and the Raptors special: a long-two with his foot on the three-point line. It’s possible defensive needs will dictate a Wright appearance again in this series; it’ll be a tougher sub for Casey to make if Joseph is doing Joseph things.
Patrick Patterson was happy despite a decreased role
It’s not even clear what on-court happenings inspired Patterson to embrace his rookie teammates Poeltl and Pascal Siakam with such excitement in the photo below, but it seems the Raptors’ former third-most-important-guy is quite content with his fluctuating role as the Raptors’ third big man.
Most of Raps twitter should have this as their avi pic.twitter.com/RtkbgZFGul— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) April 25, 2017
Imagine not finding this team likable?
P.J. Tucker was P.J. Tucker
Tucker was probably the quietest of the top-nine Raptors in Game 5, but he still did the things that make him such a damned joy to root for.
His defense on Antetokounmpo over the last two games has been admirable. Not many players are strong or physical enough to deter Giannis from taking an un-doubled post-up to completion.
That he saved the rebound on the way out of bounds was just insult to Milwaukee’s injury.
Serge Ibaka continued being the Raptors’ series MVP
Giannis is clearly established as the best player on either team in this series, but there’s a growing case that suggests Ibaka being the MVP to this point. Game 5 might have been the most emphatic argument in his favour to date, with his all-encompassing first quarter — nine points, three boards, two assists and two blocks on 4-of-5 shooting — setting the table for the Raptors’ blowout.
“I thought Serge came out and set the tone,” said Casey after the game. “He came out ready to shoot the basketball and from there it was just contagious.”
With the Bucks forcing Lowry and DeRozan to be more deferential on offense throughout the series, much of the scoring onus has fallen upon Ibaka’s shoulder. Apart from the Game 3 catastrophe and a spell of errant shooting to start the fourth quarter in Game 4, Ibaka has delivered the kind of reliable third-option offense Toronto could only fantasize about pre-trade. Six and three assist efforts in Games 2 and 5 respectively show that he hasn’t purely been gunning, either.
His defensive contributions have been dreamy, too. Per NBA.com, Ibaka is surrendering a Gobert-ian 35.7 percent on shots he’s defended at the rim in the playoffs — that’s on a healthy 11.2 attempts per game. Sliding down to centre for big chunks of the series has maximized his defensive potential. One more dazzling two-way display on Thursday, and Ibaka might lock up the most unofficial and inconsequential of individual accolades: MVP of a first round series.