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Raptors Roundtable: Looking ahead to the playoff push

As Toronto heads into the All-Star break, we got together to discuss the Raptors’ stretch run and the playoffs — without worrying too much.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s All-Star Break is almost here, and with that will come a much needed period of rest for the Raptors. With only Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan set to visit Los Angeles this upcoming weekend, the Raptors’ entire supporting cast will receive some precious time off to recuperate, reset and focus so that they may maximize their production in the final stretch of the season.

Within that impending run, there are a number of question marks surrounding this Raptors team. To that end, Joel Stephens, Conor McCreery, Gabe Nisker, Cory Knibutat, Jacob Mack set out to answer some questions and address our collective worries as the Raptors head into the final months of the season and beyond.

Warning: this is a long one, but let’s dive in.

Q: Which team do you not want to see in the first round?

Joel: Honestly, the Bucks are there, but Washington has had our number two out of three games so far this season, and they match up with us really well. It’s a nightmare match-up with Beal and Otto Porter on the wing, Marcin Gortat is just as physical as Jonas Valanciunas and to make matters worse, both times they’ve beaten us they’ve been without John Wall. I’d like Indiana or Miami to knock them out before we have to face off against them.​

Gabe: Joel, your honourable mention is my pick and your pick is my honourable mention.

Sure, Washington feels scary — they’ve played us well this year and the star power’s there — but I think I’ve personally intensified how much they scare me with flashbacks to Paul Pierce and the Wizards sweep a few years ago. Miami scares me for almost entirely coaching reasons (I think their record will be too good for a first-round matchup anyways).

As for the Bucks, my pick for team I don’t want to see — Giannis is so transcendent, so dominant. I think he’s gotten to the point where, for me, it feels like sooner or later, he’ll be able to win playoff series on his own. With a solid supporting cast, the Bucks strike me as the kind of team that can flip the switch and lock down wins, not unlike what everyone thought they would do last year after a closely-fought first round series. The Bucks still sit there with untapped potential, as crazy as that may seem.

Cory: The team of the unknown has me worried this season: the Indiana Pacers.

You can argue that they’ve played above they’re heads this year and they’ll fizzle out when the games matter but they also play with that dangerous ignorance that makes them such a dangerous first round opponent.

Victor Oladipo brings as much, if not a more dangerous offensive game than DeMar with his more consistent long range game. He scares me the way Beal does in that respect. Then there’s Lance always being Lance and would be able to disrupt our offense and plant those seeds of doubt with Lowry and DeRozan that we so desperately want to avoid. I would like to think we have the advantage with the bigs and can out execute them over a series, but Miles Turner, Al Jefferson, and Thaddeus Young pose significant match-up problems and the team will likely have nothing to lose and overachieve.

Jacob: While the Bucks obviously have by far the best player of any of the potential first round opponents (if we discount the possibility of the Cavs slipping) I’m still going to go with the Pacers as my most feared first round opponent. I feel like we have excellent personnel to defend Giannis in OG and Siakam, that’s two guys who can move their feet, have the length to contest at the rim and the strength to hold their own in the post. With Oladipo, who is, in my opinion, the 2nd best player from those 5th through 9th seeded teams, I don’t feel comfortable with anyone on our team defending him. I don’t think OG or Delon have the quickness to stay connected with him on drives and Lowry and Fred VanVleet are clearly overmatched in terms of size.

The Pacers are also one of the best clutch teams in the league posting a net rating of +10.5 in crunch time as it’s defined by (score within 5, last 5 minutes). Victor Oladipo has also been one of the league’s best crunch time performers, he has an excellent 58% TS% on a monstrous 40% usage rate in the last five minutes of close games. Giannis, on the other hand tends to defer more to Middleton and Bledsoe in crunch time as teams pack the paint to limit his effectiveness. The Raptors’ clutch struggles have been well documented. The prospect of having a close game go down to the wire against Indiana is pretty terrifying, especially as the Raptors have no clear candidate to defend Oladipo.

The Pacers also have two effective pick and pop bigs and use them judiciously, Domatas Sabonis and Myles Turner are among the league leaders in pick and roll frequency, ranking 2nd and 3rd in the league in pick-and-roll possessions finished respectively. Pick and pop bigs have long been a bane of the Raptors, or more specifically of Jonas Valanciunas. While the hope is that JV would be able to overpower Turner and Sabonis on the glass, that was also the hope in last year’s Bucks’ series against Thon Maker and it never ended up manifesting.

Conor: My honourable mention is the Wiz. They could have a killer small-ball line-up in Porter, Oubre, Wall, Beal and Morris. Mike Scott also scares me — he’s canning 43% of his threes, and could be the guy to draw Big Val from the hoop where we know he doesn’t want to be. The biggest thing is the Wiz are some kind of irrationally confident. It doesn’t matter what their record says, Washington legitimately believes they are the best team in the East, and they have zero respect for the Raptors. The two franchises are total opposites in demeanour. Washington is all swaggering id, while the Raps are the cool and collected ego — who might just get sand kicked in their face.

But, you know who really gives me the heebie-jeebies? The Sixers. With Joel Embiid they’re playing at a 50-win pace. That would make them the three seed. They’ve beaten us, the Celtics, the Rockets and the Spurs (twice). They’ve raced out to two big leads against the Raptors (only one with Embiid), and with Embiid and Simmons on the floor they outscore opponents by ten points per 100. In the playoffs you’re going to see those two every night — a lot. Plus, I think they’re going to add a piece before the deadline, and their sheer physical size makes me very nervous. Sure, their young, and young guys tend to struggle a bit with the playoffs — but if the Raps to do their usual “punt Game 1” thing, there is a lot of confidence up and down that line-up.

But, having said all that. I’m going to make my bold prediction and say no matter the opponent: Toronto is going to win Game 1.

Q: ​Should the Raptors be worried about player fatigue?

Joel: ​​This season specifically, I think the Raptors’ coaching staff has done a pretty amazing job of managing minutes for everyone on the team. Kyle Lowry is down to around 32 minutes per game, meaning he’s played 200 fewer minutes (seven games!) compared to last season at the 50-game mark. Given his history with spring time breakdowns over the last three seasons, this is invaluable time saved for his 31 year old legs.

Cory: I think the team has done a great job of managing minutes so far and have smartly explored any and all lineup combinations heading into the post all-star break run. I expect the rotation to shrink a bit throughout March to iron out who the Raptors can depend on.

I’m not worried about a slightly elevated usage rate for our starters as the playoffs approach as there’s plenty of time to recoup before Game 1 and between playoff games.

I’m hoping Casey’s coaching staff uses the stretch run to keep rotation players focused and confident so they’re used to producing immediately as if every game was as important as the playoffs.

Jacob: The only concern would be with OG Anunoby who has, as Matt and Jack have so often remarked, played more minutes this season than he did in his entire college career. Anunoby’s defence has remained excellent but we’ve seen signs of a rookie wall in his distance shooting numbers. If he’s unable to make a jumpshot by the time the playoffs roll around that could be a significant problem, as teams might just stop guarding him. I do think Anunoby’s minutes are being fairly well managed, he averaged just 22 minutes per game in January, after averaging 24 in December (his first full month as a starter). That’s a figure I could see continuing to tick down if Norman Powell is resurgent, keeping Anunoby in the low 20s should help him remain a contributor come playoff time. For the most part however I think the Raps are doing a phenomenal job on the minutes management front.

Gabe: I’m not worried about the minutes distribution, although I’ll definitely be interested to see where the cuts come to the playoff rotation. Casey can’t go 12 deep the whole time, as great as that’s been for the Raps. It’s been great to see the load being lifted off Lowry and DeRozan as they play fewer minutes.

I’d definitely hope to see more of that in the future as well as maybe even resting them for full games towards the end of the season. Because I especially want Lowry to finally truly make it to the end of season in tip-top shape — stay safe in the 3-point contest, KLOE! Be smart!

As for Anunoby, he certainly worries me a little bit — but I trust the Raps training staff to do what’s right keep him in game shape.

Conor: Anounoby is an interesting case, but the options are still thin there. I wonder if there is a world where the Raps dare to go with Val-Ibaka-DD-Lowry and VanVleet or Wright. That lineup should be too small on the wing, but their numbers with the two PG lineup, especially in crunch time is really good.

Other than that, fatigue isn’t an issue for me. Although I’d like to see a rest day or two for Ibaka down the stretch.

Q: Which bench player do you expect to have the biggest role come playoff time?

Joel: I’m guessing everybody’s first pick will be Fred VanVleet because, let’s face it, he’s the most obvious pick here. But I want to throw in C.J. Miles’ name too. I’m getting the feeling that Casey is starting to slow down his minutes a bit heading into the All-Star Break in order to preserve him for the playoff run simply because we’re going to need heavy minutes from him in any small ball situation we see. Indiana, Milwaukee and Miami all have small-ball looks, and given the fact that Jonas could become obsolete in any of these Round 1 match ups, Miles will need fresh legs to potentially log big minutes.

Jacob: My guess would be Delon Wright, he’s the best bench player on the Raptors, leads the Raptors’ bench in minutes per game as of right now and fulfills the most unique function out of any Raptors bench player. Wright and Norman Powell are the only players on the Raptors appropriately equipped to defend guards with size and ball-skills, and looking at the lower seeds in the east we’ve got Victor Oladipo, John Wall, Brad Beal, Khris Middleton and Ben Simmons. Simmons might seem like a matchup more suited for Anunoby, but Wright has been the Raptors’ best defender by far in that matchup (attached are his stats vs. the Raps with Wright on vs. Wright off), limiting him to 31% from the field. If Powell doesn’t get his act together come playoff time then Wright will continue to be the Raptors’ most used bench player because he can do things defensively that no other Raptor currently in the rotation can do.

Gabe: I’m on the Delon Wright train here, too — likely because of the size of his role right now.

Wright has the versatility to play 1-3, and given the right matchup, I’d be comfortable with him switching onto a 4. As Jacob mentioned, there are a ton of guard options with size and Wright is the versatile guard option in the rotation (as it stands) who can guard them all well enough.

Siakam is my honourable mention, as we’ve seen he’ll be trusted off the bench with critical defensive assignments. If the three starts falling, the Raps are in luck — I want to see him working on it in-game from here on out.

To me, at least, the overarching theme of which bench player will hold the largest role is the three-ball. VanVleet’s the guy doing a lot of that right now. In the playoffs, whichever guy can consistently come off the bench, hustle, and knock down threes will earn the bench minutes and the trust. We saw Norm do it last year against Milwaukee.

Conor: This question really shows what a wealth of options the Raps have here. You could make a case for pretty much any member of the bench-mob being the most impactful.

I think it’s going to be really match-up dependent. Against teams like the Pistons or Sixers I’m feeling Siakim for his ability to guard both power bigs like Embiid, and speed and craft bigs like Blake Griffin. Against the Pacers, or Heat I agree Wright probably has the biggest role to play. Overall though, I’m sort of feeling FVV. At this stage I firmly believe in his ability to impact every game by stepping on the floor. I’ve made the Derek Fisher comp before, but I really see a lot of that in VanVleet. Tough-as-nails, can shoot the three, relentless on D.

But really, man are we lucky here in Toronto, because we know that everybody on that bench is going to find a way to help the Raps out. They may not have every part of their game firing, but Casey and Ujiri have made sure there are no passengers on this roster.

Cory: I’m going to lean towards Freddy having the biggest consistent impact come playoff time.

I fully expect a Norm game or two, Poetl coming up big when JV gets in foul trouble, and Miles having a couple games per series where he hits four or five threes and looks like the difference maker but I don’t expect any of those guys to be able to be effective every night.

Freddy has the shooting but more importantly guides the tempo of the second unit and keeps things moving as an effective Lowry-type floor general when Kyle isn’t in the game. When the bench unit is ineffective, it’s usually in halfcourt sets without FVV. As much as I love Delon, he losses some possessions for us when he refuses to shoot it when he’s open and has other guys shoot contested, late-clock shots. As you know, every possession is valuable in the post season so I think VanVleet’s steadying force will make him the clear choice, and rightfully so.

Q: What 5-man lineup would you like to see on the floor during crunch time situations?

Joel: The Minnesota game was the pinnacle of offensive execution this season. Fred VanVleet was brilliant on that final play, when he was able to collapse the defense and dish it off to DeRozan for the six-foot tear-drop. VanVleet is a must-play in those situations because he’s shown an ability to slow the tempo and find the weakness in the defense.

My 5-man lineup looks like:

VanVleet, Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, Ibaka

Shooting, ball-handling and a sufficient amount of defense. I trust this group to get the job done in the clutch.

Jacob: I don’t think you can have Miles on the floor in crunch time, let alone in crunch time with Ibaka at center. He’s the Raps worst defensive player and their worst rebounder​. Ibaka at centre lineups are only going to work if you get enough defensive rebounding from the other positions and even if you can hide Miles off ball he’s always one screen away from being isolated against a guy who can dribble. He’s a guy who you’ll put out there in offense/defense situations or if you need a 3, but he can’t be in your go-to crunch time lineup.

Ultimately, it’s just Lowry and DeRozan and any 3, based on who’s going and what the other team has. The depth and versatility of the Raptors’ is their biggest strength, it should be something the use judiciously in the clutch. For example, against GSW you’re always going to close with OG and Poeltl on the floor because you need OG to guard KD and Poeltl to punish the Warriors on the glass. Against the Wizards you’re always gonna have at least one of Delon, Fred or Norm out there to give you another guard who can defend. Against the Pistons or the Heat you’ll probably close with JV at the 5 because he’s your best guy for keeping Drummond/Whiteside off the boards. It’s a cop out, but I’m not giving a 5-man lineup because there is no best 5-man lineup.

Gabe: If we’re building a 5-man lineup, it starts with Lowry and DeRozan and ends with <fill in the blank 3 times>.

For the most part, I agree with Jacob that the Raps will roll with what’s working and play it entirely on matchups. A crunch-time lineup we’ve seen a lot of, though, is FVV instead of OG with the starters. VanVleet has earned his way into these lineups by way of being the team pacemaker late as well as knocking down his shots. It’s a lineup that’s worked beautifully on the offensive end but could struggle with any substantial height on defence.

I linked here to the advanced stats page where you can spot that lineup — it’s the 2nd one in the list. That might be why it’s important to roll with the matchup — especially because the Raptors can afford to do that.

Think about the lineups they can run with: you can figure mixing Delon in there for guard length (although the shooting comes out from FVV) or C.J. if you need the sharpshooter threat or Poeltl if you need a board or Anunoby (and even Siakam) if you need to lock down a guy late like KD or Giannis or whoever. The Raptors have options — they should use them.

I’ve seen comparisons of the Raptors to the 60-win Eastern Conference finalist Hawks (depth!) and you can see where the shoe fits. The Raptors play sound basketball, it’s important to throw the lineup that’s been doing that the best for that particular game or has been doing that in that particular series. Trust the guys that got you to that point in the game.

Cory: For a crunch time unit, the clear choice looks like FVV in (with the starters minus OG) to not only keep the ball moving and make good decisions, but to take and make big shots as well. Confidence has been such a hard thing to gain and keep in the post-season so I only truly trust guys who show they can be counted on in the big moments.

I’ve seen Miles choke at the foul line in big games or have his shot go missing from deep. We all know Lowry and DeRozan’s history but I’m less concerned with them this year than in season’s past.

I really hope Casey can be trusted in crunch time actually, and make proper defence for offence substitutions in those crucial final minute plays. OG doesn’t get too many crunch time minutes but if I don’t see Casey put him in to lock down, Oladipo/Beal/Tatum/Brown/LeBron, whatever the case may be during the final minutes I’ll be pissed. Same goes for having JV in for boards, etc.

But as a swiss-army lineup we can trust in the final three minutes, I’ll go with Lowry, FVV, DeRozan, Ibaka, and JV.

This is with the assumption we’re running half-court sets, running plays, battling for boards, challenging any shots in the paint, and using timeouts properly. If JV is in foul trouble I’ll be happy with Ibaka at the 5 and OG in to disrupt and switch on the 4s and wings of our opponents.

Conor: I’ll go a slightly different direction because I agree, due to the Raps flexibility, their crunch time line-up should be Lowry+DD+FVV or Delon, and two other guys.

So I’m not sure, by any means, that this is the lineup I want closing out games, but I’m very curious about a Ibaka-DeRozan-Wright-Lowry-FVV fivesome.

On offense, this might be almost unguardable as you surround DeMar with a bunch of guys who have shot the ball well this season — Ibaka is the worst at .353 — but history has shown he’s better than that, and with all those ball-handling guards, even if the D collapses on a DeMar drive or post, and then scrambles to contest the kick-out, the Raps will worm right back into the paint for an even easier shot.

Yes, it would get crushed on the glass, but... wait, would it? Lowry is closing in on the second best rebounding season by a guard of his height in history. Wright is a very good rebounder and even FVV gets his. Plus, if we’re talking about swapping Miles for Wright you’re talking about giving up one inch of height — in exchange for a much more mobile and clever defender in Wright. (Though to be fair to Miles, I’m not 100% sold that he can’t hold up defensively. He’s been a solid defender for a lot of his career. I wonder if we’re just seeing a guy whose struggled to stay healthy combining with some statistical noise.)

Finally, I’m kinda curious if DeRozan might actually be a better defender in the post. He’s strong, with a good low-centre of gravity, and he’s tough. Post guys tend to attack more directly — meaning DeMar is less likely to lose his man on cuts or screens. I wonder if a bigger guy trying to feast on DD inside might not get his dander up.

Q: Other than Cleveland’s flurry of deals, were there any other deadline moves that concern you as a Raptors fan?

Jacob: I mean, there were just no players of actual substance acquired by a playoff team at the deadline outside of those Cavs trades. I guess the most concerning move would be the the James Ennis to Pistons move because it’s the only one where a playoff team got a guy who’s a significant upgrade over a G League player. I also feel like the Raptors could have beaten the Pistons offer and gotten Ennis (that 2nd is in 2022) but if they set themselves up for the buyout market instead. That’s fine, considering there’s probably going to be players on the buyout market who are better (Ersan Ilyasova) or at least similar to Ennis (Vince) who won’t end up costing a 2nd.

Cory: The only real threat that worried me from the trade deadline was Boston’s acquisition of Monroe. The bottom four teams didn’t move the needle enough to make me think we couldn’t handle any of them in six games. My deciding factor over most playoff match-ups comes down to bench depth and effectiveness so it shouldn’t surprise you I’m not concerned with Philly, Detroit, Milwaukee or Indiana.

Monroe makes rebounding and foul trouble a legitimate concern to me over a long series with a Brad Stevens coached team. He’s too goddamned good at making adjustments so I worry we’ll be out-coached and exposed on the glass — especially offensively — and struggle to find impact minutes for JV if he continuously finds himself flirting with 3 fouls before half.

You could argue we might have similar issues against the rebounding beasts in Detroit or Indy but I believe in our bench over theirs in high pressure games to be the difference. With Boston, I view our latest win as an outlier — encouraging, but still not exactly a representation of a fully powered Boston team, focused, well-rested, and at full power in May.

Gabe: Obviously, Cleveland worries me because it’s LeBron and he’ll be rejuvenated with all of this trade action. But at the same time, getting a new team together in 30 games and a newly-discovered need to practice will be an interesting experiment.

Anyways, outside of the Cavs, however, the bigger worry is yet to come — it’ll all be figured out over the next few weeks on the buyout market. Monroe signing with the Celtics will be intriguing as he gives them the rebounding, as Cory mentioned. I’m glad Iso Joe isn’t in the Eastern Conference to kill the Raptors as per usual, too.

Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Boris Diaw all seem to factor into the buyout market for the Raptors in addition to Vince (who I think is the likeliest target for the Raps, as well as a near-guarantee to come if he hits the open market). Where these guys land among the other names bandied about will have more of an effect on the Raptors than any deadline move not made by Cleveland.

As for whether I think Vince is a good idea or not, I don’t see any buyout option making a huge dent in the Raptors’ rotation. Vince will get a few minutes here and there, sure. It’s a better fit than a lot of the available options but is almost exclusively PR.

I kind of like 35-year-old Boris Diaw using his NBA out from his French team to come here.

Conor: It really ended up an all sound and fury deadline. The moves that had the potential to scare me, Tyreke Evans to Philly, Detroit or Boston, Lou Williams to pretty much anyone in the East, didn’t even come close to fruition, and the buyout guys just don’t move the needle to me. (I guess Bellinelli could swing a game if he got hot, but still...)

Monroe comes with some nerves, but only some. This is a better JV, and the Raps more democratic offense should create more opportunities to exploit Monroe on the defensive end.

As for the Cavs? Sure, they’re better, they may even be significantly better, but if Rodney Hood is the second/third best player on that team, the door to squeeze through the East is still as wide open as it’s been in LBJ’s time.

Overall, this deadline couldn’t have worked out much better. Very interested to see who, if anyone the Raps target buyout wise.

Oh, and finally, pour one out for my large Brazilian son, Bruno. Some part of me, deep inside, hopes we see him on a two-way next year. Call me crazy, but I still think he’s going to end up an NBA’er of some sort.

Joel: Blake Griffin has really changed Detroit for the better. They’re moving the ball and getting better spacing with Griffin floating around the half-court, and are averaging almost three more assists as a team than before the deal, helping the Pistons increase their scoring to 108.5 points per game — which would rank them 7th in the league for the season.

In addition to a better scoring offense, their defense has been nothing short of excellent following the Griffin deal. In the ten games before the trade, Detroit was allowing opponents to score 107.8 points on average. That figure has dropped 2.5 points per game — down to 105.3 — in the six games since Griffin debuted, which would be a top-ten figure over the entire season.

They still lack guard firepower, but their front court could give the Raptors problems if they manage to squeeze into a bottom slot playoff seed, which seems really likely at this point.

Overall, the Cavs made a lot of noise, but none of us should be ready to crown them the Eastern Conference victors like the talking heads covering the NBA. It’s such a ridiculous thing to do considering last summer’s Irving trade was five months ago — it’s like people didn’t learn the first time. This is exactly why we play the 82 games leading up to May, and why we’re playing 25 more to finish the season.