We’ve been dancing around it along with the Raptors: what’s the small forward position going to look like for this team in the playoffs? It’s a firmly established fact that NBA teams tend not to rely on rookies in key positions; they also don’t employ post-season rotations that go 10 or 11 players deep. And yet, for three quarters of the season, the Raptors have done both — and succeeded.
For the most part, both decisions have been wise for Toronto. Since taking over the starting position, OG Anunoby has done his best to play the part of the modern swing man: he’s able to guard multiple positions (and often the best player on the other team), effectively move the ball, and take open three-point shots. Meanwhile, the Raptors deep bench has been the best in the league, allowing the team to rest its stars far more than they have in the past. Toronto is in first place with 24 games left, so clearly something is working here.
But Friday night’s game against the Bucks, an overtime 122-119 loss, was instructive. Not in anything the Raptors said afterwards — Dwane Casey and the stars said the same things they’ve said after most losses this season — but in how their lineups were rolled out, and in the effectiveness of the rotation.
I should say off the top that matching up with the Bucks is difficult for any team. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a one of a kind player, and the fact Milwaukee can basically play him at any position creates matchup nightmares all over the place. Being able to even slow him down counts as something. If nothing else, the Raptors’ Anunoby can hang his hat on holding Giannis to two points in the first quarter. In fact, OG matched up with Antetokounmpo for a quarter of his possessions and held him to four points on 1-of-4 shooting for the entire game. (No matter though — Giannis would finish with 26 points on 50 percent shooting, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists.)
It was the flip side of the ball that was the problem. Maybe it was the vacation hangover, and sure we’re talking a sample size of one game, but OG’s offense left much to be desired. In just over 13 minutes, he went 0-for-1 from the field, with no other stats (besides a steal and a block) to report. And in the broader picture, Anunoby is now shooting just 22 percent from deep in 2018. That kind of imbalance between positions cascades down the rest of the Raptors rotation. The team needs to make up for Anunoby’s silence on the offensive end and find a different way to threaten teams and produce buckets — unfortunately that opens up other problems.
The obvious initial solution for Toronto is to run with C.J. Miles. The Raps sharpshooter is pulling the trigger on 6.3 threes per game, and shooting 38.6 percent from that distance. This is exactly what the Raps need, even if Miles is missing those attempts. Last night he unfortunately shot only 2-of-7 from three-point range, including three straight misses down the stretch that really would have helped keep the momentum going in Toronto’s favour. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also what happens with high variance shots.
But Miles’ presence on the court also means the Raptors’ defense is not quite as strong as it could be. For all of the gravity C.J. produces on offense, it’s his weakness on the other end of the court that has to be managed. This usually means pairing him with Pascal Siakam at the 4, which is what happened for chunks of the Bucks contest. Siakam dealt with Giannis as best as any mere mortal could, chasing him around the court, and keeping him from as many highlight plays at the rim as possible. And while Siakam put up 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) in 22 minutes, he also air-balled a three, and hit just one shot outside of the paint. Pascal was hyper effective, but his presence also cramps Toronto’s spacing on the floor.
Ah but there’s a solution to this too! The Raptors can go small, and try a backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet (their best three-point shooting backcourt), with DeMar DeRozan at the three spot. This puts more shooters and creators on the floor, and ideally opens driving lanes. That was the team’s closing lineup in regulation — FVV, Lowry, DeRozan, Siakam (or Miles), with Serge Ibaka (who also took turns guarding Giannis) and/or, most memorably, Jonas Valanciunas (because the team was desperate for a rebounding presence; Toronto was -14 on the boards, and gave up 13 offensive boards). The OT period was similar with Lowry, VanVleet, DeRozan, Ibaka, and Valanciunas — with Miles in for situational purposes.
In one sense, the versatility of the Raptors lineups in these situations is admirable. They can play with two point guards (or even three if they want to go with Delon Wright at the 3). They can try to rock a big lineup with Serge and JV. They’ve even got hyper-small with DeRozan deployed at the 4, if the situation can support it. But in another sense, there’s a vortex here, and it seems to be pulling the Raptors towards that hole at the small forward position. Toronto masks it well, but much like they have for the past few seasons — whether it be with Terrence Ross there, or DeMarre Carroll, or even P.J. Tucker — it’s a bit of a precarious dance to find two-way production.
Now, again, the Raptors are 41-17, and as I said, there is a lot to like about how Casey has used his 10-man lineup (with Norman Powell waiting in the wings). Throughout the year we’ve learned what the Raps’ young players are made of, and it’s gotten DeRozan and Lowry’s minutes well down over previous years. But with the playoffs looming, there will be a lot of firepower at that small forward position — get by, say, the Heat or Pistons in the first round, and then maybe Toronto sees Giannis again in the second, with LeBron looming — and perhaps a team responsibility to find the 8- or 9-man rotation that works best.
What does this mean for Anunoby, the team’s starter for all but 12 of their 58 games? What does it mean for the various weaknesses the Raptors have to work with when he sits — e.g. playing Miles for offense, Pascal for defense, going small for shooting but no rebounding, going big for rebounding but losing defensive acumen, and so on? As I write this, and as you read it, we can enumerate the various soft points of the Raptors’ offensive and defensive schemes. They may be slight — this is a top-five ranked team in both ratings — but they are there.
And if we’re talking about them, we can also be damn sure other teams are talking about them. Yes, it’s just one game after a week-long layoff, but it’s worth mentioning because — as Casey has said more than once already — we all know what’s coming.