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Dwane Casey prepares the Raptors for close games, even though they keep winning easy

After a recent string of Raptors blowouts, we keep wondering about the team in close games. Coach Dwane Casey knows this too, and he’s doing what he can to prepare Toronto.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the Raptors’ last ten games, they’ve gone 8-2, with those two losses coming by a mere three points each. In fact, over that same stretch, the Raptors have only had three close games total — those two losses, to the Wizards and Bucks, and a win over the Heat. Over the entire season to date, the Raptors are a pedestrian 14-13 in close games decided by “clutch” situations, defined as games with a score differential less than five with under five minutes to play.

But the Raptors are 24th in terms of number of games they’ve actually had to play under such conditions. This puts Toronto in a group with well-executing teams like the Rockets, Spurs, and Warriors. So while it’s fair to say the Raptors have struggled to win in close games this season, part of the reason is also somewhat paradoxical: the team, at 42-17 and first overall in the East, keeps winning via the blowout — the squad hasn’t gotten the chance to test their mettle.

“Our issue is it’s hard to duplicate those ends of games,” said coach Dwane Casey before Monday night’s 123-94 Raps blowout of the Pistons. “We try score disadvantage, time disadvantage on guys, put them in tough situations. But it’s even tougher in practice because guys know what’s coming. It’s hard to replicate the stress level, the angst, the pressure of the moment of the game.”

It’s what made Jonas Valanciunas’ dunk against the Bucks on Friday night so shocking. (I mean, besides the sight of JV lumbering down the wing with the game on the line in the first place.) The Raptors have rarely deviated from getting the ball to DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry in close end-game situations. This is partly a function of NBA team dynamics — the alpha dog wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line — and partly it’s been about who the Raptors trust the most given the limited sample size they have to draw from.

“The odds are it’s going to be in [Kyle or DeMar]’s hands, some kind of way,” confirmed Casey. “But we’re trying to keep the defense off balance, by going to different people, developing different options going forward.” So while Friday’s Jonas dunk definitely qualifies as “off balance”, it feels as though the Raptors are still in the process of figuring things out — assuming the opportunity comes up.

Of course, that’s not to say the Raptors have been terrible in clutch situations forever. As Casey reminded, Toronto seemed to play in a lot more of those types of games in the last couple of years. In the 2016-17 season, the Raptors found themselves in the fourth-most “clutch” situations in the league; and in 2015-16 they were the third best team in the NBA at winning those types of games. “But that’s something that’s our challenge now,” said Casey. “To execute better, to make plays, to make buckets, make open shots in the end of games.”

For his part, Casey doesn’t shy away from having his team prepared. It’s the coach’s job to figure out what end of game situations his team may find themselves in. He confirmed recently the Raptors have “at least” two dozen play-calls for late-game situations, with “options off of each one of them.”

In the specific recent case with Jonas, while it may not seem like it, the Raptors had prepared for just such a situation. With just 3.3 seconds left in the game, Valanciunas had the wherewithal to catch the inbound pass, try to make the hand-off to C.J. Miles, the team’s most dangerous shooter, and only then turn to the basket for the drive and dunk. Was Valanciunas really prepared for such a situation? How could he have known how much time he needed for all of that?

“Yes, he did [know],” said Casey. “That’s where you have those plays for those situations, and we have a chart also, how many dribbles, how many passes you can have in a certain number of seconds.

“There’s a lot of things that go into that. People think that you just all at once, he doesn’t know what to do, or they don’t know what to do, or whatever. But that’s not true. We spend a lot of time, resources, and research to know how long a play takes. Everybody’s gotta be involved. We gotta do our part to put guys in the right position, and guys have to do their part and execute.”

After years of not being involved in the Raptors’ crunch time offense, of often not being on the floor at all, Valanciunas got to play a key part. As Casey said later, it speaks to the growing trust level, and the expanding skill set of the big man. But it also points to the progression of the Raptors’ offense as a whole. They know they have to continue to catch teams by surprise at least in part, despite the fact that their best scorers, Lowry and DeRozan, will often find the ball in their hands at the end of games.

It remains ironic then that Toronto has had so few chances to test all these ideas out. The Raptors have had a run of games lately that has seen the starters hit the bench by the end of the third quarter. Clutch situations have been few and far between. The team’s young players are getting bigger minutes, sure, but most of their fourth quarter time is spent in blowouts. It’s not the worst problem for a team to have.

So, we ask: could Casey and the Raptors surprise an opponent (and us) again?

“Well, we haven’t used everything ... We haven’t used all of our plays. But, you know, we put in something yesterday and looked at it. I don’t really want to say when we’re going to use them, how we’re going to use them, but believe me, if it’s going to win a game for us we’re going to them.”