Ah, the noon Sunday start! A favourite of players, coaches, bloggers and especially spectators, who are typically treated to less-than-stellar play from their favourite teams.
Jonas Valanciunas Brought the Energy Early
On Saturday I wrote about how it took the Portland defense a half to learn to respect Jonas Valanciunas’ 3-point range. Marc Gasol must’ve been watching the tape, because he got up on JV as soon as JV spotted up... but then Gasol got too aggressive, bit on the pump fake, and we were treated to a thunderous one-handed Valanciunas dunk.
Not to worry though—he was back draining a triple just a few plays later. (He finished 1-of-2 from downtown to keep that shooting percentage high.)
He also had a wonderful dish to Kyle Lowry on a backdoor cut for a layup, and later completed another tough pass to Fred VanVleet, who was able to collect it and score.
Jonas 2.0 is definitely finding a groove in the Raptors offense.
OG Anunoby Continues his Dance With the Rookie Wall
I’m not prepared to say that OG Anunoby has hit the proverbial wall, because he does just enough—a strong offensive game here, some solid D there—to show me that he hasn’t, but he’s been flirting with it for weeks. He’s fine, but he’s not quite the same player he was in November and December.
Yesterday was the perfect example. He was active in the passing lanes early and getting out in transition; in one fun sequence, he blew a dunk, only to steal the ball right back and flush it with two hands. He also found Valanciunas with a tremendous pass from the wing on a delayed break.
But he also missed all four three-pointers he took, only grabbed two boards and of course, was on the floor for the disastrous start to the third quarter.
He’s a rookie, and inconsistency defines rookies. It’s fine. He’s just leaning a little too close to that wall for my tastes.
Another Big Bench Bailout
Dwane Casey subbed in four reserves at the 2:37 mark of the first quarter, with the Grizzlies leading by two. An 11-2 Raptors fun followed, and the lead stood at 7 when Kyle Lowry and Valanciunas came back in with 7 minutes to go in the half.
Things went swimmingly until halftime, with the Raps extending the lead to 12 at the break (though it was 17 at one point). In the third the wheels came off. It took the Grizzlies about 6 minutes to get the lead down to 2; as you might have guessed from past experience, offensive rebounding played a big part in the Memphis turnaround.
Three-point shooting had a little to do with it too—the Raptors were 0-of-10 in the quarter, and the Grizzlies were 3-of-5.
Casey started sprinkling the subs in, but the Grizzlies soon took the lead, and Casey went all-bench without two minutes to go in the third (where he usually leaves DeMar on with the subs).
It was a gamble that worked; Poeltl and Siakam both scored to give the Raptors a two-point lead heading into the fourth.
It was all-bench from there. They got the lead back to 10 about 4.5 minutes in, and the starters never came back. (And it was great to see them up and cheering on the bench as the subs waited the clock out at the end of the game.)
We Saw a Few Minutes of the Three Point Guard Lineup
It isn’t something we see often, and its use will continue to be limited by matchups... but I really I like that three-PG lineup. The different things each guard brings provides a nice mix on the floor: the way Lowry and VanVleet fight on D, complemented perfectly by Delon Wright’s length and ability to disrupt passing lanes; all three have the ability to get into paint, Lowry and VanVleet by lowering their shoulders and Wright with his long strides. Kyle of course can create his own shot, Fred has totally come into his own as a spot-up shooter and although Delon’s range isn’t there yet, his herky-jerky moves keep the D moving.
The size isn’t there, of course. So the practical usage is limited. But still, it’s a fun group.
How will the bench minutes play out in the playoffs?
One discussion point has been how the rotation will shrink in the playoffs, and who’s going to get what minutes. This definitely came up again yesterday, as C.J. Miles came back from his sore knee and Casey struggled to find minutes for both Miles and the resurgent Norman Powell.
But I’m not worried. Despite today’s struggles the five-man starting unit has been great this season; if they get extended minutes in the playoffs they can handle it. And the bench guys have shown their willingness and ability to play in bigger or smaller roles when called upon.
Most importantly to me, is that the starters—Lowry and DeRozan in particular—have had significant subpar stretches in the playoffs. That worries me less than it ever has right now; I’m confident the Raptors bench players can come in and hang with most other teams, even against starters, if our starters are struggling.
We won’t know until the playoffs, but ultimately I don’t think it’s something to be concerned about.
So the tough test is next: the Boston Celtics come to town on Tuesday. They’ve won four straight, and the last three without Kyrie Irving. We’ll see then if the Raptors have a legitimate chance to take the conference’s top seed!