Well, we made it. Enough enjoying the moment, savouring the best year in franchise history, and all that other summery nonsense. It’s playoff time, baby. The Toronto Raptors have arrived, winners of 59 of their 82 games and three of four this week, to play the Washington Wizards in the first round.
Appropriately, there are clenched sphincters about this. It wouldn’t be a Raptors playoff run without worrying about the past (our anxieties are so famous, the New Yorker is covering them!) and the Wizards present many traumatic playoff memories.
Let’s use the bench to unclench those sphincters, though. All season, I’ve used this space to remind you that — much like the 2018 midterm elections — youth is power and youth is decisive. Part of Toronto’s drop-offs in the playoffs of past years has been the inconsistency of their bench performers. Guys like Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, and Cory Joseph struggled to maintain efficient performances in the post-season, and the team struggled for it.
I still have high hopes that a bench squad built on energy can keep up their level of play in the second season. So let’s look at who will make the biggest impact as the playoffs get underway Saturday, and... one last time... shuffle those rankings.
3 Young Gunz of the Week
1. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 5)
We spent all year salivating over Poeltl’s efficiency on offense; wouldn’t you know it, he saved his best for the last week of the regular season.
Aside from a perfect two-game blip known as Nigel Hayes, Poeltl will finish the season with the Raptors’ best field goal percentage (65.9% on 4.7 attempts per game). He helped that number this week by making 24-of-28 shots in four games, including two perfect 5-for-5 performances vs. Indiana and Orlando. This obviously means he finished all four games in double-digits, with a bench-high 16 points and 12 rebounds in the loss to Miami on Wednesday.
Momentum is nice, because Poeltl is going to be a huge piece of the Raptors’ success in a Wizards series. He’s a stronger pick-and-roll defender than Jonas Valanciunas, while also having the ability to close down space in the paint and contest shots. If the starting frontcourt gets a quick hook, it’d be ideal for Poeltl to couple this defense with the kind of off-the-charts efficiency he showed this week.
2. Delon Wright (last week: 2)
Delon is also going to be a significant defensive piece, as he presents the most length in a matchup with John Wall (or Bradley Beal, in certain lineups). Wright is deservedly our Defensive Player of the Year — imaginary awards rule! — and against an All-Star backcourt, he is important.
This week, Wright was uniformly good. His best performance came against the Magic, as he put in 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals in the 112-101 Raptors win.
3. Pascal Siakam (last week: 3)
Siakam got the start for a resting Serge Ibaka in Detroit, and brought his plus-minus influence to a new group of pals. With Siakam’s +24 leading the way, the Raptors’ starters trounced a Pistons lineup without Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin — for his part, Pascal finished with ten points, six rebounds, and two assists in 29 minutes.
While Siakam won’t be starting in the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he works his way into the rotation, and how much time he spends next to Ibaka and the starters to help the defense switch. While the Raptors give up rebounding in those looks (the Wizards beat them on the glass in three of four matchups this season), Siakam’s energy is peaking at the right time and might prove a difference-maker.
The Other Guys
4. Fred VanVleet (last week: 1)
Pray for our man Fred. After missing a game with back tightness, VanVleet was the sacrificial lamb to a physical Heat team, bruising his right shoulder and leaving the game. While the severity of the injury doesn’t seem bad, Fred is still the most important player on the Raptors’ bench and maybe their most reliable shooter in the playoffs.
His best game this week was the one he got injured in, as he had seven points and three assists in just 18 minutes. Stupid Miami Heat.
5. OG Anunoby (last week: 4)
It seems likely that OG will get the first go at Brad Beal in the playoffs, which certainly throws the rookie into the fire right from opening tap. On the other end, he showed some signs this week, but ultimately isn’t getting enough touches to come to any conclusions. He had a couple threes in the Detroit win, which was nice.
6. Norman Powell (last week: 7)
We assume Norm Powell starts the playoffs outside of the rotation. Yet, his last big shot at glory came against these very same Wizards, where he looked able in guarding Beal above the pick-and-roll. Powell has been dreadfully inconsistent this year, and it’s impossible to say what he’ll provide on offense.
Still, his best moments have come in the playoffs. There might be a power switch somewhere in there.
7. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 6)
Break In Case of Emergency Bebe might also see some moments of glory, especially if Valanciunas looks lost. He got the start for a resting Jonas in the Orlando game, and went 2-for-3 in just six minutes.
8. Alfonzo McKinnie (last week: NR)
At the end of the bench are McKinnie and Lorenzo Brown, who probably won’t have a place in the playoffs despite their G League superstar status. McKinnie got some garbage time in the Detroit game, making a shot and grabbing a board.