Few things have looked bad for the Raptors in their opening round series against the Washington Wizards. However, few things have looked as bad as the lineup—DeMar Derozan, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl—which has closed the first quarter in all three playoff games.
In the regular season, that group normally included Fred VanVleet in Delon Wright’s spot next to DeRozan in the back-court, and they enjoyed a great level of consistent success. Is VanVleet really that much better than Wright? Or does VanVleet simply fit better next to DeRozan as a complimentary scorer?
The answer lies more in what each of Wright and VanVleet typically did on the court when they each played with each other without a starter in the game with them.
Two Distinct Lineups
Shown here are the two most used 5-man lineups on the Toronto Raptors in the 2017-18 regular season. The first is obviously the starting five, and the second is the vaunted bench-mob.
Each lineup is a complete one, which features a passing guard and secondary ball-handler in the back-court. For the bench-mob, VanVleet would typically handle point guard duties while Wright was free to play off the ball, the same way Kyle Lowry and DeRozan do. This scheme also worked in that VanVleet was free to move off the ball to get open for 3’s the way Lowry could if DeRozan was handling the ball.
So what happens when you put two stylistically similar pieces (DeRozan and Wright) in the back-court without a complimentary piece (Lowry or VanVleet)? Disaster.
Judging by the regular season numbers, this is a lineup that the coaching staff should have known would be problematic. For some reason, however, they’ve continued to go with this group to finish the first quarter in three consecutive games. While Toronto was lucky enough to survive the ordeal unscathed for the first two games, it was a complete back-breaker in Game 3—given the 12-2 run by Washington.
As a whole, the unit has a net rating of -58.9 in 12 minutes through three games.
In Game 3 specifically, it was apocalyptic.
So, I’ll concede: we’re working with extremely small samples. [Cue the small-sample-size parade.] But what do coaches always say at a post-game presser?
You have to play for 48 minutes in order to win a game.
Imagine a team playing great for the first 46 minutes, and then collapsing in the final two before losing. You’d blame the loss on whatever happened in the final two minutes, right? The same can be—and should be—applied here.
How can the Raptors remove this issue until VanVleet returns? In my opinion, Dwane Casey needs to play Lowry with Wright and the bench unit. Lowry is, for comparison sake, the same type of player that VanVleet is in the lineup. Taking the ball out of Wright’s hands and putting it into Lowry’s could help alleviate these insanely bad two to three minute stretches in which Toronto coughs up a lead.
Small samples be damned, but this lineup performed light-years better than what we’ve seen in DeRozan with Wright and the bench.
Again, the Raptors dodged a bullet in the first two games, but it came back to bite them in the ass for Game 3. As such, adjustments are certainly in order.
The Root of the Problem
We can’t put all the blame on a back-court pairing of DeRozan and Wright though. There’s a much more worrisome trend appearing that seems to be at the root of every issue the team is experiencing right now, be it defensively (containing Mike Scott) or generating offense when the starters are off the floor.
The root of that problem is Siakam and Poeltl.
When the two have shared the floor in this series, the results are the opposite of what fans are used to seeing. And it’s not just in the numbers, either. They look much worse than they have all season. They look like they’ve abandoned everything which helped them become so successful.
There are times Poeltl is so slow and clunky in the post, it seems as though he’s standing in a slow-moving line at a buffet. For instance, check out this clip of him getting called for a 3-second violation:
He’s just ball-watching and shuffling his feet. It’s completely antithetical of what we’ve come to expect of the high-IQ centre.
And for Siakam’s part, sure he made the extra pass, but it was seemingly unnecessary. He usually knows exactly when to take that shot, and when to pass it up to (what is normally) an open Poeltl. The confusion happened on another play later in the game in which Siakam fails to recognize the help coming from Mahinmi:
This is a play that made Siakam such an invaluable part of the team during the regular season, where he’d identify the help defender (usually Poeltl’s man) and dump it off to Poeltl for an easy two. Instead, he gets stuffed at the rim on a weak layup attempt.
The two friends need to play with more energy and focus (easier said than done) in Game 4 and beyond if the Raptors want to be able to weather the type of perfect play we saw from Washington in Game 3. With such a handicap coming from of a normally dominant bench-unit, the Raptors all the sudden look like every other playoff team in the league—a dominant starting five and a thin bench.
Hopefully the return of a healthy VanVleet will help remedy some of the issues this duo is experiencing—such as where to be and when to be there—but part of me worries this is about showing up on the big stage. Raptors fans have endured a long history of inexperience rearing its ugly head at inopportune times, and hopefully this can be remedied soon.