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The Raptors bench unit needs confidence to beat Washington

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A common line through the first three games is bench struggles. To win on the road, the Raptors’ subs need to have more conviction.

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards -  Game Three Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Adjusting to the playoffs has typically been a problem reserved for Toronto Raptors stars. Since this core came together and made a push into the 2014 playoffs, the play of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has fallen a certain level when the coordinated t-shirts come out. It started with some razzing from Paul Pierce (both in Brooklyn and Washington), then became a bigger laughing point in the NBA community, and a sore point for Raptors fans.

In reality, nothing is as bad as it’s made out to be. In 2016, when the Raptors made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, Lowry and DeRozan were intermittently excellent. While their shooting percentages were down, they navigated the flow of the playoffs and ground out wins like true veterans.

Now, they’re even better. So far in this first round series against Washington, Lowry and DeRozan have been shining on the playoff stage. Lowry is averaging a near double-double, with 14.3 points and 9.7 assists; DeRozan is leading the team with 25.7 points per game, with 4.7 assists to boot.

Counter-intuitively, especially if you consider how this Raptors season has gone, it’s the guys behind the two All-Stars who are struggling.

The Raptors bench struggles have been the common thread of this series. From six through 12, you see a trend of falling scoring numbers and rising turnovers. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam especially have seen a dropoff in play, with Poeltl dropping from 6.9 points per game down to 3.7. Norman Powell has also failed to elevate his play in the post-season, and while C.J. Miles has shot the ball well, but is unable to create his own shot in all-bench units. This, along with the fact that the bench’s best player all season, Fred VanVleet, has missed all but three minutes with a shoulder injury.

Watching the series, it looks like the Raptors’ young bench players are struggling with self-confidence amid Washington’s physicality. Here’s a few examples, and some ideas for improvement as an important Game 4 looms tonight.

Siakam and Poeltl, Navigating Tight Space

The two bigs in the Raptors bench mob have had successful chemistry this season. By staying connected, they’ve been able to make pocket passes on the offensive end, and break down defences by moving the ball quickly and effectively. In this series, a certain timidity has taken over, though. There’s an extra beat in both these players’ decision-making, and Washington is closing air space in the paint to make life difficult.

Here we see Siakam screening for Delon Wright in a high pick-and-roll. In this scenario, the Raptors like to get the ball to Siakam on the move — he’s been excellent diving to the basket and dumping it off to Poeltl. Wright misses the initial opportunity, though, as Ty Lawson fights Siakam on the switch. Pascal tries an uncharacteristic post-up on the point guard, and misses Ian Mahinmi coming for help.

The Raptors’ bench thrives on space that develops from the ball moving faster than defenders can react. Here, a slower pick and roll allows Washington the time to get into the body of Siakam, negating his speed and decision-making. They keep the ball central on the floor, and it’s an easy help block for Mahinmi.

We’ve also seen a lot of forcing action from both bigs, something typical of young players in their first post-season scenario. Here, Siakam gets a golden feed from Lowry. Rather than take the layup, he tries a difficult pass to Poeltl, who’s already been set in the key for three seconds.

For these two to be more effective, the Raptors’ bench have to be running their offence with purpose and confidence.

In Washington’s 12-0 run in the second quarter, where they took the lead for good, I counted at least four examples where the bench was taking a shot after the first pass of the possession. They need to let these possessions steep — move the ball, break down the defence, and move it again if needed.

Norm Powell and the Need for a Shrinking Rotation

I couldn’t help but cringe while cutting this video. Observe: the infamous Powell sequence from the second quarter.

A missed shot is fine, whether it’s close or not, but Norm holding his pose and missing Mike Scott leaking out is unprofessional. Dwane Casey has many difficult lineup decisions with 12 players who can theoretically get minutes. It may be time, though, to pull the plug on Powell and Lorenzo Brown — finding more time for starters like Lowry and OG Anunoby to prop up the bench in Fred VanVleet’s absence.

So far in this series, Powell has a net rating of -17, while he and Brown are near the bottom of the rotation in true shooting percentages of 36.3% and 35.7% (only Lucas Nogueira is lower). Cutting the rotation to nine players would be an interesting experiment in itself, and while I think it’s unlikely to happen for Game 4, it may be a required move if this series gets drawn out to six or seven games and VanVleet stays out.

Which Starters Should Prop up the Bench?

I think Joel Stephens hit this on the head in yesterday’s piece, but if we’re picking between Lowry or DeRozan to prop the bench and give it some confidence, it might be Lowry’s turn to get the lion’s share of minutes. DeRozan was on when Washington went 10-0 to end the first quarter, negating a nine-point Raptors lead. It was an awkward stretch for the Raptors offence, alluded to with some of the clips earlier. The ball was sticky, there was a lot of quick shots, and the combination of Miles and DeRozan made for poor defence on the other end.

Lowry, meanwhile, is more helpful for a bench unit struggling with self-confidence — after all, he’s a souped-up version of Fred VanVleet. The threat of shooting opens up more room for Siakam and Poeltl to get the ball and make positive plays. Along with C.J. Miles, it also opens up driving lanes for Delon Wright, who was demonstrative in the two games at the Air Canada Centre.

If that end-of-quarter transition lineup is open to debate, I’d love to see Lowry replace DeRozan and play the whole period. Then, perhaps some confidence will carry over to the second, where Casey typically plays an all-bench lineup for 5-6 minutes.

More Starters, More of the Time

A small note, but I also liked the move by Casey to play the starters together through the end of the second and start of the third. That five-man unit, mostly thanks to the coming-out party of Anunoby, has been the best offering for Toronto through three games (16.9 net rating). The bench needs opportunities to succeed, but not at the cost of the Raptors rolling out their best guys. Right now, that’s their starting five — if Washington is going to play John Wall and Bradley Beal heavy minutes, you want your best two checks (Lowry and Anunoby) on the floor.

For the minutes they do get, the Raptors’ bench should key in on confidence through ball movement as a way of breaking through. We know they’re more talented than the Wizards they’re going against; they know it too.

It’s a matter of believing it and executing with more purpose. That shift will help for future rounds too, should the Raptors finish this thing off.