Going into the season, throughout the season, and at the end, the main concern about the Raptors was the same — how good could a team be with this young of a rotation? After the departures of Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, and Corey Joseph, there was a mass thrust into the spotlight for Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet — previously unknown quantities in the NBA.
All year, the answer was resounding. The Raptors were fun and good. The two best lineups were the starters — no longer a holdover unit with the move of rookie OG Anunoby into the first five — and their bench, made up of the four guys above and C.J. Miles. The starters had a net rating of 11.2; the now-dubbed bench broskis had a rating of 17.1.
So, going into the playoffs, it was a concern that Fred VanVleet was injured. He’s been the head of the bench animal, as well as a beast in transitional lineups (those that Dwane Casey uses in the middle of quarters, mostly). In the few minutes he played in Game 2, he still looked very much injured. There was a sense, though, that whenever he returned after that point, he’d be healthy enough to make an impact.
That’s just what happened in Friday’s Game 6 win against the Wizards. VanVleet was a +12 in his 19 minutes on the court, making some sweet assists in his first stint (second quarter) and leading a broski rager in his second (fourth quarter). More importantly, having VanVleet on the floor gave Casey back his tried-and-true playbook. Though the Raptors struggled to find a formula through the first three quarters — two early fouls from Jakob Poeltl threw the balance out of whack — they returned to units with proven success in the fourth.
For a look-see, here’s the Popcorn Machine game flow (lineups and time on the court) for last night’s game.
Dial in on the fourth quarter. The five bench guys open it +8, giving the Raptors their biggest lead of the game. Then, Jonas Valanciunas replaces Poeltl and Kyle Lowry replaces C.J. Miles. That unit goes +3 — not surprising when you consider how Valanciunas has impacted the glass and how Lowry is... well, Lowry. Finally, DeMar DeRozan replaces VanVleet (clearly tired in his first real game back) for the last 3:30. That lineup goes +5 to seal the win.
Every substitution, every lineup that saw the court in the fourth quarter of Game 6, was a home run. It showed Casey at his boldest — riding an all-bench unit against John Wall and/or Bradley Beal for over six minutes. Then, he stayed away from a struggling Serge Ibaka, trusted Siakam and Delon to finish, and kept DeRozan seated for another three minutes. In an elimination game!
It also shows how VanVleet’s presence changed how the Wizards guard the Raptors, making the five-man bench a solid play in crunch time. Here’s what that looked like.
VanVleet’s Shooting as a Direct Threat
This is quite simple, and one harped on after each Raptors rough patch through five games: VanVleet’s shooting ability (41.4% from three in the regular season) opens up the floor for a non-shooting bench lineup.
The Wizards played smart defence on C.J. Miles all series, over-helping as he comes off screens and negating his looks. VanVleet adds a second threat, though, and having two shooters on the floor — as it has all year — opens up driving lines for Siakam and Wright.
On this play, Miles and VanVleet both come up to the perimeter at the same time. Gortat is guarding VanVleet after a switch, so Ty Lawson has to choose between the two shooters. He goes with Miles, leaving VanVleet open to fire from the wing.
If VanVleet is out, the alternate universe has Norm Powell there — a 13% drop-off in three-point shooting percentage.
VanVleet Lifting Up the Bench Bigs
On this next play, just the threat of VanVleet and Miles opens up the lane for Siakam, who had his best game of the series with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Now, take a look at the court when Siakam starts to make that move.
You’ve got Beal playing tight, prevention defence on VanVleet out on the perimeter. He’s not helping where he might have if it was Powell. Wall is guarding Miles on a corner-to-corner cut. Lawson is sticking with Wright, who showed a confident stroke in Game 5. With Poeltl in the high post, Siakam now has a world of space to create on offence. The Wizards were packing the paint from Games 3 to 5, suffocating the bench bigs from any sort of freelancing. Put another shooter out there, though, and that strategy changes quickly.
In short, this is what happens in the Raptors favour when VanVleet is in the game. It also shows how cohesive the five-man bench unit works together. Take away one piece of that, and Toronto doesn’t quite have the same oomph when Lowry and DeRozan take a seat.
VanVleet knows his impact too, saying after the game, “I know what I bring to the table. I don’t brag or boast about my game. I never want to see my teammates struggle to show people what I mean to the team, but I know the kind of impact I have.”
So yeah, you can enjoy the Raptors winning their first round series and avoiding massive disappointment. The best feeling, though, is knowing that Toronto is back to full health, and showing that they can translate regular season success into a big quarter in the playoffs.
With a better opponent coming in the second round, having your potential as a light at the end of the tunnel feels really good.