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Major lineup changes may give the Raptors a chance in Game 4

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The Raptors’ coaching staff threw the game plan out the window for Game 3, and it almost worked. Let’s examine what they came up with in its stead, and how it can help in Game 4.

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Entering Game 3, there were rumours of starting lineup changes for the Raptors. I railed against this idea, saying that the only strong unit so far in this series has been the starters, and that tweaks to the rotation behind them would be far more effective.

The coaching staff chased both avenues, and the results were mixed. Let’s take a look at how those choices played out for Toronto in Game 3.

Changing the Starting Lineup

The Raptors decided to go away from the starting unit that had started every game strongly so far these playoffs, including the two games against the Cavaliers, replacing Serge Ibaka (who has certainly been struggling) with Fred VanVleet.

The old starting lineup of Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-OG Anunoby-Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas had posted these numbers:

Minutes Played | Net Rating
Regular Season: 801 MP, +11.2 RTG
Playoffs: 141 MP, +7.1 RTG
First Two Games of ECSF: 33 MP, +2.3 RTG

In fact, that lineup was one of only two significant-minutes lineups through the first two games, the other being the all-bench unit, which also had a slight positive net rating.

That small positive net rating is impressive, considering the team as a whole had posted a -9.2 net rating, and considering that those two units made up almost exactly half of the minutes played in the series in the first two games (50 of 101 total minutes).

So, with the team having struggled overall, but with the bench unit and starting unit having found some success, the obvious move was to scuttle both lineups and start from scratch. Right?

Well, the new starting lineup managed to post a -19.1 net rating in 10 minutes played in Game 3. That amounts to being -4 in those 10 minutes. Not a disastrous overall number, but not great, and if the change to the starting lineup was supposed to improve on the mediocre results they had been getting, it didn’t work out that way.

But, even with that early hole, this game came down to the last shot. So something must have worked. But what?

What Did Work With the Changes?

The two most used lineups outside of the starting group were two units we would typically describe as transitional units — groups with two or three of the players who usually start for the team, plus a couple of bench players.

The difference between these transitional lineups and the ones that have plagued the Raptors all year long is the frontcourt. Usually these lineups are fronted by the pairing of Ibaka and Poeltl, a duo that has fit horribly all year long. In our rotation preview pieces, we examined the transitional lineups and begged to have them removed from the rotation, leaning on the starters for longer minutes, or barring that, replaced with the small-ball looks that the Raptors had had some success with throughout the season.

Finally, in Game 3, the Raptors went that latter direction. Here is how those small ball transitional lineups worked out.

Lineup | Minutes Played | Net Rating
Lowry-VanVleet-C.J. Miles-Anunoby-Ibaka: 9 MP, +66 RTG
Lowry-VanVleet-Miles-Pascal Siakam-Ibaka: 6 MP, +61 RTG

Now obviously those looks won’t result in almost doubling up the opposition every night, but as we covered, they are high reward looks, especially against small opposition. They were the reason the Raptors were in this game at the end, having gone +15 in their combined 15 minutes played.

Of course, there’s a reason they were in such a big hole in the first place, and it wasn’t just the starters with their -4 on the night.

The No-Show By DeRozan

As much as I try to make these pieces about rotation decisions, sometime those decisions really do come down to one player just sinking your team. And DeMar DeRozan sure did his best at that in Game 3. He simply did not have it — DeMar couldn’t hit a shot, did not draw many fouls, had more turnovers than assists, did not show up consistently on the defensive end (in spite of a couple very impressive individual plays there), and often bogged the transition offense down, allowing the Cavaliers to get back and set rather than pressing the advantage after a turnover or missed shot.

Here are the lineups that played more than two minutes in this game. Note the pattern between the presence of DeRozan and the net rating of each lineup.

Lineup | MInutes Played | Net Rating
Lowry-VanVleet-DeRozan-Anunoby-Valanciunas: 10 MP, -19 RTG
Lowry-VanVleet-Miles-Anunoby-Ibaka: 9 MP, +66 RTG
Lowry-VanVleet-Miles-Siakam-Ibaka: 6 MP, +61 RTG
Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Anunoby-Ibaka: 4 MP, -86 RTG
Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Siakam-Ibaka: 4 MP, -59 RTG
Lowry-Delon Wright-DeRozan-Anunoby-Valanciunas: 3 MP, -46 RTG
VanVleet-Wright-Miles-Anunoby-Ibaka: 3 MP, +59 RTG

Literally every lineup (over two minutes played) with DeMar was a massive negative. Every lineup without him, a massive positive.

Small samples can be problematic, but in some cases the truth of the matter is as stark as the small samples suggest. The Raptors needed DeRozan to show up in this game and he simply didn’t. Now, there are unknown factors — how much did the unfamiliar lineups mess with his formula for success, and general comfort level? We can’t know for sure, and though I think he’d have had a better shot with his usual surroundings (at least to start), ultimately a performance that poor has to fall on the player.

The number of lessons to be applied is shrinking by the game, with only an extreme long shot remaining to get back into this series. But it still seems worthwhile to point out what has been working and what has not. Even if only to better understand where it all went wrong.

All stats per NBA.com.