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HQ Roundtable: On the Raptors’ rotations and crunch time play, the “Super Bowl” Playoffs, and more

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The HQ Roundtable panel discuss what the Raptors need to do in crunch time, which rotations to run with, and they come up with some wild new playoff ideas. There’s a lot to get through!

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Wednesday, which means another edition of the HQ Roundtable comes your way. Welcome — I’m Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly series. Pairing with me for this week is Thomas Mooney and Jay Rosales. For this week’s discussion, we looked at what’s going on with the Raptors in late-game situations, ideal rotations, what the playoffs would look like if it ran with the NFL’s playoff format, and more!

On the Raptors:

1) What would you do to fix the crunch time issues the Raptors have had of late?

Sully Akbari: More movement on offense and attacking at the right time. There is no doubt that either Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry should have the ball for the last shot, but I think the issues from late-game situations stems from the lack of better play-making. Just like in the game against the Rockets, it seems like the Raptors run a play so late in the clock for Kawhi that he doesn’t have enough time to get a good shot off. There’s got to be a better way to generate a better look without the Raptors looking totally flustered in the last 10 seconds of a game.

Thomas Mooney: I’d like to see at least a little bit more creativity in these sets they run late. How many times do we have to watch the team go iso-ball possession after possession before they change things up? I mean isn’t that what Nick Nurse was known for when he got hired? An out of the box thinker and innovator? I fully realize that the Raptors have the individual talent to win one-on-one battles, but we’ve seen time and time again that they’re better when there’s more ball movement, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t just do that at the end of games as well.

Jay Rosales: Do the Raptors really have crunch time issues? Toronto is 8th in win %, 4th in points scored, sixth in +/-, fifth in rebounds, fifth in assists, sixth in steals, and seventh in blocks – all in the clutch, according to NBA.com. I know the question is geared towards the plethora of missed Kawhi isos in the dying moments, but it’s easy to forget the positives that got Toronto into those positions to begin with.

For example, take a look at the final 90 seconds of the Houston game. Down by 12, on the road, here were the final six offensive possessions for the Raptors (plus final three offensive possessions for the Rockets):

Danny Green 3-pt | Kawhi Leonard jumper | Kawhi Leonard 3-pt | Kawhi Leonard steal on James Harden | Danny Green 3-pt (after 2 offensive rebounds from Pascal Siakam) | Eric Gordon turnover | Pascal Siakam 3-pt | Eric Gordon missed 3-pt | Kawhi Leonard missed 3-pt. |

I’m just as guilty as all Raptors fans in questioning the lack of ball movement/creativity when Kawhi goes isolation in the final seconds. However, I don’t think it’s fair to discredit the eight (!) positive outcomes at the end of the Houston game and focus on the one negative. Nick Nurse has shown signs of creativity (Danny Green in Orlando; Pascal Siakam vs. Phoenix), and the team has shown a lot of resiliency throughout the season (Atlanta, Phoenix, and Indiana comeback wins come to mind, as well as the almost-comeback in Portland).

Putting the ball in Kawhi’s hands is still our best option in late game situations. Nurse was smart to move away from the high screen-and-roll in Dallas and give it to Kawhi in the post. He’s stronger than anyone and, if he’s doubled, is starting to find his teammates more – either Green/Lowry spotting up beyond the arc or Siakam cutting to the rim. More of that, please!

2) What is your ideal rotation now that the team (minus JV) is healthy?

Sully: So, we have the usual starters in Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka. Then we have VanVleet, Wright, Anunoby, Powell, Miles, Monroe, McCaw off the bench. My ideal rotation would be to have the starters play 28 to 35 minutes, but the bench rotation all depends on the opposing team and situation. VanVleet, Wright, and Powell are my locks — they’ll be in the rotation as they provide play-making, solid defensive play, and energy. OG gets runs when Kawhi or Siakam come off to defend the opposing team’s best player. Monroe has been struggling, so he only plays if the team is getting heavily beat on the glass and in the paint.

Then we have the outsiders in Miles and McCaw. I think the best decision is to play them when a player from the bench is struggling or if the Raptors need a shooting or defensive boost, they can opt to play Miles and McCaw. To cap this off, my 10-man rotation would be the starters with VanVleet, Wright, Powell, OG, Monroe/Miles/McCaw.

Thomas: I imagine coach Nurse is going to play it game-by-game about who gets left out, similar to how he’s handled the starting center spot, and it’s hard for me to disagree with that approach. Obviously, the usual five starters along with VanVleet, Anunoby, and Powell are the locks to play, but I would make Wright a lock as well.

The Raptors only have two back-to-backs for the rest of the season, so it’d be easier to switch to a 9-man rotation. First thing I would do is take Monroe completely out unless foul trouble makes him play necessary spot minutes, making Siakam the backup center until JV gets back. That way they’d be able to get back to the Lowry (or Leonard) + bench units that worked so well last season. As for the other guys, I would play C.J. Miles only in certain situations if need be, and Pat McCaw only if one of our other wings gets injured.

Jay: Starters: Lowry–Green–Leonard–Anunoby–Anthony Davis.

Reserves: VanVleet–Wright–Miles–Boucher–Valanciunas.

Oh, has that not happened yet? Alright, let’s go with …

Starters: Lowry–Green–Leonard–Siakam–Ibaka

Bench 1: FVV–Delon–Leonard–OG–JV

Bench 2: Lowry–Delon–Miles–Siakam–Monroe

Bench 3: FVV–Green–Leonard–Siakam–Ibaka

Bench 4: Lowry–FVV–Leonard–OG–JV

Closing: Lowry–FVV–Leonard–Siakam–Ibaka (or Green, with Kawhi and Pascal sliding down a spot). This is why I’m not a coach ... and why we really need to appreciate the depth this team has. A couple of quick notes on these lineups:

VanVleet is always matched with a ball-handler (Lowry, Delon, Siakam). He’s better suited in the Steve Nash shooter role, rather than the Steve Nash drive-and-dish role.

I’d prefer to have Green in the closing lineup, but that leaves us paper thin on the glass.

While I don’t know who he’d replace, I’m still hopeful OG can work his way into the starter or closing lineups.

Lowry gets to rest before Kawhi because his injury history is more concerning. Kawhi can start to ramp up his minutes now with a lighter remaining schedule. Either one needs to be on the floor with the bench units.

3) What did you make of coach Nick Nurse holding Delon Wright to a DNP-CD against the Houston Rockets?

Sully: It was really odd. Wright was the last player I expected to receive a DNP-CD because he hasn’t had a stretch where he needed to be benched. I know he hasn’t had the best of seasons but I thought he could have been useful in the second quarter of that game — when the Raptors were down big — and in the fourth — when the Raptors were making a comeback. Where I think he would have made an impact in those situations would be his obvious play-making skills.

We know the Rockets shoot a barrage of three-pointers, which is why Nurse went with Miles. However, I’m sure Wright would have produced more than C.J.’s zero points, two missed three-point shots and one rebound in eight minutes of action. I don’t mean to throw Miles under the bus, but that’s my justification to why Wright should have played.

Thomas: While it was weird that he didn’t play against the Rockets, I can’t say I’m too mad about the decision. Now that the team is basically healthy, coach Nurse is going to have a tough decision each night regarding the rotations, and leaving Wright out was the first one he had to make. The DNP-CD is odd though, considering it was their intent to throw as many different looks at James Harden as they could. Delon also would’ve helped out their offense when Lowry wasn’t on the floor, as he’s shown to be a better facilitator than VanVleet so far this season. I don’t think benching Wright was the main reason why they lost the game, but I do think it was a big enough mistake where he won’t be seeing another DNP for a long time.

Jay: I’m not going to speculate since a) he played in Dallas; and b) he looked good/healthy. Nurse has made curious lineup decisions all season long. This was a regular season game in January. If he’s injured, there’s no reason to hide it. If he’s on the trade block, Nurse would showcase him instead of benching him.

Around the NBA:

1) According to The Big Lead, what are your thoughts on NBA ratings being down 22 percent on TNT? (ESPN and local broadcasts are seeing drop downs as well.)

Sully: I am and not surprised all at the same time. I thought if anything, the ratings would have a slight change — but to see a 22 percent drop is alarming. To my surprise, I thought LeBron James heading to L.A., Kawhi in Toronto, Doncic’s rookie season, Jimmy Butler in Philadelphia, etc. would have a big impact on viewership and ratings, but that doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

Why I think the ratings are down is because fans know what to expect this season in that the Warriors, with DeMarcus Cousins, are going to take cakewalk through the season and eventually win the championship. With all these stars playing at their highest level, and some doing it with different teams, it seems like fans are not interested in the product that the NBA is trying to sell.

Thomas: I think there are a few factors for the ratings being down. Some of it has to do with the household names being on the west coast, resulting in the games going so late into the night. I think some of it has to do with about half the league either tanking or just flat out not being interesting. Another part could be the social media aspect. Why watch a game when you can see the big highlights on Twitter minutes after it happens? With that though, I think it mostly it has to do with the feeling that the season is over before it even begins. How many people say that the season doesn’t matter because the Warriors are going to win anyway? It’s taken casual fans out of the game, and takes the joy out of the ride for fans who love the league.

Jay: The article does a good job of pointing out some causes – from the inevitability of Golden State to a strong reliance on LeBron James – but misses the biggest factor: Streaming. As long as streaming exists, all the major sports will lose viewership to illegal streams.

The drop in viewership doesn’t surprise me. The percentage drop started to surprise me ... until I remembered TNT launching Players Only.

2) How would the playoffs shape up if the NBA followed the NFL’s postseason format? Teams are considered fully healthy and standings are accurate as of Jan. 29

Sully:

Eastern Conference First Round

(3) IND vs. (6) BKN

I’m going to take the Nets to pull off the upset. With Indiana losing Victor Oladipo for the season due to injury, I don’t see them matching up well with this Nets team led by D’Angelo Russell and a healthy Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. The Nets win because they’ll be able to overpower the Pacers with their nice balance of talented guards and bigs.

(4) PHI vs. (5) BOS

A rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, but this time, it’s a one-game, winner takes all. With the Celtics’ core not drastically improving, I think the 76ers are better equipped this season to beat them this time around. Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid would be enough to eliminate the Celtics.

Eastern Conference Second Round

(1) MIL vs. (6) BKN

This wouldn’t be close. The Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe would carve out the Nets with their gunslinging offense. To add, the Nets’ youth and playoff inexperience would be a disadvantage to them, especially in a big game in front of the Bucks faithful.

(2) TOR vs. (4) PHI

I think the Raptors are a more complete team than the 76ers for this matchup. Outside of Butler, Simmons, and Embiid, there really isn’t much talent, whereas the Raptors are a deep 10-man team. It would be close, but I have the Raptors coming out on top.

Eastern Conference Finals

(1) MIL vs. (2) TOR

This is ultimately a toss-up but when you consider a healthy Raptors team, I think they slightly edge the Bucks. Leonard and Giannis will be the two going at it but the Raptors have a good chance in beating the other Bucks to the punch. Other than Middleton, It’ll come down to the other guys from both teams and I’m confident in the Raptors out-playing Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, etc.

Thomas:

Eastern Conference First Round

(3) IND vs. (6) BKN

This is the matchup of the first round that would put the favourites on upset alert. Especially now that Oladipo is out, this becomes much more of an even game. If D’Angelo Russell continues his high level of play, he could get hot enough to take over and get the Nets to advance.

(4) PHI vs. (5) BOS

This is definitely the glamour matchup of the first round. Even with all the star power each team has, I think this game ends up being won on how the Celtics game plan against Ben Simmons.

Eastern Conference Second Round

(1) MIL vs. (6) BKN

Milwaukee gets their prayers answered by facing a young Brooklyn team in the second round. Giannis wouldn’t have any trouble taking over this game, and ending the Nets cinderella run.

(2) TOR vs. (5) BOS

This is the matchup the Raptors definitely don’t want. The Raptors have had their troubles against Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, but the Celtics have had their troubles with Lowry as well. This game is won by the big hands of Kawhi Leonard, as the Celtics don’t have someone that can contain him.

Eastern Conference Finals

(1) MIL vs. (2) TOR

Kawhi vs Giannis, but this time in a chance to go to the NBA SuperBowl Finals. With the length and shooting on both teams, it’s truly a toss-up. I think the championship experience of Leonard and Danny Green help pull the Raptors through

Jay:

Eastern Conference First Round

(3) IND vs. (6) BKN

I realize the Pacers have lost Oladipo for the season and recently lost to the lowly Grizzlies. However, Indiana has won the last 9 meetings with Brooklyn and have a top-5 defense. Defense might not win championships anymore, but it should at least get a playoff win or two. Pacers over Nets

(4) PHI vs. (5) BOS

In a series, Boston wins. But in a one-game playoff at home, anything can happen. Kyrie goes off for 40, but Embiid / Simmons / Butler shut down the rest of the Celtics. 76ers over Celtics.

Eastern Conference Second Round

(1) MIL vs. (4) PHI

Upsetting Boston is one thing, but pulling that off against the Bucks at Fiserv Forum is just not happening. Milwaukee had the NBA’s best offense over the first six weeks of the season and the NBA’s best defense over the last six weeks. Antetokounmpo is not fair. Bucks over 76ers.

(2) TOR vs. (3) IND

Raptors simply have too many weapons for the Star-less Pacers to overcome. Raps over Pacers.

Eastern Conference Finals

(1) MIL vs. (2) TOR

This is not a homer pick. The Raptors should have beaten the Bucks on December 9 and have already won in Milwaukee (without Lowry and JV too!). Unless the Bucks come out and destroy the Raptors in Toronto on Thursday, I’ll stand by this prediction for the rest of the season. Raptors over Bucks.

Western Conference First Round

Sully: (3) OKC vs. (6) SAS

Just like in that ridiculous double-OT game, this would play out to be a fun playoff game. I think the Spurs have a solid team but going up against Paul George and Russell Westbrook at Chesapeake Arena is an automatic loss. The second there is a momentum swing is when the fans would get into the Spurs’ head and that would just wrap it up.

(4) POR vs. (5) HOU

This one has upset written all over it. A healthy Rockets team would have their way against this Portland team. Considering this a one-game playoff, I certainly think the Rockets would get James Harden the ball and let him take over. There wouldn’t be anyone to stop him as Portland doesn’t have a player who is a strong and quick defender to make him uncomfortable.

Western Conference Second Round

(1) GSW vs. (5) HOU

This game would have the same result as last season’s Western Conference Finals – in that the Warriors would defeat the Rockets once again. With their five All-Star starting lineup, Golden State is just on another level than Houston and no matter what Harden puts up, this game poses no threat to them.

(2) DEN vs. (3) OKC

As good as Denver has been, I would still take this OKC team. Paul George’s play has taken a big step forward and has become one of the elite players in this league to the point where I think he can take over a big game like this. It would be an intense and close game, but OKC comes out on top.

Western Conference Finals

(1) GSW vs. (3) OKC

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook meet again. As much as Westbrook would want to beat Durant – especially on the big stage, it won’t happen. The Warriors’ All-Star starting lineup would be just enough to take care of OKC’s starters and their mediocre bench.

Thomas:

Western Conference First Round

(3) OKC vs. (6) SAS

The Thunder have the more talented team, but it’s almost a toss-up anytime a Greg Popovich team is on the other side. I think OKC wins this because Paul George is on a tear that could win him the MVP, and Steven Adams takes over the frontcourt matchup.

(4) POR vs. (5) HOU

A flashback to the series four years ago when Damian Lillard eliminated the Rockets on a game six buzzer beater, I’m taking the Rockets this time around. Taking them because I don’t think the Blazers would be able to contain Harden, and Capela would be a load to handle as well.

Western Conference Second Round

(1) GSW vs. (5) HOU

The Rockets played the Warriors brilliantly last year, but this time I’d see the Rockets facing similar problems. They’d have to hope that Harden hasn’t burned out by then, but if not, their style of play could bring them to an upset in a one-game situation. I’d still take the Warriors, though.

(2) DEN vs. (3) OKC

The Nuggets have been the surprise team of the year, but most of them don’t have any playoff experience. I think they’re still a year away, and maybe a piece away from making the conference finals.

Western Conference Finals

(1) GSW vs. (3) OKC

The Thunder make a valiant effort getting to the conference finals, but I think it would end against the Warriors. Paul George is great, but how can the other Thunder players keep up with the Warriors?

Jay:

Western Conference First Round

(3) OKC vs. (6) SAS

Can we please have another double-overtime thriller between these two, like the one they played on January 10? Similar to the Sixers/Celtics game, I’m tempted to go with the upset since the Spurs are the best 3-point shooting team in the league and could easily get hot from deep. But I’ll stick with the former MVP and his DPOY front-running teammate. OKC over Spurs.

(4) POR vs. (5) HOU

I wanted to pick Portland, just to piss off Sully, but this should be a Houston victory. Portland won their last meeting, but Houston was missing Chris Paul. The Blazers have actually lost four of their last five home games vs. the Rockets. Rockets over Trail Blazers.

Western Conference Second Round

(1) GSW vs. (5) HOU

Once upon a time, the Rockets were labelled as the ones who would topple the Warriors. That was before Steph Curry reverted back to pre-Durant Curry. That was before Boogie Freakin’ Cousins joined the Dubs. Warriors over Rockets.

(2) DEN vs. (3) OKC

The Nuggets have won 4 straight against the Thunder and six of the last seven. Nikola Jokic is the least talked about top-3 MVP candidate ever. Denver’s finally getting healthy and should be scary to the rest of the league. Nuggets over Thunder.

Western Conference Finals

(1) GSW over (2) DEN

Do you think the Warriors were trying to make a statement with that 142-111 annihilation in Denver two weeks ago? Warriors over Nuggets.

NBA SuperBowl Finals

Sully: (1) GSW vs. (2) TOR

The Raptors beat the Warriors in their two meetings in this season (one with Kawhi and one without) and part of me believe that they can still beat them in a one-game playoff match. The Warriors don’t have a bench that is as good as the Raptors, which is where I could see Toronto winning. The starters can’t play all 48 minutes of a game, but even in a playoff game where rotations are shortened, teams are going to need to give their stars a breather. Even consider that fact, it pains me to say it, but I still think the Warriors win.

Thomas: (1) GSW vs. (2) TOR

As much of a thrill, it would be to have the Raptors here, and anything could happen in a one-game series, how can I bet against this Warriors team. A fully engaged team should be able to stomp out the Raptors, especially with a homecourt advantage.

Jay: (1) GSW vs. (2) TOR

We’re still hypothetical, right? Seriously, though, every single game over the last four seasons have been tight. The only blowout being the most recent meeting – a 20-point thrashing by the Raptors, without Kawhi Leonard, in Golden State. Raptors over Warriors.

*******

That concludes this week’s HQ Roundtable discussion! If you have want a say on what we should discuss, let us know in the comments below and we will be sure to include it in the upcoming edition!