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The Raptors won without Kawhi and remembered their identity in the process

Toronto won games against tough opponents this weekend in very different ways — one just looked a hell of a lot easier.

Toronto Raptors: Winning without Kawhi Leonard, remembering their identity Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors dusted off the grave dirt that was piling up this weekend with a pair of huge victories over two rival Eastern Conference powers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers.

It would be fair to say that Toronto was underdogs in both. The Raptors limped into the weekend with an 8-8 record in their past sixteen games. Milwaukee had won 11 of their last 13, and all the Pacers had done was compile the best record in the NBA since Dec 4th at 13-2.

Both teams also had considerably better point differentials than the scuffling Dinos (+9.5 for the Bucks, +6.2 for Indy, versus +5.1 for Toronto). The Raps also had loud questions over whether or not Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry would finally play together for the first time since routing the Warriors by 20 back on December 12th.

In the wake of arguably their worst performance of the season in San Antonio it seemed that if the Raps darkest timeline was going to manifest itself — a mirroring of the 2014-2015 season when a 24-7 Raptors team inexplicably lost it’s mojo finishing 25-26 the rest of the way and getting swept by the Washington Wizards — this looked like the time and place.

Instead, Toronto won both games.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether a road win in Milwaukee, without Kyle, is tougher than the second night of a back-to-back at home against Indy without Kawhi, but there’s no getting around it: when the chips were down the Raptors ate ‘em, grabbed some dip and a party pack from the corner store, and then scarfed those too.

In doing so they again demonstrated what the numbers have been showing already — the rest of the Raptors play better basketball when Kawhi Leonard is not on the court.

Resurrecting the Raptors Bench

The blueprint was clear again this weekend. In one game, the Raps needed a herculean effort from Leonard (and Pascal Siakam) to overcome Giannis Antetokounmpo’s own epic evening. The Raps bench managed just five points. Every Raptors starter played at least 35 minutes, as coach Nick Nurse channeled his inner Tom Thibodeau.

In fact, Leonard played so much (38 minutes), that the plan to finally play Kawhi in back-to-backs against Indy was scrapped.

In the other game, the Raps bench exploded for over 50, and only one Raptor hit the 35 minute mark — Fred VanVleet. The Raptors looked like the best of last year’s team — one where every player touches the ball, makes decisions, gets involved.

Both games ended up as wins, but one looked a hell of a lot easier, and it wasn’t just because of the score.

You could waive this off with the small sample-size wand, but it’s been an ongoing trend. When the bench plays more they play better.

So far this season, Nurse has had minimal trust in his bench turning around poor starts, and the result has been, rightly or wrongly, big minutes for the Raps big guns — Danny Green and Leonard are both at career-highs, while Kyle Lowry has spiked up to 34 minutes — still below his career-high levels, but also noticeably up from a year ago.

Still, the point remains, the stars are playing more, and the bench, the Raps biggest asset from a year ago, is struggling.

None of this would really matter — the Raps’ record is a smidge better this year than last season — if Toronto fans hadn’t seen the impact of heavy workloads on stars over and over again in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard may yet prove immune to fatigue, but Lowry, as a small guard, has shown a distinct history of running down in May. It’s possible that VanVleet, of similar stature, may as well.

The second point is even more concerning. Say what you will about former bench-boss Dwane Casey, but one thing is inarguable. He did a masterful job of developing players. GM Masai Ujiri may have passed him hidden jewel after hidden jewel, but Casey polished them to a shine.

Virtually every major player Casey got his hands on in Toronto showed improvement: Who ever thought DeMar DeRozan would be this good? Kyle Lowry was a coach-killing malcontent before he and Casey sorted things out. Casey maddened the Raptors crowd with his long-game approach to Jonas Valanciunas, but Lithuanian Lightning would never have struck if Casey hadn’t made JV earn his minutes.

Delon Wright, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Siakam, Jakob Poetl, even players like Terrence Ross — all of them became every day playable NBA’ers. If you think that’s just “what should happen,” I’d argue you gravely misunderstand the hit and miss nature of player development.

This year though, the Raps second unit has been inconsistent. Anunoby often plays like he’s out of confidence — his lack of ideas as a ball-handler are glaring. At points this weekend he looked completely clueless as to what to do with the ball, botching simple entry passes.

Developing Delon Wright

Wright has looked tentative and out-of-sorts. His minutes are down a little over two a game, but, perhaps more importantly for a player who feels his way into the game, he’s getting fewer chances to find a rhythm.

Last year, Wright got more than 20 minutes a game forty times (in 69 appearances), this year’s he’s on pace for less than 30 in what would basically be a full season.

It seems that consistently getting more minutes helps Delon’s game. A year ago he shot the ball better when he played more, and his per-36 minute averages in rebounds and assist were noticeably better in his long-runs than in the shorter ones.

Delon Wright, Per-36, 2017-2018

> 20 Min 36.0 5.4 10.8 49.5% 1.6 3.9 41.28% 2.7 3.1 86.2% 5.3 5.2 0.8 1.7
< 20 Min 36.0 4.4 10.9 39.8% 0.9 3.6 25.0% 1.8 2.5 73.3% 4.3 4.5 1.0 2.0

This year, while getting far fewer opportunities to get more work in Wright is basically flat across the board — except for better shooting inside the arc.

Delon Wright, Per-36, 2018-2019

> 20 Min 36.0 5.0 10.7 47% 1.1 3.4 33% 1.6 1.6 100% 5.2 4.0 0.5 1.4
< 20 Min 36.0 4.7 12.4 38% 1.6 4.5 35% 1.6 2.0 78% 4.7 4.4 0.6 1.8

Small sample size alerts blare, but it’s at least possible that the reason Wright hasn’t been as good this year as last is because he’s being given less of the sort of opportunity he needs.

Nurse has now had half a season to tinker with his team. He’s proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a good coach — he’s won with umpteen different starting line-ups because of a rash of injuries, had instituted a clever rotation between Ibaka and Valanciunas, and done everything he can to prevent the total implosion of C.J. Miles — a key element of the space and pace style of play Nurse prefers.

Nurse has also said nothing matters but how the Raptors play in the playoffs, Now it’s time to walk that talk.

The Raps are going to need Wright and Anunoby playing at a higher level. Lowry and VanVleet can’t be worn down to a nub. And, while injuries to Lowry and Leonard’s load management have limited his abilities to integrate the two stars, there is ample evidence that they are figuring out how to play together.

It’s time for Nurse to value process over results.

Find opportunities to cut Leonard and Lowry’s minutes. When Valanciunas gets healthy, try all-bench units again (the rejuvenation of Norman Powell makes this plausible). Give Wright longer stretches. Design more opportunities for Anunboy to handle the ball.

It might cost a win or two, but wins now only matter so much. It may, in fact, make the Raptors a better regular-season team.

This weekend reminded everyone that there’s an easier way to win games — when they play egalitarian ball the Raps are tough to beat.

Play an egalitarian style of ball, and have Leonard able to take over when needed — that makes them a nightmare.

Appropriate for a team that seemingly has climbed out of the grave, Nurse’s number one goal for the rest of the year should be able to make them that nightmare.