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Can smarter use of depth save the Raptors’ season?

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With a big hill to climb, how can Toronto better utilize their depth to mount a comeback against the Celtics?

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming into 2019-20 after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, one major question hung over the Raptors: how would they score in the half court without their most reliable offensive player?

Up to this point, that hasn’t mattered much. The Raptors have been a powerhouse thanks to a combination of elite, opportunistic defense, a significant scoring bump from guys like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, and contributions beyond the top seven in their rotation.

Against a great Celtics defense, all three of these strengths are getting knocked down a peg. During the regular season, the Raptors were the NBA’s best team in transition, with 16.7% of their points coming on the fast break. That’s dried up to 11.9% against Boston, as Toronto is repeatedly being asked to score against a set defense. In Game 2, 84.4% of the Raptors’ offensive possessions were against a set Celtics defense, according to Cleaning the Glass — the most they’ve had since December 29 vs. Oklahoma City*.

We know there’ve been shooting struggles. Fred VanVleet is shooting 21.8% from three through two losses; Kyle Lowry just 8.3%. Lowry, especially, hasn’t looked confident with his outside shot since returning from an ankle injury, missing all seven of his three-point attempts in Game 2. If Lowry and VanVleet are being out-shot by Marcus Smart, there are going to be problems for Toronto.

Pascal Siakam, for his part, shot 6-for-16 and was more efficient in Game 2, helping Toronto get an early lead. He hasn’t been able to offset the lack of outside shooting, however, averaging just 15.5 points per game. (This is a big ask, by the way, and one Siakam has tapered away from since the first 15 games of the season.) He’s also struggled when asked to get a bucket in isolation, though every NBA player outside an elite handful would share that struggle when guarded by Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart.

So, what’s the solution? Looking back at those three strengths, it could be as binary as the Raptors’ top three shooting better. Either Lowry, VanVleet, or Siakam could ride a hot hand to a win in this series. The Raptors defense is doing enough to make that possible.

Tasking those three to get four wins in five games, though, while playing 40+ minutes per game — it’s a steep proposition. Toronto will need to find a way to get back to scoring by committee. They’re going to need their bench to step up.

Finding a spark in transition lineups

Looking at the lineups chart in Game 2, there was good and bad in the Raptors’ transitional minutes, which are typically found at the start of the second and fourth quarters.

In the second quarter, a bench lineup with Kyle Lowry went on a 6-0 run and marked a +1. Lowry, though, didn’t sit again until late in the third quarter. This meant Nick Nurse had to start the fourth with a sketchier unit of VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, Ibaka, and Boucher — as Josh Kern pointed out in this morning’s Five Thoughts, it was one that hadn’t played together this season and went -7 in just over two minutes.

Finding the optimal time to rest Lowry has long been a challenge for Raptors coaches. We’re going on six years of Kyle propping up bench units and it’s been a consistent go-to during transitional periods of the game. Given his workload in this series, though, there’s going to have to be some “weird lineup” minutes like we saw to start the fourth.

One idea is to be a bit more forgiving with Terence Davis, who has played just 18 minutes in two games and struggled with reaching fouls on defense. If he can clean that up a bit, a Davis-Powell backcourt has two guards who can go north-south effectively on offense; Brad Stevens went with a zone to start the fourth quarter and both guys could attack that well. (Powell did so once during the period in question.)

Another idea is to be more purposeful with who is running the offense when Lowry sits. Pascal Siakam is typically out there during those times, and has shown the ability to run point as an offensive wrinkle. The Raptors have flirted with pick and rolls where Siakam handles the ball and a guard sets the screen. Having different players in these transitional units screen for Siakam, hunting weaker Celtics defenders in their transitional lineups, can be a way of creating efficient offense while resting Lowry.

Finally, there may be a spot for Matt Thomas yet in this series. I would’ve loved to have seen him in place of Ibaka in that fourth quarter lineup, just as someone who can reshape the Raptors’ offense for 3-5 minutes a game. We know he gives some of his scoring back on defense, but I think his cutting and shooting ability is worth taking the risk.

Matching minutes against Time Lord

Marcus Smart grabbed all the headlines after his flashy shooting in Game 2, but a 5-for-5 first quarter by Robert Williams III — a.k.a. Time Lord — should be turning heads too. Williams has replaced Enes Kanter as the backup centre for the Celtics, and his youthful energy has somewhat exposed the aging duo of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Against Gasol in the pick and roll, Williams’ rim run here is simply too quick for the Raptors’ big to recover, ending in an easy basket.

Help defense has been a challenge for the Raptors on Williams, as Powell fails to collapse and box out Williams on this thunderous dunk.

Ibaka has been in tough too, losing Williams’ body on this possession, resulting in more easy points for Boston.

It’s a more drastic move, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Raptors match a slighter lineup with Williams’ minutes on the floor. Whether that’s Siakam spending some time at the five or Chris Boucher slotting in at centre, Williams has simply proven too athletic for either Gasol or Ibaka to deal with for consistent stretches. Using Boucher in this spot has the added effect of providing rest for Toronto’s starters; any baskets scored on the other end is gravy.

A more modest move would be to keep Gasol on the floor longer. Playing just 21 minutes in Game 2 due to foul trouble, Gasol was a step slow on a couple pick and rolls, but overall did his thing on defense: great positioning, solid rebounding, and tenacious in the gaps.

While Williams might get a couple rim runs against Gasol, we know the big Spaniard can be counted on to close possessions with rebounds and not lose the young man’s body. That can counteract the Time Lord’s effectiveness when he comes off the bench for energy minutes.

******

It’s true that despite the team’s struggles on offense, the Raptors were just a last-second heave from forcing overtime in Game 2. Toronto only needs small improvements to get back into this series. Optimizing second unit minutes and ensuring they get the production needed from guys like Powell, Boucher, and Terence Davis will go a long way to accomplishing this.

* Game 4 against Brooklyn was an outlier here (85.0%), but that’s heavily skewed because half the game was bench minutes / garbage time

Stats via NBA.com, Popcorn Machine, Cleaning the Glass