Despite inspiring back-to-back wins, the Toronto Raptors’ odds are still against them. No NBA team has pulled off a 3-0 comeback, Scottie Barnes is playing through an injury, and Fred VanVleet will likely miss tonight’s game. Heck, even if he does play, he will be marginally worse than how he’s looked this series, with his body starting to betray him. But if the Raptors can pull off this comeback attempt, it will have to be done with the most unconventional lineup ever.
With VanVleet out of the picture since the second half of Game 4, a casual might think, “OK, they’re missing their starting point guard, one of the only two reliable floor spacers on the team, and that’s around 20 points per game that the Raptors need to make up. They’re down 3-0, and it’s a wrap.”
Well, leave it to the most unconventional and out-of-the-box coach in the NBA to come up with a curveball to upset the apple cart.
Since the second half of Game 4, Nurse went all-in on the Vision 6’9” lineup. Outside of Gary Trent Jr, he spammed the lineup with a platoon of Power Forwards, and the media, much like Doc Rivers and the Sixers, were confused if this was a small-ball strategy or not. This strategy might be a bit of a surprise for people unfamiliar with what the Raptors are doing this season. Still, the Raptors have had enough reps of this funky rotation ever since VanVleet started missing games.
However, to play without a traditional point guard the entire game is something new for the Raptors. VanVleet missed 17 games during the regular season, and while that gave birth to “Point-Siakam,” Nurse provided Malachi Flynn and/or Dalano Banton some reps at some point in most games. To play an entire game with Barnes as the backup point guard hobbling on one foot is bonkers.
It’s hard to blame Nurse for doing this — neither Flynn nor Banton pushed Nurse hard enough to consider playing them, and with their success against the Sixers on their last regular-season matchup, it’s a gamble worth taking.
The Raptors’ management likes to zig when the consensus expects them to zag. With GROAT Kyle Lowry taking his talents to South Beach, all eyes were on Jalen Suggs this past NBA Draft. Except, the Raptors front office selected the future ROTY Scottie Barnes, who is a perfect prototype for their vision. Free agency went by with the Raptors ignoring all the available centers. However, once we saw the product on the floor, the vision looked promising, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes offering multi-positional utility on both ends of the court. With the addition of Precious Achiuwa and Dalano Banton, it’s clear where the Raptors are going in the future.
Except, Nick Nurse and the Raptors are forced to test their “prototype” sooner than they expected and do it on a bigger stage.
We have seen what it was like without VanVleet before — a funky lineup with “Point-Siakam” as the head of the snake. Siakam’s role as the team’s engine is a revelation, and it feels like we are still scratching the surface. Barnes has done an excellent job sharing the playmaking workload with Siakam, and I’m sure you witnessed the birth of “Thad Young, aka Thadjic Johnson,” hitting his teammates on the move.
The offense, however, can get real ugly. The Raptors don’t have reliable perimeter shooting nor a three-level bucket-getter type of players to put up points on the board outside of Siakam. They have fared well hunting mismatch opportunities, and given their unconventional size; there’s always a mismatch somewhere.
On the defensive end, it unlocks the Raptors’ chaos mode. It allows Trent Jr to do what he does best defensively — aggressively make defensive gambles, knowing that his teammates have enough size on their defensive rotations. If he does manage to play conservatively and stay in front of his man, his decent size and length limit the number of Sixers that can elevate over him for a shot.
The length of Scottie Barnes and the Toronto Raptors is bothering Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey on the offensive end. https://t.co/UFExwgBaA1— Sixers Wire (@SixersWire) April 27, 2022
Then you have long and mobile wings flying around, just like how coach Nick Nurse wants the team to do non-stop. Their length and quickness restrict the passing lanes, and you have players like Anunoby, Trent Jr, and even Siakam, who can play the passing lanes well. Aside from the Joel Embid-type of bigs, the like-sized Raptors lineups give them peace of mind on their rotations, minimizing matchup issues defensively.
This early “prototype” may still be rough around the edges, but it’s doing damage in the playoffs and has changed the course of this team’s timeline — in this playoff series, and moving forward. Getting high-stakes feedback on what this front office wants to do in the future this early in the process is “found money” for them. It should allow them to fine-tune their developmental strategy and zone in on the right types of players and prospects.
This vision also extends the timeline and the “compete window” of VanVleet and Siakam, which is awesome, as it felt like this season is an evaluation season for the front office before they decide to go all-in or tear it apart and rebuild.
More importantly, this vision unleashed another level of Siakam’s game, which is what the team badly needs right now and also in the near future. It’s a tough ask, but playing the point makes him less predictable and keeps him engaged the entire game.
Of course, this plan may backfire for now. The offense is clunky with no traditional point guard, and the shot creation vs spacing can be brutal. Even with two days of rest, who knows how much Siakam’s got left in the tank, as he doesn’t take a play off, especially defensively. Still, this is an opportunity to get more in-depth on this experiment. We might be closer to Kevin Durant’s theoretical basketball future than we realize, where it’s all 6’9” up and down the board from point guard to center, and they’re all capable of doing everything.
So if you’re reading this, Nick Nurse, please double down on the team’s vision in case Siakam or Barnes get into foul trouble. Forget playing Malachi Flynn and Armoni Brooks. Instead, play Dalano Banton and, if really necessary, Isaac Bonga. If you want, play Yuta Watanabe too. Throw in all the curve balls you want, but keep it 6’8” or above outside Gary Trent Jr.
It just might lead to a history-making victory.