TORONTO — When his Toronto Raptors played the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs, Dwane Casey spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out how to neutralize the productivity of one Pacer in particular — the sharpshooting C.J. Miles.
“And he knew that, because we were yelling at our guys. I was yelling at guys, ‘Stay with him, stay connected, stay connected,’” the Raptors head coach said about an hour before Toronto’s season-opening 117-101 victory over the Chicago Bulls. “Our special defence for him was make sure if he caught it he was going towards half court. Because he’s one of those scorers where, if he sees one go in, it’s contagious. It keeps going. He gets hot. And it’s hard to turn off.”
Thursday night, Miles showed Raptors fans just why Casey was so concerned about him. Playing a second over 20 minutes in his Toronto debut, Miles went off for 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting (including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc), finishing a plus-25 and chipping in five rebounds for good measure.
Only Jonas Valanciunas scored more points (he had 23) and only OG Anunoby had a better rating (he was plus-26) in what was a terrific debut for the 30-year-old Casey’s counting on to provide his team with a lethal — and perhaps more importantly, consistent — threat from long range.
“He’s been doing the same thing throughout training camp, through exhibition — we’ve seen it every day in practice,” Casey said. “He’s the real deal as far as shooting. He’s one of the best shooters I’ve been around.”
Miles, who signed a three-year, $25-million contract this off-season, was brought in ostensibly to replace the departed DeMarre Carroll, who never found a groove during his two years in Toronto.
But Miles’ role is much different. With Norman Powell serving as Toronto’s starting small forward to begin the season, Miles will come off the bench to space the floor, shoot threes, and provide a guiding, veteran presence to the team’s second unit, which this year features a collection of players in the very early stages of their careers.
Effective second units have been a dependable feature of Casey’s Raptors teams over the last several seasons. But never before has he relied on so many young players to keep the offensive momentum going when the starters check out late in the first quarter.
On Thursday, that bench unit featured Miles playing with four teammates 25 or younger: Delon Wright (25), Fred VanVleet (23), Jakob Poeltl (22) and Anunoby (20) who was all of eight years old when Miles made his NBA debut with the Utah Jazz.
“There’s a lot of energy. We play hard,” Miles said. “I just try to encourage those guys to be as aggressive as they can when we’re out there and just let them know it’s nothing different than we’ve been doing.”
In past years, Casey has usually kept one of Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan on the floor with his second unit, maintaining some offensive cohesion with the starting group. But in the first game of 2017-18 at least, Casey chose to leave both his superstars on the bench when the reserves checked in, handing chaperone duties to Miles.
And the immediate returns couldn’t have been much better. The group moved the ball quickly and freely, setting up outside looks for Miles, opportunities in the paint for Poeltl, and plenty of room to drive for Wright, VanVleet and Anunoby.
Miles hit the first four threes he attempted, including well-designed shots off screens and less-organized looks he still converted, like the broken-play scramble that led to his fourth three-pointer at the end of a 20-2 run to start the second quarter, forcing the Bulls to take an early timeout.
It’s hard to imagine things going much better. When the second unit entered the game with 1:40 left in the first quarter, the Raptors were up, 22-20. Flash forward to five minutes into the second quarter, and the Raptors had suddenly stretched that lead to 45-25.
“For us to be able to go in there as a whole five and have success — for those guys, that’s big for them early in the year and early in their careers to be able to gain confidence,” Miles said. “Because that’s the biggest thing with the league. Everybody’s got talent, everybody’s got skill, that’s why they get here. It’s about opportunity and confidence.”
It won’t always be this easy. The Bulls are a bad team to begin with and lost several regulars before the season even began thanks to everything from injuries to a fight between teammates at practice. If Casey wanted a soft tune-up for his new-look second unit to find its feet, the Bulls were happy to oblige.
Still, considering Casey and his coaching staff would have likely been happy with any positive run from the group, with merely keeping things level a decent goal on opening night, Thursday’s dominance had to be encouraging.
But Casey indicated he wasn’t surprised. He said he’s seen the group gel quickly in practice, and that Miles has set the standard for how the unit prepares.
“He works that way. He works at a game pace,” Casey said. “That’s why, if you’re a young player, you want to watch him and emulate him.”
Casey says Miles’ work ethic reminds him of Ray Allen and Dirk Nowitzki, two of the game’s premier three-point shooters in their day, whom Casey worked with during past coaching lives in Seattle and Dallas. The Raptors head coach still fawns over how rigorously Allen and Nowitzki honed their long-range game after practices, often working harder than they did during formal drills.
“It’s the same with C.J. Miles. He goes as hard with his after-practice work as he does in the game. That’s why he is who he is,” Casey said. “I’ve seen the evolution of C.J. Miles — he’s just continued to improve as a three-point shooter, a pure three-point shooter. But one of the main reasons he’s done that is he’s worked on it. It didn’t happen by osmosis. He works on it at a high clip.”
There will, of course, be nights when Miles doesn’t have his shot. There will be nights when this uber-young second unit struggles to produce. Nights when nothing’s working. But if Thursday was any indication, the bench group will bring a lot of energy at the very least. And, in a lot of ways, that starts with its veteran hand.
“I want to be able to be that spark, you know? Come in and communicate, bring energy,” Miles said. “It’s just having fun, man. That’s the biggest thing. Having fun and playing basketball. We play a game for a living. We get to go out and compete every night. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be having fun.”