The game tipped off a few minutes past noon and its most critical moments came around 2 p.m., which is an hour generally reserved for napping in the game-day routine of your typical NBAer progressing towards a more-civil 7:30 p.m. start.
So, things were always going to be a little out of whack. Which helps explain how Toronto’s 17-point second-half lead was completely wiped out before being built back up again to 15 in the end. And while the road they took was certainly erratic, the Raptors eventually arrived at their expected destination, etching a 101-86 victory into the game log.
No great lessons about this team were learned. Nothing that happened should make anyone overly excited or discouraged. But there are always a few notes to take away.
Here are three.
A bench win
Toronto’s bench unit receives plenty of accolades, and for good reason. It’s one of the NBA’s deepest, youngest, and most efficient. And Sunday’s game illustrated as well as any just how that group can win games for its team.
After Toronto’s starters essentially played the Grizzlies even in the first quarter, the backups built a big lead in the second, outscoring Memphis’s bench 18-2 in the quarter. And after the Raptors starters promptly coughed up that lead in the third, it was the bench again that rebuilt it in the fourth.
Casey stuck with the same five players for the entirety of that final quarter — Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl — which was a bit of a statement considering the game was tighter than the final score suggests.
“I think we earned it in that situation,” VanVleet said. “Now, we had to do the rest of the job to make it look good and finish it out. And we were able to do that. So, obviously, that’s a big amount of respect from the coaching staff. And we’ve got to continue to try to earn that trust as role players.”
Of course, this was a Grizzlies team missing Chandler Parsons and Mike Conley due to injury, and Tyreke Evans due to his impending departure sometime prior to Thursday’s trade deadline. Memphis didn’t have a particularly effective second unit because its bench players were all starting.
And even still, beyond Marc Gasol — who, at 33, remains productive but not exactly at the all-star level he once was — the Grizzlies don’t have much of an offence at all, scoring the second-fewest points per game (99.8) in basketball and coming in as the league’s slowest team, averaging just 93.8 possessions per 48 minutes.
So, it was a mismatch from the start. But part of being a very good team in the NBA is reliably exploiting those mismatches, and Toronto’s bench did its job extremely effectively.
VanVleet finished a plus-25; Poeltl and Siakam were both plus-26; and Wright put up a plus-36 in 25 minutes, which reflects just how crucial his play was to that unit’s success beyond the 15 points and three assists he contributed.
Wright was all over the floor on defence, too, as Toronto held Memphis to 3-of-22 shooting in that final quarter.
“We started picking up full court,” Wright said. “I think that helped get some energy into the game. We were just able to get stops and play freely”
One of the more underrated things Wright does is controlling his tempo, running the floor at a pace that plays into his strengths. He’s rarely rushed, impulsive or disorganized with the ball in his hands. There’s a restraint and structure to his game that isn’t always evident in players his age.
“He has a way of doing that,” Casey said. “Dictating direction, running the show, attacking in pick-and-rolls, Euro-stepping — it’s good to see.”
Rest and minutes
Thanks to such strong play from Toronto’s bench, Casey has been able to manage workloads much more effectively this season. No starter played more than 27 minutes Sunday, and eight Raptors fell right into the sweet spot between 23 minutes and 28. Just enough time to get involved and maintain conditioning — but not so much time that you’ll be dragging yourself out of bed the next day.
Remember, the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics come to town Tuesday for a game that could be of exceptional importance and intensity. And the Raptors should be well rested for it.
“Yeah, give [the bench] credit for the game today,” said DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 13 points in 27 minutes. “I made a joke that the old guys can’t get up this early in the morning for the game. And they came out with a lot of energy and they did what they were supposed to do and they got us this win today.
“That’s great. You always try to stay as fresh as possible. You always want to be out there competing, but whenever you can get a chance to have fresher legs for the next game, that’s always good.”
A small tweak
With a full complement of players on hand for the first time in a while, Casey altered his rotation slightly Sunday, giving Norman Powell second-quarter minutes off the bench ahead of Miles.
Miles was playing for the first time in a week, after sitting out his team’s last two games due to right knee soreness. And Powell had been playing well in his absence, taking advantage of an opportunity to get back into the rotation after being on the outside looking in for much of January. So, it made sense Casey would want to keep Powell involved while easing Miles’ minutes to help his conditioning.
And when Miles did get on the floor in the second half, he immediately reminded his team why it had been missing his presence. The Raptors were shooting 3-of-27 from beyond the arc until Miles attempted his first three-pointer in the fourth, sinking a key shot that helped Toronto re-establish its lead.
Miles has been up and down throughout his first season in Toronto, with injuries and inconsistent shooting preventing him from finding any kind of groove. But the veteran’s three-point shooting, floor spacing, and experience could be invaluable down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.
While Powell was first off the bench Sunday, the Raptors would no doubt prefer for Miles to get back up to speed and return to logging over 20 minutes with the second unit. Having both he and Powell playing at their best is the kind of problem Casey wants to have.