How C.J. Miles helped Raptors ‘Bench Mob’ step out of their shell

Toronto Raptors forward CJ Miles (0) reacts after scoring a basket (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — You’d think a player with C.J. Miles’ experience can shake off a rough outing.

But even in his 13th season — the longest tenured NBA player on the Toronto Raptors roster — a poor game will still lead to a sleepless night.

Like, for example, Tuesday, when a 2-for-11 shooting performance during the Raps’ narrow 114-110 win over the Denver Nuggets kept Miles awake until the wee hours.

“I’m a thinker, that’s what I am, I think about each and every shot,” Miles says after completing a series of three-point shooting drills following the team’s practice on Thursday.

“I overanalyze. That sometimes wears on me a little bit — I’m not saying that for pity, I just know how I am. But it causes me to be here [in the gym] even more. Sometimes I pound myself in the ground.”

Like his teammates, Miles is finding the balance between playing as well as he can each and every night while ensuring he’s at full strength once the playoffs tip-off in two weeks for what is expected to be an extended run for the Raptors.

The seven remaining games on the schedule include significant matchups with the Boston Celtics (twice) and Cleveland Cavaliers, but for a team that’s been as steady as the first-place Raptors have been this season, this time of year provides an opportunity to “sharpen the sword,” as Miles puts it, before the most anticipated post-season in team history.

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It’s been an up-and-down season for the 31 year-old from Dallas. He celebrated the birth of his daughter earlier this season and is shooting nearly 40 per cent from beyond the arc. But he’s dealt with various ailments along the way, including gastroenteritis, a sore knee and a stubborn tooth problem.

“It seemed like every time I found a rhythm I had to play my way back into it,” he says.

Miles arrived in Toronto from the Indiana Pacers last summer with a defined role and a body of work, a skill set groomed through over a decade of NBA service. With averages of over 10 points in just 18 minutes per game and a career-high 6.5 three-point attempts per game, he hasn’t just filled a hole on the court, but also emerged as the veteran leader of one of the NBA’s best weapons: the Raptors’ bench.

Miles came to Toronto already as one of the league’s most established gunners, but discovering his niche was hardly an overnight process.

Coming out of Skyline high school in Dallas, Miles was an athletic swingman who dominated the ball as much as he did his Texas opponents.

Miles entered the NBA in 2005 as a second-round pick straight out of high school, and as a teenager found himself playing for Hall-of-Fame taskmaster Jerry Sloan in Utah.

“He taught me what working really was,” Miles says. “He taught me how to lock yourself in until you gas out, and what that lunch pail mentality really meant.”

Miles also learned how to play off the ball, something a high school superstar rarely has to manage, but a lesson that shaped the player he is today.

But it wasn’t until he joined the Cavaliers seven years later in 2012 that he began to carve out the identity that has made him such a valuable addition to the Raptors roster this season: A knockdown shooter.

“It was weird because I was 25 but I was one of the vets there. That’s where I really honed in on my skill set as a shooter and learned how to really get to my spots and use screens for three-point shooting. I saw that’s what my role was going to be.”

In Toronto, Miles has found himself in a fitting role surrounded by teammates and coaches who trust in his ability to play the part.

“They tell me, ‘Be confident.’ Even after a game like [Tuesday versus Denver], we walk into the gym today, working on the same things, and continuing to shoot the basketball,” he says.

“You can start to look around thinking that guys don’t trust you because you might not be doing your job. I’m a team guy and I want to be able make the shots I’m supposed to make — not for any accolades, but because that’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s what I’m here for. I understand that I’m a piece to a bigger puzzle.”

It’s a mindset shared among many if not all of his teammates. Miles says it’s that like-mindedness that made him comfortable committing to the Raptors organization — he inked a three-year contract extension upon his arrival — and a not-so-secret formula to the team’s franchise-best performance this season.

He knew that the Raptors were committed to winning and had a roster made up of parts willing to combine to make an effective machine. But, like the rest of the NBA, he didn’t realize how good his teammates were.

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When asked which Raptor surprised him the most upon first playing with his new team last summer he doesn’t hesitate: “Everybody in the second unit.”

Before coming to Toronto, he knew a little bit about the group he’d join to form the Raptors’ vaunted “Bench Mob.”

He knew of Fred VanVleet from his famed NCAA Tournament run with Wichita State two years ago. He knew less about Jakob Poeltl, and only knew of Delon Wright because of his connections back in Utah, who would phone Miles raving about the Utes’ point guard. He knew that Pascal Siakam could run and jump, but that was about it.

But it didn’t take long to realize that the bench group was special, and Miles says before the pre-season had wrapped he knew that they had the potential to take over games once they began to count.

His on-court role among the second unit was obvious – shoot the ball – but in those early days Miles’ impact came in other ways.

“I tried to pass along the confidence I had — not that they weren’t confident, but they weren’t really exuding it, but I wanted us all to carry that. I would tell them, ‘we’re the best bench in the league. Understand that.’ The biggest thing for us was believing it.

“When you see us right before tip-off and before we check into a game we say to each other, ‘best in the league.’ We carry that. We sit there watching the game, watching what our opponents are giving up, and then when it’s our turn we go in there and pick them apart.”

Despite the personal ups and downs, Miles calls this season the most fun he’s ever had playing basketball. And it’s not too hard to figure out why.

“It’s the atmosphere,” he says. “Obviously winning helps a lot. I’ve been on winning teams before and we had fun, but it’s just a different feeling here. Everybody is pulling for everybody. We’ve been able to put something special together here where we all have something that helps each other.”

Miles’s first season with the Raptors has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, sure, but the veteran says the playoffs couldn’t come sooner, and that this season is shaping up just as he anticipated when he first joined the club last summer.

“I expected us to be where we are,” he says, “getting ready to contend for a championship.”

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