TORONTO — Norman Powell sat down at the podium in the interview room of the BioSteel Centre and spoke into the microphone. He was taken aback by the noise, moving the microphone further back from his mouth to limit it.
“Podium,” said Powell, the Toronto Raptors cult hero of the moment. “Different.”
Indeed, Powell at the podium, even after a practice, was not a part of the Raptors plan heading into the season. Even when he was starting to begin the series against the Indiana Pacers, it seemed unlikely.
Both Powell and DeMar DeRozan were part of the small-ball lineup that was at the heart of the Raptors’ escape-from-the-grave victory in Tuesday’s Game 5. Bismack Biyombo played with two point guards, Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph, and two wings, Powell and DeRozan. Terrence Ross subbed in for DeRozan for more than four minutes. Those two lineups were the only ones that Dwane Casey used in the fourth quarter, which the Raptors won 25-9, stealing a game that looked lost.
Those lineups played a combined zero minutes together in the regular season. DeRozan said that he and his teammates discussed the strange units that Casey called on after the game.
“It was a crazy thing to think about,” DeRozan said. “Like, we never even ran a play together in practice.”
Casey kept digging for something that works, and he finally hit on something. It was not that unusual, as seven-game series often necessitate a coach reaching for an odd combination here or a new play call there to throw a familiar opponent out of rhythm. It signified, however, that Casey was willing to break out of his, and his team’s, comfort zone to find any semblance of a spark. He is not married to any player or strategy.
“It was pretty easy,” Casey said on Wednesday of going to a brand new lineup. “I was looking for a group of men to go in there and compete the way those guys went in there and did: getting into bodies defensively. I think we held them to 20 per cent or something like that, 21 per cent in those last 12 minutes, whatever it was. It was about being physical, being aggressively defensively, first. The second part was taking care of the ball. We had to have a group in there that was going to take care of the ball. I think we had zero turnovers in that segment. That’s a huge difference.”
A popular criticism of Casey is that he is ultra conservative and stuck in his ways. At times during his tenure in Toronto, he has merited some of that questioning. Memories of Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce torching the Raptors repeatedly, and Toronto needing days off to make the necessary adjustments, certainly linger. Even in this series, Casey was criticized for his player usage in Game 1, with the coach taking umbrage with a Toronto Star column in particular.
If anything, though, this series should emphasize that Casey is in fact more open-minded than he is often portrayed as being. Game 5 was not the first example of this. Despite Casey saying he would “ride or die” with Lowry and DeRozan, he has in fact ridden and lived with DeRozan on the bench in the fourth quarter of a competitive game, back in Game 2. Despite his well-chronicled commitment to consistent roles and rotations, he has changed the starting lineup twice: DeMarre Carroll replaced Norman Powell before Game 2, while Patrick Patterson replaced Luis Scola in time for Game 5.
In the latter instance, Scola, and all of the veteran experience that Casey loves, lost his spot in the rotation in the name of competing in a series that was speeding up beyond the old hand’s mobility. In the fourth quarter, sometimes it has been Biyombo in the fourth quarter and sometimes it has been Jonas Valanciunas. Casey even tried an ultra-small lineup with Patterson at centre and Carroll at power forward in Game 5 in his quest to find something that works.
“We ask him to do some things at (centre) that he’s not normally doing, just trying to get speed and quickness into the game,” Casey said of Patterson. “I probably put him in a tough position playing (centre). Again, I will trust him out there at the (centre or either of the forward positions) because he brings to many positive things to the table.”
Obviously, not all of the moves have worked. The Patterson-as-starter experiment, which made so much sense logically, was a bust on Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if Casey returns to Scola on Friday, if he sticks with Patterson or if he tries a smallball starting unit, another new look. Patterson’s stint as the lone big man also did not yield results. And the Raptors’ after-timeout plays, whether the calls are bad or the execution is merely off, continue to produce little.
On the whole, this has been a good series for Casey, though. Compare that to Indiana’s Frank Vogel, who has continued to play lineups without any of Paul George, George Hill or Monta Ellis to prop up the offence at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. There is a fair argument to be made that Vogel cost his team Game 5 with that stubbornness. Of course, when stubbornness works we call it well-placed faith. And when in-game adjustments, particularly ones we have not seen all year, fail, we call them overreactions.
To that end, I asked Casey on Wednesday if it is difficult for him to go to a lineup he has rarely or never used in the playoffs, knowing that if it backfires, people like me can carve him up.
“What do you say when it works?” Casey asked me.
“‘Dwane’s a genius,’” I replied.
“Oh yeah, right,” Casey shot back. “Those words have never come out of your mouth.”
Let me say for the record that I do not think Dwane Casey is a genius. I do not think that any NBA coach qualifies in that category. This post-season, though, Casey is proving to be innovative, open-minded and most importantly, adaptive.