MILWAUKEE – There was a time, not long ago, when the Toronto Raptors had a player come out of nowhere and impact playoff games, even whole series.
It was Milwaukee, it was the spring. And there was Norm Powell being inserted into the starting lineup – a bundle of energy and fresh legs – and perhaps being the most important single factor in the Raptors coming back from being down 2-1 to oust the Bucks in their 2017 first-round playoff series.
Powell knocked down all the three triples on the weak side as then Raptors head coach Dwane Casey started him in place of Jonas Valanciunas to get more spacing on the floor and it worked. Powell didn’t miss a three the rest of series, shooting a perfect 9-of-9 and the Raptors won three straight games.
It seems so long ago. Even Powell is barely able to access the memory, or maybe the idea itself just seems so foreign – a bench player helping the Raptors win games?
What? When? How?
“I don’t even remember much about that series,” Powell was saying as the Raptors had a brief media availability at their team hotel in the aftermath of a Game 1 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to Milwaukee. “I didn’t even know about not missing threes and stuff until after the series and people were talking about it. I was just trying to get the win and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”
Unless something strange happens, he probably won’t get that kind of opportunity this series.
After a regular season of juggling rotations and starting spots and preaching flexibility, there’s some irony in where the Raptors have arrived at as their season reaches its apex: over their past two playoff games, 92 per cent of the minutes were distributed to their five starters and Serge Ibaka. The rotation has shrunk and doesn’t look like it will expand.
Fred VanVleet who was a regular in the Raptors’ closing lineups most of last season – a role he parlayed into a Sixth Man Award nomination and a two-year, $18-million contract in the off-season – is primarily being used to provide some relief for Kyle Lowry. Powell who earned a four-year, $40-million contract in part on the strength of his 2017 playoff run is getting what’s left over.
This isn’t a case that Toronto head coach Nick Nurse should expand his rotation and reduce the load on his core six players.
There’s no evidence it would be a winning strategy. Whether Nurse has turned away from his bench because they haven’t performed or they haven’t performed as their roles have shrunk, the Raptors are worse the less starters they have on the floor in the post-season. All the starters and Ibaka have positive net ratings and any lineups with bench players have struggled.
The problem is there are signs that fatigue is catching up to Toronto’s starters, which could be a problem given they have used up their allotted rest days this post-season. The Conference Finals are on an every other day schedule.
A few examples? The Raptors played nine post-season games over a 25-day period and Kawhi Leonard was being compared to Michael Jordan as he averaged 32.3 points a game on 58.7 per cent shooting from the floor including 50-per-cent from three, while playing 36.7 minutes a game.
The Raptors have played four games in the last eight days and Leonard is shooing just 41.6 per cent from the floor and 13.6 per cent from deep all of his misses, seemingly, short.
Pascal Siakam, tireless all season, seems tired as he’s shooting just 38 per cent over the last four games.
Marc Gasol is shooting 36 per cent while averaging nearly 39 minutes a game over the recent stretch while Danny Green can’t seem to shake free on the perimeter – he’s only taken eight shots in the past two games.
Other than Lowry, who shot 5-of-7 in the fourth quarter against the Bucks in Game 1, the rest of the Raptors were 0-of-15. The only field goal by any Raptor other than Lowry and Leonard in the entire second half was a buzzer beating 30-footer by Siakam at the end of the third quarter. Raptors other than Lowry and Leonard were an astounding 1-of-23 in the second half.
How is that possible?
Fatigue is the kind of topic no one really feels comfortable talking about in professional team sports because it’s about a half inch from making excuses, but it can’t be ignored.
“The season is a grueling season. We get paid a lot of money to do this,” said Lowry, the Raptors veteran point guard who seems to be getting stronger as his load has increased if his 30-point explosion in Game 1 is any indication. “We get paid to prepare ourselves for these type of moments. We get paid to prepare to be ready and to play the best we can no matter what.
“That being said, there are a lot of minutes out there that we’re playing, and there is some fatigue. But like I said, we’ve got some real professionals. That’s what we do: We go back, we get rest, we prepare ourselves, we mentally prepare ourselves to go into the next game.”
For obvious reasons, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse doesn’t want to indulge in the idea his core of six players may be straining under the load. In his mind, his club had a two-point lead with 3:32 to play and failed to score again.
Did they really get instantly exhausted at that point? Makes no sense.
“No, I really don’t think so. I mean, I think that you think it was a quick turnaround, you’re on the road, travel. They played a lot of — there’s some stuff. But I didn’t see a whole lot of like, oh, we’re just outmatched here because we don’t have the physical wind or strength or whatever here,” said Nurse. “I just think that the game was right there in the balance with three minutes to go, and you need some breaks. You need to make some breaks. You need the ball to bounce your way a little bit, and we didn’t get really any.
“But I don’t buy [fatigue] as a reason.”
But it’s instructive when Lowry was asked about what a tired team looks the symptoms were there:
“You see it everywhere,” Lowry said. “You see it mentally. You see it on the court. Shots are short, shots are long. You make some small mental mistakes. Give up a backdoor. You do this, you do that. There are a bunch of different ways you can find the mistakes. But those are excuses that we don’t make.”
Here is Nurse speaking about how the Raptors struggles shooting on the perimeter is in part because they’re not moving crisply without the ball:
“I think we did a decent job of moving the basketball [but] decent is probably not good enough this time of year. We’ve got to do a special job of it. We’ve got to do a good job of each time down, when you’ve drawn one or two or three defenders, you’ve done your job, right? Your job is to create them in rotations, and then your job becomes to get it to the next guy, and that guy’s job is to take the shot or swing it.
“So what we call our relocation needs to be a little bit better so when two or three guys converge on the ball, we can find those little alleyways a little more cleanly.”
Sounds like something a little more difficult to do with tired legs.
There’s a difference between excuses and reasons.
The real concern is when you look at the other bench and see what you’re up against. For the Bucks, Game 1 was just their 10th of the post-season (Toronto has played 13) and they’ve been able to distribute their minutes generously among what is now comfortable nine-man rotation with the return of Malcolm Brogdon. While Leonard looks like he’s on the verge of wearing down, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging just 32 minutes a game in the playoffs.
It’s an advantage they plan to press.
“Hopefully we play a style that defensively we make you work for everything,” said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “We make everything really difficult. We take care of the glass. And we always want to play fast with a lot of pace, and not just in the full court but the half court. We want to move the ball, move people. And in theory, that should hopefully make it difficult on your opponent in the sense that they’ve got to keep moving, they’ve got to keep sprinting, they’ve got to keep getting back, they’ve got to work for everything. Sometimes theories work, sometimes they don’t, but hopefully we can just keep grinding on them, make everything hard.”
How it plays out in Game 2 and beyond is the unknown, but you would have to like the chances of the younger, deeper, fresher team.
For Powell, he’d love to able to reverse recent trends and make himself heard like he did in Milwaukee just two springs ago.
“It’s tough,” he says. “The starters are getting heavy minutes in the playoff and the stints I’m getting are limited but I can still go out there and make an impact and hopefully give them a little more rest.
“I’m chomping at the bit.”