The Toronto Raptors have risen to the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but the way they’ve made it there is quite a surprise.
With young players making up the bulk of the Raptors’ second unit, coach Dwane Casey says his bench has been the biggest surprise of the season.
“They’ve really improved. They’re still a work in progress, but their growth and productivity have been off the charts,” Casey said on Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “For the most part they’ve been very productive and they’re a fun group to coach. They play the game the right way, they’re selfless and they’re fun to be around. They’ve saved our behind quite a few games this year.”
With the second unit often expanding leads and putting games out of reach early on, Casey has been able to build in more rest for the likes of DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka. DeRozan and Lowry have consistently seen their numbers drop once the post-season starts, and Casey hopes the lighter workload they’ve seen over the course of the season yields improved production in the playoffs.
“Hopefully that means they’re fresher,” Casey said. “Hopefully this year with the second unit playing the way they are, allowing Kyle and DeMar to stay on the bench longer — and a lot of games not even playing in the fourth quarter — it means they’ll be fresh come playoff time and not have a lot of minutes on their bodies. Going into the season this is what we hoped for, this is what we planned for, to cut back on those minutes.
“The good thing about it is Kyle and DeMar and Serge, they’ve allowed this to happen. A lot of times your starters will be looking at you cross-eyed saying, ‘Hey, I want my minutes’ and that’s what’s been special about this group. The first unit has allowed the second unit to be themselves. They’re their biggest cheerleaders.”
Teams traditionally tighten their rotations once the playoffs start, dropping down to seven or eight players as opposed to rolling out 10 or more on a nightly basis. Toronto’s depth has been one of its biggest strengths, and Casey plans on using that to his advantage, conventional wisdom be damned.
Even with all the youth on the roster, Casey does not consider deploying the bench in its usual role a gamble come April.
“Until they prove that they can’t get it done, we’ve got to go with what we’re doing,” Casey said. “There’s no perfect science; there’s no playoff rulebook that says you can’t play 10 guys. With our group, the way they’re playing it’s going to be very difficult to eliminate two guys or however many guys you have to eliminate to get down to a smaller rotation because they fit together so well. They fit together as a unit. One night it’s Fred VanVleet, one night it’s Delon Wright, one night it’s Pascal Siakam, another night it’s C.J. Miles. The collective group is what makes them so potent.
“It’s not really a risk. They’re going to go in their normal rotations,” Casey said. “You’ll be able to see how well they’re rolling. It’s been successful for us so far. I really don’t think it’s a gamble. They’ve proven it so far. Unless something drastically changes, that’s the way I see it. We’ll cross that bridge once we get there.”
The only “negative” Casey sees from the recent string of Raptors blowouts is that the team has not played a tight game in a while, and could stand to benefit from a few nail-biters down the stretch of the season.
“We have struggled in close games,” Casey said. “Creating that atmosphere is difficult to do in practice. The stress and anxiety you have at the end of the game is something you can’t reproduce. As a coach, as much as you don’t like a close game, you like to have one to keep those juices flowing and that feeling of a close game, of executing down the stretch.
“I’d much rather win by 25, but we need that type of execution and that type of game atmosphere to replicate that. A lot of games come down to the last two or three minutes and sometimes if you haven’t been in that situation it’s a different feeling.”
Casey goes on to discuss the state of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, what finishing the season with the top seed would mean for the franchise, Jonas Valanciunas’s recent three-point shooting prowess and more. Listen to the full interview in the audio player below.