Raptors prove deep rotation can thrive in bright lights of the playoffs

Serge Ibaka scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards as the Toronto Raptors took game one against the Washington Wizards 114-106. It was Toronto's first game one victory in ten tries.

TORONTO — For the last couple months, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s spent a great deal of his time telling anyone who would listen that he wasn’t going to shrink his rotation come the playoffs.

There’s no rule that says you have to do it, he’d argue. There’s no hard and fast data that says it’s the best thing for a team. If you have 10 or 11 players you trust, why wouldn’t you use them? If you’ve been playing one way for six months, and having great success doing so, why on earth would you change things so drastically once the games become more consequential?

But, for one reason or another, people don’t tend to believe things until they see things. Which makes Saturday evening’s 114-106 Raptors victory over the Washington Wizards an evidential one. A proving ground. Casey ran an 11-man rotation Saturday, giving each player at least five minutes, and extending nine of them beyond 15. Can you run a deep rotation in the playoffs? Just watch the film.

“It goes with the theme we’ve tried to develop the entire year—of ball movement, man movement. It’s not just two guys outscoring the opponent; it’s the Toronto Raptors outscoring the other team,” said Casey, a vindicated man. “Guys played their role. It’s the same role they played all year. And we still hold the power to change our minds. But as long as those guys are producing the way they are, why should we change our rotation?”

Indeed—when Delon Wright’s coming off the bench to put in one of his best games of the season with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting (including 3-of-4 from distance), when C.J. Miles is contributing 12 points of his own while nailing 4-of-7 threes, when Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell are playing spirited, hounding defence, when Jakob Poeltl is blocking two shots off the bench, when Lucas Nogueira—Lucas Nogueira!—is second on the team with a plus-8 in an energetic, bouncy shift that was borderline game-changing, for what logical reason would you want to get away from all that?

“That’s just the amount of work that’s put in throughout the season—and the trust that our coaches have in our work,” said Miles, who, at 30, is the de facto dad of Toronto’s uber-young bench. “We have a lot of guys that can affect the game and are extremely talented, and we’ve been able to use that to our advantage all year. And, I mean, if you’ve had to go to it and use it all year, there’s no sense in us not taking advantage of it now.”

A lot is made of how different this year’s Raptors are—philosophically, culturally, schematically. It’s big picture stuff. But perhaps the most tangible on-court example of that is the amount of offensive production Toronto got Saturday night—and has been getting all season—from secondary sources.

In game one of last year’s playoffs, the Raptors were utterly bamboozled when the Milwaukee Bucks aggressively blitzed and trapped Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, forcing them to make awkward, low-percentage attempts through double teams. DeRozan scored 27 in that game; Serge Ibaka had 19. The rest of the Raptors scored 37. It was a bitter afternoon.

Saturday, shock of shocks, the Washington Wizards employed a similar strategy, double-teaming Lowry practically from Toronto’s first possession, and trying to trap DeRozan any time he came off a screen. The difference was Toronto’s primary ball handlers felt comfortable and confident passing out of those stressful situations, finding teammates who didn’t hesitate to let fly.

Lowry piled up nine assists; DeRozan, six. They combined for only eight attempts in the first half, while Ibaka and OG Anunoby carried the majority of the offensive weight. Taking turns playing with their deep roster of bench players in the second half, Lowry and DeRozan started facilitating for guys like Wright, Siakam, and Miles, who faced his fair share of blitzes himself, and sent the ball where it needed to go.

In the end, Toronto needed only the 28 points Lowry and DeRozan combined to score. Six other players chipped in nine points or more, as the rest of the team combined for 86. And the Raptors bench—playing without its primary facilitator and three-point shooter, Fred VanVleet, mind you—outscored the Wizards reserves, 42-21.

“The biggest thing,” Miles said, when asked about the composure shown by the young players with whom he’s often on the floor, “is just them comprehending what we’re trying to do. They understand the system and what the coaches want. And their abilities in the system.

“They’re not trying to play outside of themselves. They all play extremely hard. And it’s about the right play. It’s not about me or the next guy or how many shots I’ve gotten or I haven’t been shooting it well or I have been shooting it well. We find the guy who’s exploiting what the weakness that we have out there is. And that’s what’s been great.”

That’s how you end up with plays like this:

And this one, which might have been the moment the Wizards officially checked out of the game (just look at the shoulder slump from Marcin Gortat):

This is the fashion in which the Raptors will have to play if they’re going to do anything in these playoffs. Active, collaborative, fearless that the guy beside you, and the guy beside him, can hit a shot or make the right play. A lot of teams can take away one or two primary players. Not many can defensively scheme for 11 or 12.

And make no mistake, DeRozan will have to have his trademark nights. Lowry will need to continue doing all the little things he did Saturday and more, including hitting threes, finishing at the rim, and getting to the free-throw line. That’s still a big part of the Raptors identity. Those are still performances they’ll need if they’re going to win.

But what doesn’t need to happen—until process and performance indicates otherwise—is for Casey to shrink his rotation. There’s 48 minutes of film now that shows a deep bench works in the playoffs. When people say the Raptors have changed, this is what it looks like.

“We’ve got the utmost confidence in our teammates—it’s the way we’ve been playing all year,” DeRozan said, sitting next to Lowry for what he hopes is his first of many podium sessions this spring. “We have trust in our teammates to make the next play—and you see it. We invite the traps on us, honestly. It takes the pressure off us. We understand we’re going to make the right pass. It’s about everybody else making the right play. And them guys did.”

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