Valanciunas’s role becoming a major question for Raptors

Lance Stephenson had 18 points off the bench as the Indiana Pacers topped the Toronto Raptors 107-104 Friday.

INDIANAPOLIS – How to best use Jonas Valanciunas – the Toronto Raptors‘ relatively slow-footed centre – in an era when the way centres are thought of in the NBA is shifting by the minute has been a topic of conversation among Raptors fans and behind the scenes in the organization for some time.

For the moment, the solution seems to be to not use him at all, or at least a lot less.

Midway through the first quarter of the Raptors’ 107-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Valanciunas came out of the game for Pascal Siakam – nothing unusual there.

The Raptors starters were trailing – nothing unusual about that either.

Except that Valanciunas didn’t see the floor for the rest of the first half and even more unusually remained on the bench for start of the third quarter. Considering that he was pulled early in the third quarter of the Raptors’ free fall against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, never to return, with Serge Ibaka again soaking up the bulk of the minutes at the five spot, it’s hard not to conclude there’s a philosophical shift at work with regard to Valanciunas, a fixture in the Raptors’ starting lineup since his rookie season.

“That’s the coach’s decision,” he said after the game. “He’s playing with a small lineup, he wants to try something new, I’m okay with that. You do whatever it takes to win.”

It didn’t work. For the second time in as many games the Raptors coughed up a double-digit halftime lead and seemed to come unglued at points. It’s hard to pin that on who’s playing centre, but it’s clear that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is ready to juggle his rotation and risk bruising some feelings in the process.

“We needed speed. We had to get quicker,” was Casey’s explanation. “[But]that wasn’t the difference starting the third quarter. There’s something there. The way we started the game was lethargic, they were outrunning us down the floor, sprinting and we had to get more speed into the game. There was nothing that JV did wrong.”

It showed promise for a little while at least, just as having Ibaka at centre seemed to contribute to the Raptors thwarted comeback against the Knicks. Otherwise the Raptors seem like they’re grasping at straws a little bit on tour through the Eastern Conference. They had the chance to begin making up some ground on the first-place Boston Celtics and separate themselves from a crowded pack that includes unheralded Indiana as they improved to 11-8 with the win while Toronto fell to 11-7.

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The Raptors’ only bright spot in the game came with Valanciunas on the bench and first Jakob Poeltl and then Ibaka at centre as the Raptors dominated the second quarter against the Pacers, turning a 13-point first quarter deficit into a 12-point second quarter advantage – a 25-point swing.

That provided the Raptors their dreaded 10-point halftime lead, which they blew quite promptly at the start of the third quarter. And as become routine with the game on the line in the fourth, Valanciunas was an afterthought again as Poeltl started and Ibaka finished.

You could see this coming. Heading into the game, the matchup with the Pacers promised to be a referendum (again) on the viability around lineups featuring Valanciunas at centre. The conversation is growing more complicated because it is quickly emerging that Ibaka – at one point envisioned as the perfect match as a stretch four alongside the big Lithuanian – is himself best-suited to centre as the league wants frontcourt players who can shoot from deep and the agility to defend on both the perimeter and at the rim.

At the moment, in Valanciunas and Ibaka, the Raptors have $37 million tied up in two guys who play the same position with youngsters Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira and even Siakam as viable options to play backup minutes as well.

Something has to give.

But it won’t matter who Casey runs out if the team as a group doesn’t compete. The Raptors lost the third quarter 31-20 and then allowed Indiana to shoot 69 per cent from the field in the fourth. That the Raptors served up 20 turnovers for 30 Pacers points didn’t help, either.

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Still, they had a chance: DeMar DeRozan scored with two minutes left to cut the Pacers’ lead to three and Norman Powell had a chance to make a further dent but missed a layup following a steal. He then watched Lance Stephenson hit his fifth shot without a miss down the stretch – a three – that pushed the lead to six.

The Pacers seemed to get away with some heavy contact by Stephenson on DeRozan on a couple of 50-50 balls but DeRozan’s arguments fell on deaf ears.

“I have no clue what he was doing,” said DeRozan.

Casey said he planned to submit the video of Stephenson’s body blows to the league office, but that won’t provide any real satisfaction.

The Raptors held the Pacers to just a single free throw in the final two minutes and DeRozan had a chance to tie it with eight seconds left but missed an awkward runner and Fred VanVleet came up empty on a desperation three.

The Raptors got 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists from Kyle Lowry and 16 points each from VanVleet and Powell, but just 13 from DeRozan – this after he was held scoreless against the Knicks in the second half — and just six from Valanciunas in 15 minutes.

What has become evident over the past two games is that there is no longer any point pretending that playing Valanciunas and Ibaka together is not problematic. In the 222 minutes the two bigs have played together this season before Friday, the Raptors were -1.8 per 100 possessions, which is part of the reason the Raptors have struggled starting games and often in the third quarter, too.

According to data at NBA.com, the Raptors have played 103 minutes this season with lineups featuring Ibaka at centre, and have thrived in a relatively small sample, with an offensive rating of 110.2 (compared to 109.9 overall) and – perhaps more significantly – a defensive rating of 96.9 (103.6 overall). Ibaka also seems to do well as the lone big on the floor, shooting 57.6 per cent with an uptick in his relatively poor rebounding numbers.

“Defensively he does it because he has quick feet, he knows how to protect the rim. Other than Lucas, he’s probably one of our better rim protectors,” Casey said before the game. “It’s a balance – when we need speed, we need scoring to get the tempo up a little bit, putting him at five is our go-to, with him. It helps him rebounding-wise – it’s tough for any four to get to offensive boards, defensive boards when we’re out there on the perimeter.”

And the Pacers are designed to give a lineup featuring Valanciunas fits as they rotate through Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thad Young, all of whom are as comfortable away from the basket as they are in the paint. The problem is more and more teams are constructing their rosters in a similar fashion.

Two games don’t make a season and short-term trends are just that, but after two ugly losses the Raptors rotation of big men has become a talking point that won’t go away.

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