Raptors this week: New, unexpected closing lineup also the team’s best

DeMar DeRozan is in rare form to start this season with a performance that is matched only by the legendary Michael Jordan. He is doing everything for the Raptors right now, and it is up to his team to help keep that going Saturday night.

Throughout the 2016-17 NBA season we’ll take a look back at the week that was and set up the week to come in Raptorland.

Traditionally speaking, basketball teams will close games with the same unit they started a game with. After all, a team’s starting five is oftentimes that team’s five best players at their respective positions. It’s basic logic.

However, when it comes to the Toronto Raptors, this isn’t the case.

So far this young season, the Raptors have been rolling with a starting group of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas – with Jakob Poeltl getting a couple starts for Valanciunas when he went down briefly. This definitely isn’t Toronto’s most optimized lineup, but at the same time with the likes of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll and Valanciunas in it this wouldn’t exactly be all that surprising to see finish a game.

Except for the fact this particular lineup hasn’t played a single fourth-quarter minute together.

Why is that? Simple, because that starting unit is nowhere close to the Raptors’ best five-man group, ranking 51st out of the 52 lineups head coach Dwane Casey has experimented with so far with a minus-15 rating in 82 minutes played.

Instead of rolling with just his starters, Casey has instead been finishing contests with what has recently emerged as his team’s best lineup.

Over the past three games the combination of DeRozan, Lowry, Patrick Patterson, Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira has wreaked havoc, posting a team-best plus 28 rating over a 19-minute span. That’s obviously a small sample size, but when put into context that this lineup has played 13 of those 19 minutes in the fourth quarter, putting up a plus-23 advantage of opponents in that timeframe, you begin to see some real legitimacy in this kind of closer lineup sticking.

It isn’t like it’s too farfetched a unit, either. Every closing or crunch-time lineup will feature Lowry and DeRozan, they’re the two best players on the team without question and in the case of DeRozan, the Raptors have a guy who over the span of nine games has arguably looked like the best player in the entire league. For Patterson, that’s nothing new as he’s come off the bench and closed games for the Raptors for the last three years. The additions of Powell and Nogueira, however, are very interesting.

Between Valanciunas and Nogueira, it’s obvious who the more talented player is. Valanciunas offers far more offensive skill than Nogueira does, but he isn’t anywhere close to the kind of shot-blocker and rim-runner Nogueira is. As seen with Bismack Biyombo last season, Casey values both skills down the stretch of games. This is likely because with Valanciunas on the floor the Raptors do need to go through him in the post for him to be effective, taking away from their preferred options in Lowry and DeRozan. A guy like Nogueira doesn’t require any plays to be run for him. Instead, he’ll just crash the boards, catch lobs, and on defence, provide some much needed rim protection – as his five blocks Saturday against the New York Knicks proves.

As a defence-first coach, being able to clamp down on an opponent to end games is more important to Casey than just being able outscore them, and Nogueira gives the Raptors an extra dimension on that end of the floor Valanciunas can’t provide.

This is also what’s at play with Powell. Casey’s go-to perimeter stopper, Powell has been forced to match up against the likes of Bradley Beal, Rudy Gay, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker and Carmelo Anthony so far this season, and has done an admirable job while still shooting a respectable 46.7 per cent from the field and 35.7 per cent from deep.

When the Raptors first signed Carroll, he was expected to be the primary wing defender, but it increasingly looks like Powell is that guy. Maybe it’s just a case of Toronto still being cautious with Carroll, but seeing how Powell has played the fourth-most fourth-quarter minutes on the team this season (52) and Carroll has played the third-least (17) this is probably the way it’s going to be, barring injury.

Going with different five-man unit to finish games than your starters may seem odd at first, but if that starting squad isn’t your best lineup, why would you trust it to finish the job for you? And it isn’t like the Raptors doing this is anything new. In 2014-15 they went with a closing lineup that featured Lou Williams heavily and last season, Cory Joseph was brought on quite often to end games with a dual point-guard look. No matter what, Casey has always figured out alternative closing lineups that have been effective, even if they weren’t all five starters.

Three games may not be enough of a sample to glean anything great from, but at the very least it looks as if Casey’s on the verge of something again with Nogueira and Powell in there to close games. His hunches, over the course of his six seasons with the Raptors, tend to be right more often than not.

Seven-game stretch of death begins
With a 7-2 record and in a tie for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, it’s pretty safe to say the Raptors are a good basketball team. But just how good are they?

Over the span of their next seven games we’ll start to get a good understanding of how to answer that question properly.

Beginning on Tuesday and Wednesday with a brutal back-to-back against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Raptors play seven games in 11 days, a gruelling stretch that features another back-to-back and only one home contest.

If there’s any sort of early-season test of mettle you want to point to for the Raptors, look no further.

905 notebook
Some news and notes about Raptors 905, Toronto’s D-League affiliate:

• 905 announced Saturday the acquisition of 7-foot-3 centre Edy Tavares.

The 24-year-old was selected in the second round of the 2014 draft by the Atlanta Hawks and played 11 games for them last season and one game this season before being waived on Oct. 31. Instead of opting to go overseas, where he played four seasons in Spain being named to the ACB All-Young Players Team in 2014 and the All-Eurocup First Team in 2015, the Cape Verdean instead chose to throw his lot into the D-League player pool where the 905 were able to scoop him up thanks to their top waiver priority.

• The 905 announced their 2016-17 season roster on Thursday, but with the acquisition of Tavares, that means they’ll need to make another cut.

Guard J.T. Terrell and Scarbrough, Ont., native Negus Webster-Chan are likely cuts as Webster-Chan originally made the team from local tryout and could conceivably be called upon more easily down the line and Terrell is the remaining fourth-round pick of the three the 905 made in the D-League draft at the end of October. The other two, Ethan O’Day and Kendall Williams, were waived before the final roster was released.

• On Friday, the league announced that the 905 will host the 2017 D-League Showcase, a five-day, 22-game event in mid-January that will see scouts and executives from all 30 NBA teams trek up to Mississauga looking to find a diamond in the rough who can help their team as they prep for the stretch run heading into the all-star break.

• The team kicks off its regular season this Friday at Hershey Centre against the Greensboro Swarm.

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