Raptors’ bench shows spark but lineups remain work in progress

Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic watches from the sideline during the first half of a NBA basketball game. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

BROOKLYN — In theory, setting up a workable NBA rotation seems relatively simple. In a 48-minute game there are 240 minutes to be divided up between nine or 10 players, sometimes less, rarely more.

As a head coach, you get bonus points if you manage it such that your best five or six players can get you off to a strong start and still be fresh and available in the final six or eight minutes of the game when so many contests are decided.

Typically you find some extra minutes for your best two or three players — and give yourself a little bit of insurance — by having them anchor line-ups that are otherwise filled out by players lower down in your lineup.

Ah, but in practice, it is a little more difficult.

The Toronto Raptors have played a 10-man rotation most of the season with mixed results under head coach Darko Rajakovic, and yes, that could be changing.

“Yeah, we’re talking about it constantly,” said Rajakovic Tuesday before the Raptors took on the Brooklyn Nets. “It’s definitely something that’s on the table for us. We’re still learning guys, what they’re able to get from the guys, but definitely playing a nine is something that we’re talking about frequently.”

One adjustment he’s already made is to limit the number of minutes he plays Scottie Barnes or any other starter with four bench players. Having one starter who can elevate four other rotation players is a nice luxury — Kyle Lowry used to do it, but the Raptors bench was a lot deeper in those days, populated by future all-stars and long-term starters. That’s not the case any longer and Rajakovic kept at least two starters on the floor the whole game Tuesday against Brooklyn.

Over the course of what ended up being a 115-103 loss to the Nets, some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but all of it added up to another good-but-not-quite-good enough showing on the road against a team the Raptors will likely be battling with for play-in seeding for most of the season — if Toronto is lucky.

Arguably the pivotal point in the game came late in the second quarter when the Raptors starters surrendered a 15-0 run in the space of three minutes before halftime. Starters, bench – it doesn’t matter if you’re getting boat-raced like that.

The relentlessly positive Rajakovic didn’t like it one bit:

“It looked like our offence and missing our lay-ups and missing our open shots it just bled into our defence. We put our guard down and it changed the game,” he said. “We have to have much more stamina when things are not going our way … we looked a little bit discouraged over there and we cannot allow that.”

The Nets fell short of their goal of advancing in the In-season Tournament — they needed both a 14-point win and some help elsewhere on the slate on the final night of group play — but they widened the gap over the Raptors in the Eastern Conference as they improved to 9-8 while the Raptors fell to 8-10 as they dropped both games on their two-game road trip. Toronto is in 11th place in the Conference, a half-game behind 10th place Atlanta and 1.5 games behind ninth-place Brooklyn.

It was the bench that carried the offence in the fourth quarter with Gary Trent Jr., Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn and little-used Jalen McDaniels combining for 16 crucial points, keeping pace even as the Nets were beginning to find their range from three with Royce O’Neal hitting three consecutive of his six triples in the space of 90 seconds midway through the period.

The Raptors starters came back in and couldn’t finish the job as they managed just one field goal in the final 3:45 as the Nets pulled away.

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The Raptors starters came back in and couldn’t finish the job as they managed just one field goal in the final 3:45 as the Nets pulled away. Toronto’s five starters managed just 12 points combined in the fourth. The Nets sealed the game as they broke open a tie game with a 19-6 run in the final 4:30 of regulation.

Toronto shot 38.6 per cent from the floor and 13-of-36 from three. Barnes and Pascal Siakam scored 17 points each but were a combined 11-of-37 from the floor. Boucher and Trent Jr. combined for 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting off the bench.

“I felt like we needed energy and that’s normally my job, so it felt good today to go out there and hit your first three and get a couple of stops too,” said Boucher who is shooting 44.8 per cent from three this season on nearly two attempts a game off the bench.

Meanwhile, after a hot start to the season, Barnes’ offence has dried up recently. He’s shooting just 36 per cent from the floor over his last four starts and was 5-of-19 against Brooklyn and while he was 3-of-7 from threes, he was just 2-of-12 from two-point range, missing a number from point-blank range.

The Nets shot 44.9 per cent from the floor and 13-of-38 from three. Spencer Dinwiddie led all scorers with 23.

The challenge for the Raptors is that their lineup problems won’t be going away any time soon. Speaking with various NBA talent evaluators as teams begin to do their prep work in advance of the trade deadline on Feb. 9, the consensus is pretty clear: The Raptors have some very interesting players, but none that are all that coveted past the top six or seven in their rotation.

Besides, even in the best of times, rotations are tricky.

If you have too many good players? You’ve got problems: Can’t play them all.

If you don’t have enough good players? You’ve got problems: You can’t play your best players too much too often as they risk injury or losing some of their effectiveness due to fatigue.

What if you don’t have quality back-ups at key positions? What then?

And we haven’t even mentioned injuries, minutes restrictions, or day-to-day things that can affect player availability or effectiveness. And let’s not forget, the whole idea is that the lineups you put out on the floor are meant to match up with the personnel the other team is putting on the floor.

“We spend a lot of time on it, for sure,” Rajakovic said pre-game. “As a coaching staff we’re planning those out, talking about rotations, we take into account multiple things: How our team is performing in this moment, how our guys are doing in [practice], rhythm, injuries, recovery, minutes restrictions — there is so much that goes into it…”

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It’s been a work in progress for the Raptors, let’s just say.

Rajakovic has stayed true to his pre-season word and played a 10-man rotation most of the time — a plan that both develops some of the players deeper on the Raptors depth chart who didn’t get minutes when former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was relaying on a starter-heavy, eight-man rotation but also keeps the top players fresher.

And as the quarter-pole of the season rounds into view, let’s just say it’s become more and more evident why Nurse leaned so heavily on his starters. No one from the bench has really popped yet. Mostly it’s been same old same old: Flynn has had some moments, but has been inconsistent; ditto for Boucher, Trent Jr., and Precious Achiuwa. Rookie Gradey Dick isn’t ready for the NBA yet and newcomer McDaniels — until a solid 13-minute stint against the Nets in which he ended up +2 with five points and some sharp defence — has not made a lasting impression.

Tellingly, the Raptors bench production has been spotty at best. Heading into the Nets game, the Raptors bench is 26th in net rating for the year at minus-4.2 points per 100 possessions while Toronto’s overall net rating is basically even at minus-0.5/100. As you might expect, the Raptors’ worst quarters are in the second and the third when the bench-heavy lineups are most prominent — they are minus-7.4/100 in the second quarter and minus-4.4/100 in the third. Some of Toronto’s dramatic late comebacks have pushed their fourth-quarter net rating to plus-7.7/100, which would be more impressive if they didn’t need it to be.

Still, it was kind of perfect then that on the night where Rajakovic was musing about tightening his rotation — something that was a little bit unlikely Tuesday given the Raptors are in the midst of a grinding stretch of eight games in 13 days and have a game at home against Phoenix Wednesday night — Toronto got a nice spark from deep on the bench.

Boucher was the 10th player Rajakovic went to on Tuesday and while playing a hybrid lineup alongside Anunoby and Barnes, he hit a corner three on his first touch after a beautiful one-time pass from Barnes.

He hit another three a moment later, again on a feed from Barnes — and thenwent coast-to-coast on a one-man fast break before making a steal that set up a three from McDaniels. In the space of three minutes, Boucher had scored or directly contributed to 11 points and the game was tied. He hit a third triple early in the fourth quarter to keep pace with the Nets as they were heating up down the stretch. Boucher didn’t look thrilled to be coming out when the starters time was back up, but he’d done his job and then some.

It was exactly what Rajakovic has been hoping for.

“[We need] energy that’s coming from our bench,” the coach said. “It’s very, very important. In games that we play really well, and we had wins [the bench] was the difference.”

Normally that is a great spot for the Raptors starters to come back in and extend the momentum, but this time it was the starters who stumbled, giving up the 15-0 run which the Raptors could not recover from.

Starter or bench, regardless of how they’re mixed and matched or how deep the rotation goes, the key is they have to play well enough to get the job done. The Raptors’ rotation and bench play have received plenty of attention so far this season, but the overwhelming theme on a night when the starters lost the plot? If the goal is anything more than fighting for a .500 record and a spot in the play-in tournament, the Raptors might not have what it takes to get it done.

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