The Raptors 905 were a treat to watch this past season. They won the D-League Championship after posting a .780-win percentage during the regular season and had guys throughout their roster have their moments of individual brilliance. It was the manner in which they went about their business, though, that made them so enjoyable.
Whether they started, came off the bench, or received a DNP-CD, they all fell in line because they knew head coach Jerry Stackhouse was focused on the big picture.
“Wasn’t everything rosy all the time, know what I’m saying, I had to get at these guys sometimes,” the D-League Coach of the Year said when reflecting upon their D-League title. “That’s part of building a team, getting to know that our culture and our system is bigger than any of them.”
Never were those words more evident than Game 1 of Round 1 against the Canton Charge. Brady Heslip, firmly entrenched in his role as the starting point guard, Canadian, and the league leader in three-point makes, was benched in favour of the more defensively inclined John Jordan. Facing Cleveland Cavaliers’ affiliate meant going up against the explosive Kay Felder.
Think about that. The best team in the entire D-League made an adjustment based on their opponent prior to even playing a game against them. Some would argue that a best-of-three format brings a greater sense of urgency to Game 1, but it points toward a lesson their parent club has yet to learn.
Over the course of seven Game 1 losses in a row, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has subscribed to the theory that you dance with who brung ya. Until, of course, the Raptors are backed into a corner and forced to try a different look. This happened most recently against the Milwaukee Bucks, where Jonas Valanciunas was clearly a bad fit against their quick, yet lengthy lineup. There is no doubt that Casey deserves credit for making a series altering change in starting Norman Powell in Game 4, but it is equally fair to wonder why the change needed three games capped off by a 104-77 wire-to-wire blowout loss to take effect.
Was it a superiority complex? A desire to stay true to who they’ve been? Or a lack of anticipation?
However you slant it, it’s an approach that has the potential to spell doom in any playoff series. Until this Milwaukee series, the Raptors had played an elimination game in every series under Casey. Doom is even more imminent when facing one of the greatest players of all time in LeBron James. He is 18-0 lifetime in series where his team has taken a 2-0 lead, and by failing to put the onus on Game 1 once again, the Raptors have put all their eggs into Game 2 to save this series.
There were encouraging signs from practice on Tuesday, where Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported that Casey is seriously considering benching both DeMarre Carroll and Valanciunas. After using the word quickness and criticizing the lack of it in Game 1 in getting out to shooters, Casey said anticipation is a better word.
“It’s about our execution of what we need to do,” he said. “It’s about our anticipation of what we need to do.”
Ironic, isn’t it.
Carroll started 72 games for the Raptors this season, and save for a few all-too-brief stretches, was a major disappointment. He has failed to live up to the promise that signing a forward with his defensive prowess to a four-year, $60 million contract, but it appears that the hefty sum and theoretical potential of what he could offer have taken precedence over his performance.
The numbers speak for themselves. As the starting small forward, Carroll averaged 8.9 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and made 1.5 threes per game at a 34.1 percent clip. Per Yahoo Sports, Powell played nine games as the starting small forward, averaging 13.9 points on 47.7 percent shooting overall, 1.9 threes on 39.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and an overall comfort within the starting lineup that Carroll has lacked. Powell has been a +58 in the playoffs thus far, making the team a -65 when he hasn’t been on the floor. The Raptors have a defensive rating of 102.6 in the playoffs per NBA.com, and Powell has posted a 91.1 defensive rating compared to Carroll’s 113.9 defensive rating. Furthermore, only Patrick Patterson has a worse net rating than Carroll.
As for Valanciunas, Zach Randolph, Enes Kanter, Jahlil Okafor, and Greg Monroe all came off the bench this season for a reason. Even the great Tim Duncan came off the bench in a regular season win last year by the San Antonio Spurs over the Golden State Warriors. The writing has been on the wall.
By altering lineups consistently during the regular season, Stackhouse set a tone and pattern for what players could come to expect, making it that much easier for him to make the decision he made in the playoffs. To me, by failing to set a precedent in the regular season and making the “safe decision” to start Powell only when Carroll was kept out of one end of a back-to-back, it has made the need for an all hands on deck situation necessary to validate the reactionary changes Casey has made.
With a team like the Cavaliers, every loss is like a nail in the coffin, and this coffin only needs four. The Raptors can only hope to adjust now, but an inability to anticipate may have cost them dearly.