No Bench, No Problem

A bumpy ride on the Chuck Wagon, Dirk Sullinger’s magnum opus part deux, burritos and the woes of the bench.

You have to hand it to these Raptors. They sure do keep it interesting.

On paper, the game should not have been close. The Boston Celtics (23-48) boast an average defense, and the third worst offense in the league. Conversely, since the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors (40-31) are the owners of the 10th best offense, and the 5th best defense. It shouldn’t have been close.

But then you zoom in, and look at the micro. The Raptors had lost 4 of their last 6 games. They were on the second night of a traveling back-to-back. The second unit had been a giant sinkhole ever since Patrick Patterson went down with injury. Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson were hobbled with nagging injuries. The little things add up.

[Whoa! You could save yourself a lot of time if you just read Garrett’s Quick Reaction instead]

The Raptors got off to a good start in the first quarter. DeMar DeRozan, seemingly determined to rectify the his passivity in recent outings, attacked the Celtics off cuts and dribble drives which resulted in a number of easy points. Kyle Lowry made a concerted effort to deliver the ball to DeRozan, who was able to use his speed to get by Jeff Green. DeRozan finished the quarter with 11 points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field, to go along with 7 well-earned trips to the free-throw line.

Any missed baskets were cleaned up by Jonas Valanciunas, who capitalized on his size advantage over the Celtics’ stunted front-court. Jonas was active on the glass, collecting five rebounds, and pulled out a few moves in the post. He had 9 points by the end of the quarter, as the Raptors held the 31-22 point edge. (If you can’t see the GIF below, click here)

At this point, you should be able to guess what happened next. As is his wont, Dwane Casey elected to deploy his all-bench unit to start the second, which predictably coughed up the lead. Casey tried to introduce a new wrinkle by playing de Colo in place of DeRozan. Unfortunately, de Yolo promptly missed a shot and committed an extremely silly turnover because he’s Nando de Yolo (it’s all in the name, really). In the span of three minutes, the Raptors’ 9-point lead turned into a four-point deficit thanks to a 15-2 run from the Celtics. Rajon Rondo moved the ball methodically, carefully setting up his bigs on pick-and-pop plays.

To his credit, Dwane Casey bailed early, and reintroduced Lowry and DeRozan at around the nine minute mark. The two managed to turn the game back in favor of the Raptors by steadying the offense, and by plugging up Rajon Rondo’s drives. Lowry repeatedly used dribble penetration to get into the lane, before setting up his teammates with open looks. Terrence Ross entered the game late in the quarter, drove to the rim and finished in traffic, which is only noteworthy because he literally never drives. The Raptors maintained their nine-point lead going into the half.

This is where the game recap gets spotty because I missed the first seven minutes of the third quarter. I left to get a burrito for dinner, and got held up. The taco place is only a 5 minute walk from my house, but there were like, 2080330822 waiting in line, who all had complicated orders (seriously, who really wants a spinach-wrapped burrito with cilantro, lime and white sauce? What are you, a horse?) For that, I apologize.

I asked my roommate to keep an eye on the game while I was out. From what he tells me, the Raptors starters kept pace, and Casey was able to sneak in a few minutes of rest for Amir Johnson. He also told me that Chuck Hayes dropped a nice pass down-low to Jonas Valanciunas for a dunk. Naturally, given Hayes’ general ineptitude on things relating to basketball, I had to investigate this incredulous claim. Turns out, he was right. Look at this bad boy. (if the GIF doesn’t load, click here)

Things quickly turned sour when I returned. I watched in horror as Greivis Vasquez made mistake after mistake. On one play, he turned down an open three, took one step inside the line, and bricked an equally open twenty-two footer. On another, he missed an easy layup. However, Chuck Hayes wasn’t going to cede the bad basketball crown without a fight. After seeing Vasquez shit the bed, he topped his effort by launching two hilariously ugly floaters that both drew nothing but iron.

Luckily, I had a delicious chicken burrito in hand which managed to tide me over the usual anger and self-immolation associated with watching Chuck Hayes and Greivis Vasquez play basketball for your favorite team. For every clanked jumper, I took two bites into the burrito. This formula worked until I ran out of burrito. Then I was just sad (but full!)

The end of the third quarter was salvaged by Jonas and DeRozan, who managed to score enough points on the Celtics bench unit to stretch the lead to 15 points. The quarter was capped off with a beautiful two-way sequence wherein Hayes protected the paint, Jonas collected the rebound, Greivis pushed the ball up the court, and Terrence Ross sunk a pull-up three at the buzzer. No burrito bites needed for that sequence.

The game looked to be in hand in the fourth, but then Jared Sullinger happened. I say this without a smidgen of sarcasm — Jared Sullinger turned into Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter. He leveraged his inside-out game into 19 points in the quarter. His quickness overwhelmed Chuck Hayes on the perimeter, and his bulk was too much for both Amir and Jonas. He hit three triples by playing pick-and-pop with Rajon Rondo, who was all-too eager to pass the ball. Of course, this didn’t stop the Raptors from stepping up and closing out hard on Rondo for no apparent reason.

Fortunately, a man named Kyle Lowry took to the court on behalf of the Raptors, and he bailed out his team. Whenever the Raptors needed a bucket, Lowry would calmly work off a screen, get into the lane, and hit a floater or short jumper. This was made possible by the defensive ineptitude of the Celtics’ bigs, who stood flat-footed, waiting idly as Lowry whizzed by them en route to the basket. Without Lowry’s efforts, this game would have been lost. Then again, I could have said that about every single Raptors game this season.

The game got as close as three points with six minutes left after Sullinger sank his third three-pointer of the quarter. This is where I remind you that he shoots 24.1% from deep on the year, so naturally he was a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond. Hayes lacked the foot-speed to close out on the perimeter, but it’s Jared Sullinger, (again, 24% shooter) at the line, so I can’t exactly fault him for failing to scamper. Then again, Casey simply could have evened out the match-up by subbing in Jonas for Hayes, but instead, he elected to do the opposite and sub out Jonas for Amir Johnson (the opposite to reason, that is).

And hey, it worked out. Sullinger stopped hitting every shot that left his hands — which had something to do with Hayes, who to his credit, did a solid job defending in the post as always — and the Raptors’ backcourt stepped up. Lowry sank a jumper. Ross got the switch onto Sully, and took him to the hole. DeRozan sank a patented long-two. Within the blink of an eye, the Raptors batten down the hatches and the chickens came home to roost. The Raptors acquitted themselves well down the stretch, and walked away with the 99-90 victory, snapping a 6-year, 11-game losing streak in Boston.

I really can’t say enough about the Raptors back-court, as the talented combo of DeRozan, Lowry and Ross combined for 67 points, 20 rebounds and 9 assists in the victory. Ross’ outside shooting really paced the Raptors, while DeRozan’s aggressiveness early on earned him a free-pass to the charity stripe. On the whole, the Raptors starters combined for 92 points.

The downside, of course, is that the bench stunk it up for what seems like the umpteenth time. The bench managed a grand total of 7 points in nearly 49 minutes of play, and they all belonged to Vasquez (who didn’t even have a good game as he shot 3-for-10). Every Celtics run coincided with the presence of the bench. The starters would build up a lead, only to return with a sloppy mess on their hands. If the Raptors were a relay team, the starters would build a lead, hand the baton to the bench, only to have the bench toss the baton into the stands. As you can imagine, not many relays are won with this strategy.

The troubles of the bench does not fall solely on the shoulders of any one man. Dwane Casey is trying new line-ups (just none with Fields), but nothing is working. He could try to avoid playing the all-bench unit, but no starter makes a tangible difference except for Lowry and DeRozan, and those guys are the ones he’s desperately trying to buy time for.

For some strange reason, Greivis Vasquez has seemingly abandoned the pick-and-roll, a play he rode to fame and glory last season with the Pelicans en route to being number one in the NBA in total assists. Then again, who could he reasonably pass to? Hansbrough’s only source of offense is rebounding and fouls, Hayes can only drop sweet dimes to other bigs, and John Salmons can’t hit a shot to save his life (and at this rate, he might need to; we’re an unforgiving fan base). The best option for the bench might actually be for Vasquez to go full YOLO.

Regardless of who’s to blame, the lack of production from the bench is costing the Raptors in both the short, and the long-run. On a game-to-game basis, the bench forces easy games — like this one against the Celtics — into becoming nail-biters. In the overall picture, their play is forcing Dwane Casey into over-exerting his starters, which risks burning them out before the playoffs. Then again, he’s on an expiring deal, so he has to coach to win now. Open the Kimono however you’d like, but it’s eating you either way. Actually, I think I’m confusing Japanese clothing with deadly Indonesian lizard-dragons, but you catch my drift.

The Raptors will do this all over again come Friday, when they take on the Celtics for the second half of their home-and-home. Hopefully, Patterson will be back by then. I miss him dearly.

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