The Toronto Raptors are in somewhat of a strange position ahead of Game 2 on Monday. On the one hand, they played quite poorly in Game 1, losing by 10 in a game they were favored by six in, conceding home-court advantage in the series, and bringing up demons from the past two playoffs in the process. On the other, there are a litany of small things the Raptors can point to that are either unlikely to continue through the natural course of things or that they can tweak pretty easily.
As bad as the Raptors looked, IF Casey proves flexible, there are a LOT of low-fruit rotation adjustments they can make. Like, a lot.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 17, 2016
There’s an issue with thinking this way, as the Pacers also played an imperfect game and could be better next time out. They played probably an 80th-percentile game, but they can make tweaks, too. What they won’t tweak, though, is their roattion, aside from maybe keeping Jordan Hill on the bench so long as Ian Mahinmi avoids foul trouble.
“I’m happy with the performance, for sure,” Frank Vogel said after Game 1. “I’m hoping that we’ve settled on a rotation that works good with the bench that came in and elevated the level of play for us tonight.”
In other words, the Pacers are comfortable with that they did and how the game played out. An underdog coming into your building and settling in comfortably, without the need to adjust after Game 1 should be frustrating, and it’s now on head coach Dwane Casey to return Vogel’s opening serve emphatically.
The issue, of course, is that Casey was somewhat inflexible in each of the last two postseasons, getting out-coached on each occasion. Casey’s done a great job this season and has established himself as a really solid 82-game coach, improving in a lot of the areas people criticized him for (including flexibility), but with a team option on his contract pending and public faith in his performance shaken after another series-opening loss, all eyes will be on how he adjusts Monday.
Luckily for Casey, there is a ton of “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to the rotations he used in Game 1. There were myriad curious rotation decisions, and if Casey commits to making changes, the Raptors could swing things back their way, even without fundamental changes to the defensive approach or better shooting from their stars.
Here’s a quick look at some of the options Casey has (some are mutually exclusive, I’m not suggesting he make all of them).
Shorten the rotation, and manage the fallout: This is one Casey’s already said he might do. The Raptors used 10 players on Saturday, which was somewhat expected but is entirely untenable. Teams shorten their rotations in the playoffs, not expand them, and even though Casey’s hand is being forced with the return of DeMarre Carroll, he has to make a difficult decision and get the team back into their comfortable nine-man system that’s worked to such strong effect.
Now, who draws out of the rotation is a tough call. On Game 1 merit alone, it’s Terrence Ross, but Ross has been a factor in the Raptors’ elite bench and some of their best five-man units, his combination of defense (when engaged), movement off the ball, and most importantly, plus-shooting proving instrumental. And even though he played poorly Saturday, he stayed on the floor until the 3:28 mark of the fourth quarter, suggesting Casey may still have confidence in him.
The other options would also involved changes to the starting lineup. If Ross sticks, Norman Powell is the most logical name out of the rotation unless the Raptors are going to commit to playing smaller. Taking Powell out of the rotation wouldn’t have anything to do with his performance, and it would be unfortunate given how well he’s played down the stretch. Such is life for a rookie sometimes, especially one who was holding Carroll’s spot and may not be able to handle the Paul George assignment (though I’d like to see him get a look, if he plays, before ruling that out – Powell’s very long and works incredibly hard, which is not nothing). Powell spoke at shootaround Monday as if he was still expecting to play and continue guarding guards, so maybe he’s safe.
The final option is to axe Luis Scola from the rotation, which commits to playing smaller for a sizeable chunk of the game. More on that in a second.
Start DeMarre Carroll, stop playing him without Paul George on the floor: If Powell goes to the bench in favor of Carroll, then Powell’s out of the rotation entirely, unless he takes Ross’ spot. As noted above, that’s tough, but Carroll was brought in specifically for assignments like George, and he’s the team’s best perimeter defender. He remains on a minutes limit, and starting him ensures that his minutes are maximized opposite George – Carroll played five minutes with George on the bench, which seems like a ridiculous misuse of assets.
Start Patrick Patterson: This has long been a switch that makes sense regardless of matchup, as Patterson brings a ton to the table that Scola can’t. Patterson’s range is respected more by opponents, which helps the paint breathe and makes many of the Raptors’ pet plays for DeRozan more effective, and he’s emerged as one of the team’s best and most versatile defenders. The issue is that Indiana starts big and goes smaller in the second unit, so if Scola isn’t starting, he has very little utility. If the Raptors make this switch, Indiana might counter with a quick hook for Lavoy Allen in favor of Solomon Hill, which could swing that DeRozan edge from Patterson back to neutral since Hill can capably switch onto DeRozan on Patterson screens.
Failing this, they simply can’t leave Patterson on the bench for an entire third quarter again. Even if they want Carroll to play some four, that has to come at the expense of Scola’s time, not Patterson’s. Patterson should be playing 35 minutes in this series.
You can probably only do one of these: Carroll and Patterson both starting gives the team their best possible starting lineup, but I don’t think Casey would want so much disruption at once, and doing so would render the highly-effective bench unit a little thin on spacing and shot creation. That might be fine, anyway, with rotations shortening, but if you’re hoping for a starting lineup change, it’s probably one or the other.
For what it’s worth, Casey said Monday that the starting five is the same, then after a long pause, added, “for now.”
Don’t bench DeRozan and Lowry together: This one should be pretty obvious and the Raptors mostly avoided it during the season, but a full five-man bench unit played five minutes Saturday. They held their own, but that’s not the point – the process behind that result is risky, and the Raptors got away with one here. The five-man bench unit is impossible with a nine-man rotation, and the four-man bench group has been terrific with Lowry and really good with DeRozan (that may surprise some, but the DeRozan-led group was quietly effective). Whatever the specific iterations, one of Lowry or DeRozan should always be on the court.
Play DeRozan when George sits: Again, this seems obvious and follows from the point above, but DeRozan was tethered almost entirely to George on Saturday, playing just one of the 10 minutes George sat. C.J. Miles and Solomon Hill are solid defenders, but the Raptors should be doing what they can to get DeRozan away from George. George was made in a lab to stop DeRozan, and while DeRozan is probably right that he’ll hit some of those shots he missed, it’s also just good strategy to get him away from George as best you can. There’s no sense making life more difficult for yourself.
So there are plenty of options for Casey on Monday, and it’d be surprising if he doesn’t check off at least a couple of these. It’s a big test for him, and while I know many are burnt from the playoff performances of the last two years, I’m willing to give Casey this game to see what kind of tweaks he makes.