Playoff Mailbag: Rotations, matchups, scheduling, (…and the murder of Jason Blossom)

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Two days off to prepare for a playoff opponent also means two days off to publish another #RRMailbag. We’ll try to do mini-mailbags when time allows during the postseason, but I’m skeptical there will be time/room for one of the 7,000-word mammoths. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

And if you haven’t had enough of me by then, I’ll be doing an AMA on R/TorontoRaptors on Friday at 10 a.m.

Alright, let’s get this money.

Playoff Specifics

I was going to be fine with either outcome last night. Lose, and the Raptors would have made sure they get the No. 23 pick while also keeping the possibility open that Cleveland could land in the one-seed. But Boston was always pretty likely to win against a resting Milwaukee squad, and since the Raptors have had so few reps with Kyle Lowry over the last few months, I was on board with a “first half dress rehearsal” of sorts. Things played out pretty much how I probably would have run them – a bit of rest, nobody tasked with too many minutes, and a lot of opportunities for the young guys.

That Boston won anyway is great, and while the Clippers also winning may end up costing the Raptors a spot or two in the draft, there are drawbacks from intentionally tanking a game. And hey, did you see Bruno Caboclo? The 905 may have beaten the Cavaliers last night anyway!

Let’s start by plugging my own work. I wrote about Jonas Valanciunas trying to turn into “Playoff JV” at the right time for Vice Sports earlier this week. That Valanciunas has turned in good games in eight of the last nine is encouraging, as is his haircut – almost since the moment he went back to his chrome-dome playoff look, he’s turned things around.

Against the Bucks, Valanciunas should be an important piece. He’s the Raptors’ best rebounders and one of the most dominant players on the glass in the entire league. It’s a huge weakness for Milwaukee, who rank in the bottom third on the boards at both ends of the floor and who often play more slender fives like Thon Maker and John Henson, players Valanciunas can beat with his physicality. Valanciunas should feast on the offensive glass, and his powerful screens will be important for clearing valuable slivers of space against Milwaukee’s trapping of ball-handlers.

As always, though, Valanciunas’ overall impact will come down to how he defends. His pick-and-roll defense has trended upward down the stretch, and the Bucks don’t employ the type of speedy north-south point guard that tends to give the Lithuanian the most trouble. They’ll throw a lot of different pick-and-roll looks at Toronto, to be sure, but many will involve a wing or forward as the screener, or even as the ball-handler, which takes Valanciunas away from the action and into a more suitable helper role. Unless the Bucks change course and try to attack Valanciunas with Giannis Antetokounmpo going downhill, he’ll have every opportunity to keep himself on the floor.

Watch for Dwane Casey to continue his recent experiment of using Valanciunas in the Lowry-and-bench unit to start the second and fourth quarters. That would line him up with Greg Monroe more often, and while Monroe’s a fanciful passer and a gifted post scorer, that’s a matchup Valanciunas can win.

Can. Valanciunas’ inconsistencies have been part of the reason he’s a polarizing figure among Raptors fans, and it’s on him to make the most of the matchup, whether it’s in 20 minutes or 30.


More shameless self promotion: I wrote about Delon Wright’s crafty play for The Athletic this week, and the other week I wrote about Norman Powell struggling moving back to his old role. Raptors Republic readers can get 20 percent off the subscription price by using this link.

To answer the first question: Wright definitely hasn’t jumped Cory Joseph. Joseph’s play since Lowry went down has been back closer to his 2015-16 levels, and the days of his backup spot being in jeopardy are behind him. That could change if he’s shaky again, and Milwaukee can throw some serious size against him, but he should match up well with Matthew Dellavedova and fine with Malcolm Brogdon. It’s nice that Wright’s there if needed, but Joseph’s play has stabilized.

Wright has, however, possibly jumped Powell. Those two will probably be a fluid choice in the ninth-man role (I think the top eight are fairly obvious and the Raptors won’t need a second center against the Bucks), and who Casey turns to will be an interesting choice. Wright has been better down the stretch and provides more ball-handling, an important consideration in multi-guard lineups when the Bucks might force the ball out of the hands of Toronto’s stars. But the Bucks also overload the strong side against the pick-and-roll, which puts additional value on having an attacker spotting up on the weak side. Powell might be the team’s best in that position.

Casey would be justified in going either direction, and the leash on both sophomores will be short. The guess here is that Powell gets the first crack for the extra size and attacking, but he needs to look like Game 82 Powell.


I’ve answered this one a lot in recent mailbags, and I’ve kind of landed on this: P.J. Tucker is playing better than DeMarre Carroll, and Carroll’s biggest edge over Tucker (shooting) has kind of dissipated with Tucker feasting on open corner looks, but Carroll continuing to start is fine. For now. Carroll actually did a pretty decent job on Antetokounmpo in earlier meetings, and while the ability for Tucker to throw some serious physicality at the youngster is a nice change of pace, the Raptors are going to need both of them – and a handful of others – over the course of each game.

Keeping Tucker with the second unit means that one of the team’s most vocal defensive quarterbacks (Tucker or Serge Ibaka) is on the floor at all times, and Tucker’s found a great groove with Lowry and the bench squad. There are also secondary considerations to benching Carroll, like the psychological impact or the trickle-down to the second unit – these are relatively minor if Carroll is playing horribly, but if their play is close enough, the argument for inertia gets stronger.

Casey will probably start Carroll. Tucker will probably play more and is more likely to close games. It’s fine, but Casey better be as willing to change course as he was last year if it isn’t working.

Related to my last point, I actually think the criticisms that Casey is inflexible are outdated now. It was definitely true across the first two postseasons this team made it to, and he was stubborn during the regular season a year ago. But the Indiana series forced his hand, and he not only eventually went away from his long-held starting power forward, but he tried brand-new lineups in the playoffs, benched DeMar DeRozan down the stretch, and responded capably to the loss of Valanciunas. Again this year, Casey’s proven pretty malleable as the roster has changed and the team’s dealt with injury or ineffectiveness – they went like a month without using an actual power forward, for example, and they’ve tried playing small and switchy a ton.

The truth is Casey has to be flexible. The bonus is the Raptors have a versatile enough rotation now that being flexible is something he’s probably embracing. Valanciunas isn’t winning the battle inside? Go small. Antetkounmpo is killing Carroll? Go to Tucker. Pick-and-roll defense is struggling? Switch everywhere. Playing big, playing small, trying new lineups…they’re all things Casey’s been forced to do this year, and the Raptors’ ability to adapt should be a strength in the postseason as a result. I don’t see why Casey would shy away from it now.

Physically? Hell yeah. Brogdon is great. Like, Rookie of the Year level great. He’s thick, smart, and has an immense wingspan, and while he’s not an elite one-on-one defender, he really knows how to play in Jason Kidd’s system. Dellavedova isn’t particularly good, but he’s pesky and will probably try to live inside Lowry’s jersey when on the court. The Bucks did really well defending opposing point guards this year.

On the bright side, Lowry is significantly better than either, and even if they make life tough on him, he should be just fine (assuming there’s no lingering wrist discomfort).

I’m much more encouraged by the post-break sample (fourth in the NBA) than the more recent one. There was clearly some malaise setting in there, and the Raptors were still able to find that extra defensive gear in the fourth quarter of games. Lowry’s defense was pretty bad, but the truth is he was probably just trying to get a rhythm and get his game conditioning back without much concern for stopping the opponent (see: letting Ron Baker run by you in transition).

Now, Lowry’s defense has been below his standard for the season, despite what the advanced metrics say. He’s still a savvy ball-hawk and an opportunist drawing charges, but he was culpable as the Raptors suffered from “blow-by” issues earlier in the year. Lowry’s shown in the past that he’ll turn that aspect of his game up when the games matter. It’s tough to trust it without seeing it again, of course, but there’s a lot more evidence pointing to this team being good defensively than bad when the ball’s in on Saturday.


I don’t mean to dismiss this question, but I’m tight on time to get this up – Ask me again in the mailbag ahead of the second round. Sorry!


Guarding Antetokounmpo takes an army, and everyone is going to get a crack at it. I kind of answered this above in talking about Tucker and Carroll, but they’ll get the first opportunities. Patrick Patterson may be the team’s best bet at slowing Antetokounmpo, in a vacuum, and Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell could be useful, too. The way the Bucks play – length at every position, multiple ball-handlers, wings and guards screening and initiating alike – there aren’t really places to hide, and the Raptors will have to switch a lot. Tucker is going to body Antetokounmpo up, Carroll needs to work to keep him from getting his legs under him, and the help needs to be ready to contest at the rim, but Antetokounmpo is still going to get his off. The biggest key to stopping him is to not turn the ball over, because he’s the NBA’s premiere transition threat, non-Russell Westbrook division.

As for Khris Middleton, he’s an equally challenging player, especially as a number two. Middleton can attack in isolation or in the pick-and-roll and his numbers as a catch-and-shoot threat around Antetokounmpo are staggering, but where he really punishes from a strategy perspective is in the post. Raptors’ guards have proven capable of guarding larger players on post switches in the past, but the Raptors are going to want to make sure they have a wing attached to Middleton in those scenarios, and that means that sometimes DeMar DeRozan is going to draw that responsibility. DeRozan can be better on defense than he sometimes gets credit for, but you don’t want him exerting a ton at that end if you can manage. He’ll probably start on Tony Snell, but the Bucks will then run Snell through some actions to try to force switches.

The Bucks aren’t a great offensive team overall, but they’re a difficult one to check. Not giving a damn about positions or traditional roles means you can’t gameplan for them in a straight-forward way. Everyone is going to be called on to defend.

Middleton and Snell will probably share DeRozan duties on the other end, keeping Antetokounmpo free to work as a help defender (the Raptors will respond by having Ibaka pop above the break more often than he heads to the corners). Antetokounmpo will see some time, too, I’m sure, and the Bucks won’t hesitate to let Brogdon take a crack if the Raptors try to draw a switch with their pet two-one pick-and-rolls.

Blake Murphy vs. Sleep.

(It’s not one vs. one, but the biggest matchup key is probably how well each team’s supporting cast shoots from long-range. Neither team shoots a ton of threes, but they’re both above-average at hitting them and have multiple guys who will let fire two or three times a game. Maybe Patterson-Mirza Teletovic, then? The primary players are simply going to switch assignments too much and match offense-vs-defense to identify a priority head-to-head. DeRozan-Middleton, if I have to choose.)

Inconsistent 3-point shooting probably stands to limit Toronto’s ceiling the most. Threes are by nature a high-variance approach, but with only one reliable high-volume shooter, the Raptors are perhaps more susceptible to slumps and streaks than teams with more weapons. They could go ice-cold from outside and still survive the first round, because they do enough other things well that don’t slump nearly as much, like rebound and defend and protect the ball and get to the line. Against Cleveland, though, your defense is only going to be able to do so much, and the Raptors will only be able to keep up as much as their shooters support Lowry and DeRozan. That’s true to a smaller degree when the Bucks force the ball out of the stars’ hands, too.

Playoff Ancillary

This question has obviously been answered already, though I’m not sure of the actual reasoning for the schedule breaking down as it did. I expected a 12:30 Saturday start, and 5:30 is a better slot, even if it overlaps a bit with the Leafs. The Sunday 6:30 slot is probably the “best” one, but too much is made of this stuff, anyway, in my opinion. (Having three of six announced games on NBA TV suggests that the Raptors aren’t completely out of the woods in terms of respect or being a casual draw.)

I think it can only be bad news for the Raptors. The favorites always fear randomness, and four planets being in retrograde mean some really weird stuff could happen here.

Because we need a way to balance out the incomes of those who get to travel with the team and those who don’t. (Or because Milwaukee is a middling city and the airlines would prefer you to fly into Chicago, instead.)

Yes. Michael Paul Beasley, my pick for the series’ Gerald Henderson Award winner.

He’s a logical pick for the GHA given his history killing the Raptors and his Bulls pedigree. I’m still going with Supercool Beas, though. Midwest Terrence Ross doesn’t scare me a ton in this series.

We’ve past the deadline, but I remain shocked that the Bucks went with Gary Payton II for their 15th roster spot instead of plucking someone from the 905. They had Axel Toupane for two games earlier in the year, though, so they clearly already got all of the knowledge they needed from the 905, just like the Cavaliers are doing with Edy Tavares.

It’s going to be really weird when Baskonia waives Andrea Bargnani next week and plucks C.J. Leslie from the 905 with the 905 tied 98-98 in Game 3 of the D-League finals.

So far, nobody, really. Tucker’s getting smoother passes in the corners and Patterson’s found a nice groove, but really, all of the team’s 3-point shooters benefit from Lowry being back. With a bigger sample, the answer would definitely be DeRozan – Lowry not only helps share the load creating on offense, but he’s DeRozan’s best spot-up shooter to kick out to, and that gives him a better passing option and more space to operate in. It’s probably also a boon for Valanciunas, who hasn’t had the greatest of chemistry with Joseph the last two years.


Both Game 7s would go Saturday, April 29, so May 1 would be the first possible day they could start. If one of the series went the distance, I could see that getting bumped to May 2 (the Raptors’ schedule in round one is more compressed than last year, so there could be a two-day grace period built in between rounds). I went back and looked at some schedules from recent years, and it’s pretty difficult to predict this far out. If both series end early, you might be able to catch a game there early, but if one of them goes seven (maybe even six), you could be out of luck. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you – precedent is inconsistent.


The five-Bruno hydra.

Non-Raptors Miscellaneous

I think he’s been introduced great, other than changing the font on his video from that cool red to generic Asian yellow. They’ve made him seem like a huge deal without him saying or doing all that much, and The Miz and Dolph Ziggler are great first foils to introduce not only his character (both heels are great at reacting to faces) but to his physical style (Ziggler might be the best seller they have). The WWE has a huge star on their hands in Shinsuke Nakamura. It’d take some pretty shaky booking to botch this opportunity.

And yeah, I’m saving Nakamura-Styles until Nakamura is fully established and it has the requisite big match feel outside of them just telling you it’s a big match. We know, but the big events aren’t just about us. Let Styles have his face run, then they can meet up down the line as a neutral-neutral mega-feud. It’s going to be so good.

Sigh. Jughead is an emo kid, a writer, and someone headed for definitely unrequited love with the girl next door. And a closet binge eater. Sadly, I’m Jughead, it would appear.

I’m going to be so mad when Riverdale is the only TV show I carve out time to watch during the playoffs, and we end up finding out Jason Blossom’s estranged cousin killed him to get his hands into the maple syrup conglomerate or something. They need to pivot off of this storyline as soon as the season ends and direct us toward the bigger issues that will carry season two.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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