For almost two years now, Raptors’ higher-ups have consistently claimed that the team deserved the respect of the top teams in the league, such as Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio. The word has been that the Raptors have long had a ceiling as-yet untouched by its current core. However, after an ugly (but successful) playoff run last year, a down streak before the Serge Ibaka and P.J Tucker godsends this year, and a spirit-of-Andrea-Bargnani performance in Game 3 of this series, some Raptors fans had questioned whether the team is even as good as the middling tier of the NBA, including the Milwaukee Bucks.
Fans have condemned Dwane Casey’s coaching, questioned whether Kyle Lowry should be re-signed, and eviscerated DeMarre Carroll as unfit to be in the NBA. Well, the Raptors’ incredible performance in Game 5 serves as validation – at least for one night – of the entire Raptors’ philosophy; we have finally seen, in the playoffs, the ceiling of the Raptors. In a game in which the Bucks’ guards actually shot the 3 well and Antetokounmpo dominated, the Raptors proved their superiority.
The Raptors no longer go as far as DeMar DeRozan and Lowry take them. Ibaka has made sure of that. Ibaka opened the game with a 3, and he followed that up with a pump fake, drive, and poster over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ibaka scored from midrange, once more dunked directly over the charred wreckage of Antetokounmpo’s flailing corpse, and bailed out the Raptors’ defense with three timely and impressive rejections. He finished with 19 points on 10 shots.
One of the most important and unrecognized aspects of Ibaka’s game is his passing. The Raptors are relatively starved on playmaking, especially when their primary playmakers are facing high double teams from twin Stretch Armstrongs any time they try to run a pick and roll. Ibaka is a reliable outlet. Ibaka had three assists in the game, and a few other dazzling passes that didn’t show up in the box score. He had a beautiful bounce pass in the first quarter to a cutting Lowry, but Lowry’s injured back blew the layup. Side note: I watched Steve Nash struggle with back injuries for years, and it was chilling watching Lowry suffer the same symptoms. Get well soon.
Toronto’s ceiling was pushed ever higher by the play of two of its cadre of wings: Norman Powell and Carroll. Powell played like an all-star. He consistently shut down Khris Middleton, even blocking one shot from behind after getting caught on a screen in the first quarter. Powell hit threes, finished layups in transition and the half-court, and sacrificed Thon Maker to the Gods with a crushing dunk on his head. Oh yeah, that wasn’t even his biggest dunk of the game; that came courtesy of garbage time, when Powell channeled his inner Vince Carter in a high-flying crush for the ages.
Carroll was one of the most heartening aspects of this game, and I originally planned to write this entire article about him. Carroll had the bounce back from his Atlanta days, which I believed was gone for good. He hustled for offensive rebounds, which paid off but was risky. He hit a 3, forced Bucks to close out on his other shots, passed well, and even scored on smooth drives. On one possession, Carroll drove, drew the defense, and kicked to Patterson, who missed a wide open corner 3. On another, Carroll jumped the passing lane for a steal in the half-court and hit a wild and-1 circus shot on his drive later in the offensive possession. His defense was mostly stellar on both Antetokounmpo and Middleton, and he is the tweener-forward that can kick the Raptors’ offense into high gear when playing like he did tonight. Carroll allows the Raptors to reach their peak.
Jonas Valanciunas played great as well, especially on defense. In one bizarre sequence, he blocked Greg Monroe, who decided he would take a piggy-back ride on his tormentor. Valanciunas flipped him off his back with a wrestling finishing move, and ran towards the offensive end. Monroe jumped up, and chased Valanciunas all the way to the other end just to talk some smack (showing more hustle than I’ve ever seen him offer while playing the game of basketball). After Valanciunas was fouled by Middleton, Monroe finally caught up, shoving his own teammate Middleton out of the way to get to Valanciunas. Great stuff.
When other Raptors are playing so well, the Raptors backcourt can thrive as background performers who occasionally seize center stage, like Sam Rockwell in every movie he’s ever made. Both Lowry and DeRozan were swinging fiery passes out of the high doubles and trusting their teammates to hit the open man, hit their open jumpers, or create their own offense against scrambling defenders. Almost every member of the supporting cast thrived in those roles today.
Lowry and DeRozan combined for 16 assists today (in a game in which the team had 28 assists on 41 made field goals), and DeRozan had several more potential assists. The only time one of the two carried the team was when Lowry hit a 3 off the high pick and roll, posted up for a midrange jumper, hit a long crossover 2, drew an offensive foul, and stole the ball during a Milwaukee fast break. All those plays happened in the first few minutes of the second quarter, when Kidd opened the second quarter with Jason Terry, Matthew Dellavedova, and Mirza Teletovic. Against a lineup including Cory Joseph and Lowry that has struggled against length, Kidd opted to super-charge the Raptors’ attack for them by throwing several short-armed defenders onto the floor. Lowry took advantage.
A late DeRozan 3 was what I thought to be the nail-in-the-coffin shot. But then Fred VanVleet hit a corner 3, and Powell Vince’d all over the Bucks, so DeRozan didn’t even get that honour.
With the Raps playing so well, due praise must be doled out to Casey. The team has subtly changed its offense, while retaining its core principles. The Raptors still keep their offense simple, but it can look downright Spurs-ian when the defense is scrambling after needless double teams.
However, Casey’s tactical tweaks were apparent. DeRozan was struggling with hard Milwaukee traps on him as the ball handler in the high pick and roll in previous games, so Casey ran DeRozan some off-ball screens to get him attacking single coverage that was struggling to recover. The Raptors limited their offensive rebounding and transition attacks to stifle Milwaukee’s second chances and fast breaks, which worked better in this game than in previous ones. The Raps finally started going under screens to wall off the paint for Antetokounmpo.
A hallmark of a good coach is the ability to improve his team’s play throughout a series, and the Raptors have seemingly responded to Milwaukee’s aggressive defense with pinpoint passes, both of the swing and skip variety. Toronto is making decisions faster – a sure sign of film-watching. Casey is a good tactician, even if he may not always receive praise. He has grown into the job over his years behind Toronto’s bench, and his after timeout plays are much better now than they were a few years ago. One even earned Powell a wide-open 3!
The Raptors have finally shown their ability to touch their potential ceiling. One deserved knock against Casey has been his inability to inspire consistent passion in his team’s play, as evidenced by the team’s Game 3 bed-pooping. Have the Raptors finally turned a corner? We’ll find out in Game 6 and beyond if the Raptors can finally break through the glass ceiling of consistency.