Paul Pierce, long may the universe love and keep him, still does not believe in the Raptors playoff chances. It’s not exactly a shocking revelation coming from the guy who effectively cursed Toronto in the 2014-2015 NBA playoffs, when he stated that they just didn’t have “it”. The “it” in that case did prove to be lacking, namely in defence, because Pierce and the Wizards swept the Raptors in a particularly crumpling series.
Look, I like Paul Pierce. He’s a bit of a grouch and a sometimes ill-informed trash talker and in this case not really wrong. He hasn’t seen any indication from the Raptors in their last few playoff attempts that they have that hidden reservoir to dig into to take themselves farther than they would in the regular season. Neither have we, their fans. It’s been frustrating as hell to watch a team you know to be scrappy, resourceful, and when all else fails champions in pulling it off, suddenly shrink away in the playoffs. It is at least part of what’s made the Raptors so easy for pundits like Pierce to ignore during the regular season, even the current record breaking one. Playoffs are the sum of the season, technically speaking, but they are a different animal entirely and one that’s proven difficult at best and soul crushing at worst for the Raptors to wrest with. Which is why it’s going to be incredibly fun to prove Paul Pierce wrong this time.
Not sure if you’ve been watching, but Toronto has finally got itself another gear to shift into—it’s the bench. Much like a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, this bench can do everything. Depth, speed, buckets (currently averaging 50 points per game since the all-star break), incredible smiles, grit, and perhaps the most important thing in the playoffs, composure. For their lack of cumulative years in the league—save for Miles—the Raptors bench unit is rarely flustered. Yes, there have been times when Wright or Siakam get snagged up, slightly out of step with their speed and length, or when Poeltl, notably in the ramped up foul calls he was getting against Houston, seems to be getting in his own way. But they are all easily grounded, vying to snap back into the game rather than let a moment’s frustration fester into anything more. They have a determined work ethic that’s come from each of their less than breezy roads to the pros to thank for this, plus playing with seasoned mentors who’ve taken their share of knocks and learned the hard way, but their resilience on the court comes mainly from each other.
“We just like each other,” Pascal Siakam said after the Raptors recent win against the Rockets, a sentiment that’s been noticed and echoed across the league, from the bench unit’s antics to their performance on the floor.
The bench had Summer League to shape them into the unit they came into the start of this season playing as. It was just two weeks but they benefited immensely from that test run together, they went into the regular season running and haven’t stopped. More than that, their gameplay is innovating every time they hit the floor. There’s no deficit felt when the bench subs in for the starters and more often than not rather than just providing a breather for them, the bench brings so much energy to the court that when they do yield the floor it’s still humming. As the fastest human on the planet, Fred VanVleet has noted, “When we’re really rolling, there’s no drop-off when we sub.”
“Their bench has been killing everybody, starters, bench, everybody,” Boston coach Brad Stevens admitted a little over a month ago. A fact that is likely starting to worry him more going into this last stretch of the season, with the Celtics trailing by three and out Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis.
The cyclical style of gameplay the Raptors are using is wholly unique to them right now, and goes even farther when the regular rotations are mixed up and elements of the bench unit gets subbed in for starters, or vice versa. The fluidity and ease in which the whole team plays together will make it that much harder than in year’s past for any opposing defence to get the hang of Toronto’s plays. Improvisation comes from comfort and the Raptors are flush with it. Defensively, too, the team is drawing support from each other, with better overall communication and prove ‘em style moves like the scare VanVleet gave Chris Paul, sticking to the Houston guard like a haunting that finally had Paul flipping the ball out of desperation, anything to get Fred off of him.
But you can’t account for chemistry, or the way that in the Raptors bench’s case players from seemingly so disparate of backgrounds are going to end up getting along. If the added energy and ingenuity the bench gives during minutes is a 5th gear for the team to shift into, their deeply felt camaraderie and its encompassing effects are going to be the 6th. Playoff games are head games, and like Paul Pierce pointed out, every possession counts. To hesitate, to question a teammate, to get jammed up, each and all could be a misstep that leads to a game loss. And the first crack in a team’s confidence can be damaging enough to shake a seemingly solid foundation to rubble. The harmony of this Raptors team gives them an added edge, or that long elusive “it”, because between each and every one of them they can diffuse a potentially game sabotaging moment of stress. Even Ibaka, who can get from zero to one hundred real, exceptionally, quick, has been becalmed by the bench, regularly spotted dancing his foul troubles away on the sidelines.
The fact is the Raptors have a surplus of players they can put up against anything another team throws at them. It’s a luxury they haven’t had before, certainly not in the exhaustive realm of the playoffs. Add to this the ever-improving DeRozan, the growth and dependability of Valančiūnas, a Lowry that looks like he’s willing to come out strong in big games, plus the overall nonstop zeal of the bench, and the stage is set for the Raptors to evolve, handily, past any version of themselves still skulking in the collective memory of playoffs past.