As you read these words, the Toronto Raptors are tearing through the National Basketball Association with relative ease. Toronto is an astounding 15-1 in their last 16 games. That includes signature wins versus the red-hot Blazers and the Boston Celtics. To highlight the Raptors’ superiority, both of those victories were 25 and 20 point-wins, respectively. Total blowouts. Then came the absolutely scintillating Houston Rockets — the same Rockets who had their 17-game winning streak snapped at the hands of Kyle Lowry and the NBA’s top bench unit.
In these set of games, Toronto has averaged a point differential of 14.8 (let’s round it up to 15). Stop for a moment and realize just how dominant that number is. In the last 16 games — or roughly 1/5th of the entire regular season — Toronto has beaten teams by an average of 15 points. Fif-teen.
That one glaring loss in the last 16 games? A thrilling 122-119 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Remember when Valanciunas was foule-… I mean, tied the game in the final moments with a ‘heavily-contested’ dunk. I’ll leave it at that. It’s not like it hasn’t been three weeks since that game and I should be totally over it.
With all that being said, let’s face it: Raptors fans have been spoiled lately.
Jonas Valanciunas with the dunk to send it to OT!pic.twitter.com/3RU8OUROHV
— MyNBAUpdate (@MyNBAUpdate) February 24, 2018
The number 16 happens to be a massively important one in Toronto. Not necessarily due to the Raptors’ accomplishments in the last 16 games, but rather what the final 16 of the regular season entail. Dwane Casey and his team have squarely entered the drivers seat of the Eastern Conference as their star guards have taken turns toying with NBA teams, all while the self-named “Bench Mob” has wreaked havoc on opposing reserve units.
In terms of crucial games, one could argue Toronto has three remaining. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics twice. The remaining 13 contests are littered with middle-to-lower tier Eastern and Western Conference playoff teams (Pacers twice, Heat, Pistons, Nuggets, Clippers, etc.) as well as their fair share of conference minnows (Nets twice, Mavericks, Magic etc.). An overall strength of schedule of .493 (ranked 14th in the NBA).
The prevailing question lingers: Should Dwane Casey and his staff opt to (strategically) rest the core players (Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Valanciunas) throughout the final run of the season?
This doesn’t fundamentally require Casey to sit all core players on certain nights, or even in more dramatic (and asinine) fashion — begin resting them until the playoffs begin. This would mean a carefully thought-out, game-specific strategy where for example, you would see Lowry and Ibaka rest one game, DeRozan another, and Valanciunas another. This would seemingly mean more minutes on the court for the bench players, but also gives opportunity to the so-far, so-good 13th and 14th roster spots occupied by Malcolm Miller and newly-acquired sharpshooter Nigel Hayes. In limited playing time, Miller has proved his worth at the back-end of the Raptors rotation, offering ‘3 & D’ ability while Hayes — who was recently plucked off the New York Knicks G-League affiliate, Westchester Knicks — shot a blistering 44% from 3PT range on 5.8 attempts per game in his dominating G-league stint. For those who went channel-surfing after Toronto took a 20-some point lead on the Knicks late in the 4th quarter, Nigel Hayes subbed in, and immediately hit two corner-threes — one being directly in front of the Knicks bench, all to whom he had some choice words and antics (at the 0:15 second mark, for those interested).
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) March 11, 2018
As much as resting players may make sense for Toronto, especially considering their league-best roster depth, many believe (and rightfully so) the Raptors can start their best five while effectively resting them at the same time. Lowry and DeRozan are naturally mid-high 30 minute players, but again — in the last 16 games, they’ve averaged only 29 and 31 minutes respectively. Saving those 6-10 minutes for both players during this last chunk of the season has been as important as ever. Raptor players aren’t used to this. Raptor fans aren’t used to this.
We’re all used to seeing the star-studded backcourt look lethargic and exhausted by seasons’ end.
The Toronto Raptors seem to be writing a different story this time around.