Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Raptors’ Bench Mob now among the hunted

The Raptors bench is being tested in ways they haven't before.

The playoffs are a different breed.

If there is one organization and its fanbase that has had that narrative drilled into their minds, it is the Toronto Raptors. The past four regular seasons have brought 204 wins at a .622 clip, but a 17-24 (.415) record in the postseason. The biggest issue the team has faced over this period is the stagnation of their offense. Forcing Kyle Lowry to his right and blitzing him has become such a well-known ploy that head coach Dwane Casey even joked about using it against him in the all-star game.

DeMar DeRozan has had his fair share of trouble as well, with last year marking the first post-season he shot over 40 per cent from the field. He will be blitzed, too. That’s why the organization recognized the need to change from within, embraced a more democratic style of offense, and found a way to not ride the coattails of their co-franchise players for so long they struggle to operate at the same level in the playoffs.

The bench has become of the team’s greatest strengths this season, and so just as teams prepared to limit Toronto’s two all-stars before, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl have now been added to the hit-list.

Teams are now well aware of what this bench is capable of, and just how often they have either helped the Raptors rally or extend the lead for wins. A plus-20.2 net rating in almost 300 minutes of action can have that kind of effect.

Head coach Dwane Casey has often referenced the need for the Raptors to transition their mindset from being the hunter to being hunted, and while there may have been a time when the bench flew under the radar and could have been considered relative unknowns, those days are long gone.

“They’ve shored up their bench,” LeBron James said before the Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Raptors in a 122-119 thriller on March 21. “Poeltl, Siakam, Wright, VanVleet — who killed us in Toronto last game — and Miles do a good job of keeping their tempo when they make those subs.”

When in harmony, VanVleet’s three-point shooting and stoic leadership is perfectly complemented by Delon Wright’s more unorthodox manner of contorting his way through defenses. Pascal Siakam is the engine that never stops, while Poeltl prefers to operate in a subtler, yet just as effective manner. Miles is the man coming off curls or planted in the corner allowing all the magic to happen.

Just as DeRozan and Lowry have been forced to look in the mirror and address their weaknesses, it appears that time has arrived for the bench.

Since March 15, the unit has been outscored by 11 points over 44 minutes — a small sample size to be sure — but what stands out is the ways in which they’ve been tested.

Boston made it difficult for Casey to keep VanVleet on the court by turning to Jayson Tatum at the point and going with a big lineup, which caused problems for Delon Wright as well. The length and size of Boston’s guards negate the strengths of Wright, while also minimizing the time he may otherwise have to work through the mechanics of his shot and release in rhythm. They were outscored by seven points in nine minutes, in stark contrast to the home fixture in which they outscored Boston by 16 in 15 minutes.

The L.A. Clippers tested the bench’s frontcourt by throwing Boban Marjanovic and Montrezl Harrell at them, and while Marjanovic proved to be too of an immovable object, Harrell was an unstoppable force in much the same way Siakam usually is.

Harrell finished with 19 points on that night, and was such a pulsating figure on the night he even caught Siakam napping a few times.

So, at times, VanVleet will look too small on the defensive end and Wright will be unable to find the crevices that he’s usually so adept at. Siakam will get ignored on the perimeter or will be matched up with players who can rival his athleticism and length. Poeltl can be bullied in the post and, as we saw on Saturday night, Miles can hurt the team on both ends when his shot isn’t falling.

We’ve already seen how Boston can go about attacking the bench unit, but which other East playoff contenders and players can cause these problems for the Raptors in the postseason?

Milwaukee Bucks

Let’s start here since this appears a likely first-round matchup for the Raptors. Milwaukee is currently eighth, and although they’re tied with the Miami Heat in terms of record right now, the Heat hold the tiebreaker.

Over three games, the bench unit has been outscored by 17 points over 22 minutes. Malcolm Brogdon will return soon, and his near seven-foot wingspan is the type of frame that can cause VanVleet problems. Antetokounmpo will likely be playing over 40 minutes a game in the playoffs, and so the bench would probably see plenty of him as well. Siakam is the obvious candidate to guard him, and he will have his hands full.

Fortunately for the Raptors, with Greg Monroe now with the Celtics, there isn’t really a big on the Bucks squad who could have his way with Poeltl. Can Miles outdo Tony Snell/Jason Terry from the outside? One would hope.

One interesting point to note is how much slower the Raptors bench has been against the Bucks. While they usually operate at a steady pace of 96.53 possessions per 48 minutes, that number drops to 90.44 against Milwaukee. The deers have been criticized for having a roster of incredible athletes but playing at such a slow pace, but this is one instance where it proves effective for them.

Miami Heat

The bench unit has been outscored by 10 points in just 10 minutes against the Heat. They shot 6-for-18 and were bullied on the glass. Bam Adebayo is one of those guys who can pose a significant threat to Poeltl’s effectiveness.

Miami presents another team with plenty of options on the wings who can apply pressure on the Raptors’ backcourt while matching Siakam’s energy. We all know what James Johnson is capable of while the Dwyane Wade X-factor will always loom large. The Heat are a team that doesn’t make many mistakes, and this makes it harder for the bench unit to get out in transition. Their pace over 10 minutes has been 85.98, and that’s something that can’t continue in the playoffs.

Like Brad Stevens, trust Erik Spoelstra to have plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Philadelphia 76ers

In 13 minutes against the 76ers, the bench has been outscored by just a single point despite shooting a miserable 7-of-23 from the field. They’ve managed eight steals in that time, and so must do a better job of taking advantage of Philadelphia’s transition defense.

What will be most fascinating to see here is how Joel Embiid’s body is managed in the postseason. If he is trusted to play big minutes, he’s obviously someone who can bully his way past Poeltl and has done so throughout the season. Siakam, on the other hand, has done a good job defending Embiid, and so how the rest of Philly’s bench units stack up will have a big say in how the Raptors match up.

It’s hard to say how the Sixers will play it, since outside of the starting lineup of Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid that has played 600 minutes together, no other lineup has played over 100 minutes and Markelle Fultz is back, too. He’s got great size, which, again, would pose problems for VanVleet. If he’s on the court with Marco Belinelli, perhaps there is a work-around.

Again, Philadelphia are a turnover prone team and that is the area that must be most exposed if these two teams meet in the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers

The entire Indiana team, like the Raptors bench unit, is a scrappy bunch. They play hard, have a star in Victor Oladipo and a budding one in Myles Turner. They’re ranked in the top-10 defensively, and have outscored the Raptors bench unit by four points in 12 minutes.

Cory Joseph is a familiar face who leads the bench unit, while Lance Stephenson always finds a way to get under the skin of both the opposition and their fans. Domantas Sabonis has been more effective as a starter, but has had a lot of success with the Pacers this season since they’ve used him the right way.

Instead of asking him to be a stretch-4 as Oklahoma City did, Sabonis has used his six-foot-eleven frame to go to work in the post. This is something Poeltl is well equipped to cope with, and instead, his size should be a strength against Indiana. After all, he has shot 92.3 percent from the field against the Pacers over three games.

Miles missed the first game against the Pacers in Indiana but was a major factor in the fourth quarter of their most recent win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He should have his tail up for this series if it were to happen.

Washington Wizards

It appears unlikely the Wizards will fall to the eighth seed. They have the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic remaining on their schedule and should win one of the other three games against the Rockets, Cavaliers or Celtics.

The Raptors’ bench unit has only played four minutes against the Wizards (getting outscored by five while shooting 1-for-9) to this point, so there’s not much to make of there. John Wall’s return moves six-foot-seven point guard Tomas Satoransky back to the bench, and he will have a different confidence about him now having averaged 10.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and six assists while shooting 52.7 percent from three as 28 games as a starter.

Along with Kelly Oubre Jr., Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott, Jason Smith or Ian Mahinmi depending on what Scott Brooks decides to roll with, this is definitely another team that can keep the Raptors’ reserves in check. Add to that the fact that John Wall and Bradley Beal could arguably be favored in a matchup against Lowry and DeRozan, this is as tough a playoff matchup as there is out there.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Size is not a factor here. Tristan Thompson doesn’t have the tools to take advantage of Poeltl on offense, while Jeff Green should be a manageable matchup for Siakam. They key here is how often they will ignore the Cameroonian on the perimeter. Always expect disrespect from the Cavs in the playoffs.

Both bigs have posted good numbers over the course of the two games, and Cleveland’s defense to this point has shown nothing to suggest they can lock down any unit the Raptors put together.

The biggest threat to the Bench Mob’s success here is LeBron playing 40-plus minutes, as they could potentially go small-big with him, J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood/Kyle Korver, Green and Thompson. Again, who does VanVleet defend?

We’ve been operating of small sample sizes throughout this exercise, but the ones against Cleveland seem particularly irrelevant since the game in Toronto was against a Cavs team that doesn’t exist anymore, while the most recent fixture was played without Nance Jr., Hood, Thompson, Korver, Ante Zizic and head coach Tyronn Lue.

So, not including the Cavaliers and the Celtics, the Raptors bench unit sits at a minus-37 over a 61-minute sample. That shouldn’t nullify the plus-160 they’ve been in the other 238 minutes they’ve played, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

Scouting reports will be ramped up in the playoffs and attention to detail will be critical. The bench has been tremendous in unison, but individual weaknesses getting exposed have posed some questions that need answering. How they respond to those challenges will establish just how high the ceiling of this team really is.