There’s no greater sign of a non-All-Star stepping up in a playoff game quite like The Podium Game. In most cases, the team’s best or most notable players will be tasked with representing the team at the post-game press conference, while the others are free to go about the locker room process as usual. The thinking goes that the star players will usually be the most central to a game and that they have the most wide-spread appeal in terms of gathering quotes and soundbites. There are occasions, though, on which a role player breaks through and gets the treatment, which is almost always cause for something funny, usually hassling from teammates. Friend of the site Alex Wong wrote about this for theScore this week, and as luck would have it, the Toronto Raptors came through with a dual “podium game” performance.
On Wednesday, it was Delon Wright getting the solo podium treatment and then Jonas Valanciunas joining Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Those four, as well as C.J. Miles, won Game 5 for the Raptors, and it’s hard to frame it otherwise – after a lackluster three quarters and change, head coach Dwane Casey called on that group. They’d go on a 24-6 run over the next eight-plus minutes, helping Toronto earn a 108-98 victory over the Washington Wizards and take a pivotal 3-2 series lead.
“It was great. Jonas gave us some big minutes in the fourth quarter,” Casey said. “We had the matchups that we liked in that situation. But I thought Delon Wright did a good job down the stretch, handling the ball, gave us an opportunity for Kyle and DeMar to get off the ball a little bit more, and I thought that was the difference.”
It sure was. That group had barely played together all year, and while Wright had been playing a big role in this series, Valanciunas hadn’t seen the fourth quarter yet. That was a questionable call to begin with, and the team’s rebounding woes left Casey little choice but to call on his starting center down the stretch. Valanciunas delivered, the Raptors finally begin sharing the ball, and a gassed Wizards closing unit sputtered in their final few minutes on offense. And the unfamiliarity is one thing, but four of these players have been together for some time now, and three of them have been playing together for years.
“We always prepare for any lineup that goes out there, even though we didn’t play much with that lineup this year,” DeRozan said. “We understand each other’s capabilities. When guys line up out there, what we’re all capable of doing offensively, defensively. It showed tonight. Everybody stepped up. Delon stepped up big. With C.J. out there, he spaces the floor tremendously. You’ve got to worry about a knockdown shooter like him. We just exploited everything individual wise that we could do.”
This feels like a very big victory considering how dicey it looked for most of the game, and given the statistical history of home teams winning a Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead. Still, that they needed a sparsely used group to go on a ludicrous fourth-quarter run speaks to the tight margins here, and Game 6 on Friday might require new podium game performances or new barely used groups.
DeRozan moving between roles
Coming off of a Game 4 in which his late-game usage (and usage overall, really) was criticized, DeRozan had a really, really nice game here. Early on, that meant shooting a lot, because the Wizards were basically trying to dare him to by staying at home on everything else. The result? DeRozan had 20 at the half and 30 points on 26 possessions through three quarters, but he only had one assist, somewhat emblematic of a sticky ball to that point.
“We’re not giving him anything. He’s earning everything he gets. We just want him to be a volume shooter,” Scott Brooks said. “He’s getting to the spots that he likes and we have to do a better job of challenging those spots.”
In the fourth, the lineup Casey rolled with gave DeRozan more options, and the Raptors shifted him into a slightly different roles. Primarily, he was used as a decoy pretty often, running off-ball sets once the half court was established and letting Wright run a lot of the late-game offense. DeRozan only scored two fourth-quarter points, but he dished four assists and only committed one turnover, while the Raptors poured in 29 points as a team.
“It’s trust,” Casey said. “That’s one reason why we played a certain style of basketball the entire year, for those type of moments for where he didn’t feel like he had to score and carry the load. But the trust factor and other guys were making shots, Delon was making shots, Kyle was making shots, C.J. was making shots, and that makes it much easier when guys are not turning down shots and taking the shots that are there when he’s kicking it out. It’s a double-edged sword, but his trust level, Kyle’s trust level is high and we’ve gotta continue that. That’s the way we have to play, whether we’re here, Washington, wherever it is, we gotta play to our personality.”
That quote is basically what the team was preaching after Game 4, when DeRozan had to take far too large an individual load as role players hesitated with open looks and made careless mistakes. DeRozan’s usage is always a shared credit or blame, and tonight he weaved in and out of the lead scorer role masterfully.
- Fred VanVleet once again sat out here. He shot Monday, practiced Tuesday, was upgraded to questionable, and went through a lot of testing before the game, running into screens from coaches and trying to drive into and finish through contact. The medical staff ultimately opted to hold him out again, and he’ll remain day-to-day heading into Game 6. He’s just not quite to where they want him in terms of navigating contact and how the shoulder responds to those final tests, it seems.
- The Raptors starters got out to another decent first quarter, once again outplaying the Wizards’ starting unit. They weren’t quite as effective in the third, but they remain a major plus for the series – they were -1 in 19 minutes here and still own a +12.0 net rating in 93 minutes in the series. This was the first time in the series they’d been outscored as a group.
- The group the Raptors closed with played all of seven minutes together this year with a -28.8 net rating. Here, they were +18 in nine minutes and were solely responsible for taking control of this game and closing it out.
- The Raptors had previously closed with this group with Serge Ibaka in Jonas Valanciunas’ place, and they closed out Game 2 effectively. There seems to be something there in this series, with Delon Wright standing out as the team’s best bench player and C.J. Miles’ spacing making up for any defensive trade-off.
- Of course, the big swing was Valanciunas, who was terrific all night. He’s been solid for the most part all series, and it was a common refrain on these pages to play him more (or at all) in the fourth quarter. With a +19 tonight, he now has a team-best +17.7 net rating in the series. The Raptors had a 78.1-percent defensive rebounding rate with him on the court here and 36.4 percent without him, and those numbers are 84 and 75.3, respectively, in the series.
- It follows from these two notes that the Kyle Lowry-Wright-DeMar DeRozan-Miles foursome has been solid. They’ve played 16 minutes in the series with a +79.3 net rating despite only playing 20 minutes together (-24.9 net rating) all year.
- The all-bench look the Raptors used tonight survived as a +1 in six minutes. That was a great boost without Fred VanVleet, as that particular iteration was not particularly effective during the regular season.
- Lowry is second behind Valanciunas in net rating (+10.0), and it’s still only the starters with positive marks for the series. surprisingly, Lowry-and-bench variations were -6 in three total minutes.
- DeMar DeRozan-and-bench was -5 in a minute but a version with Norman Powell was +4 in two minutes.
- Because it was a Game 5, I wore a UCLA colorway and Powell was a +1 in eight minutes. Game 5 Powell, without fail. (He didn’t do much but he was better than he’d been earlier in the series.)
- The Wizards starters were a -1 in 22 minutes. Yes, it’s the odd night where both team’s starting units were slight negatives because of staggering. They now own a -10.0 net rating in 80 minutes in the series
- Washington only used their all-bench group for four minutes – in a second-quarter game of chicken between coaches – and were a -2.
- A John Wall-and-bench unit went +5 in one minute. Wall played 44 minutes on the night, is still making his way back to full health following knee surgery, and looked exhausted by the end. Of course, he played 43 minutes on Sunday and looked just fine, so maybe he can handle that workload.
- Mike Scott was a +5 again and honestly, I’m done with this man. It’s not funny anymore. Dude has a +14.4 net rating and 79.7 true-shooting percentage in the series. Go away so I can enjoy your resurgence again outside of this series.
- Delon Wright estimated that he had 30 people get on him to shoot more, including family and people on social media. Asked about Wright shooting with more confidence tonight, Dwane Casey offered: “Well, he made one from Barrie, I think, is that what it is up north?”
- Jonas Valanciunas got the podium treatment, too, showing up in a suit. Kyle Lowry urged everyone to “ask the guy with the nice suit on all the questions,” and Valanciunas added, “Please. I speak four languages.”
- I’ll be posting some updates/quotes/T-shirt news/etc regularly on my Instagram story throughout the playoffs.
- Drake talked a ton of trash with the Wizards all night. Fun back and forth.
- I’m not sure Bradley Beal knows how a playoff series works, exactly: “I like our chances, we’re very confident. It’s a homecourt series and it’s best two-out-of-three and for someone to win they got to win on the road, that’s what our goal is.”
- The Raptors held a moment of silence for the victims of Monday’s tragedy before the game. The Raptors, Wizards, and the NBA are all making donations to the Toronto Strong fund.
- I hope everyone had a great time in Maple Leaf Square tonight. I know the weather wasn’t great and the Leafs outcome didn’t turn out the way we may have hoped, but it’s incredibly cool that so many big games were taking place in the city at the same time and that people could come together to enjoy them.
- The Raptors and Wizards will play Game 6 at 7pm on Friday on ESPNN/NBA TV and Sportsnet One.