Thursday night was about the Raptors starters. In game three, the Sixers starting group soundly beat them for the first time in the series. That was where the Raptors lost the game, and that’s where the focus should be, right? If the starters, who had dominated throughout the playoffs, couldn’t get the job done, then it’s firmly on them, because they’d be carrying the Raptors throughout the playoffs and making up for the other minutes that the team simply couldn’t win. Without the starters holding it together, the team had no chance of winning any of the games they’d played to that point, so the starters struggling was the cause of this loss, surely.
Which doesn’t feel entirely fair, though in part accurate.
Those other minutes? The Raptors have lost those in seven straight games. The bench had struggled to give the Raptors anything yet in the playoffs, and although there was at least one moment for Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka where they had some positive impact, it was almost never when they were on the court together and usually the best they did was to hold their own. Yet, the Raptors rotation stayed the same. The starters stayed in for the first nine minutes or so of every half, and then it was Siakam and the bench for a stretch, then the starters slowly mixed back in while Siakam got his own rest leading back to the starters to close out the half. The pacing stayed the same too, strong minutes, into weak minutes, then into strong minutes again.
The problem is, the nature of basketball is that eventually everyone struggles at some point. Eventually, every bad subset of minutes will hit a peak and every good subset of minutes will hit a valley, and that meant that the starters would eventually have a rough game, as they did in game three. This was coming at some point in these playoffs, and there was going to be an answer necessary to avoid the Raptors simply losing the game where it did happen, and the result was all too straightforward in this game.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a possible answer for the Raptors, some way they could’ve addressed this to try to find better minutes. The Sixers, who also have a weak bench, have found a solid answer of their own, sending some of their starters out earlier in the game and mixing in the bench players at that point to try to keep more starters on the floor at all times and using their bench guys to complement the stars, and that has allowed them to take advantage of the Raptors’ bench minutes with their starters who are in the mix. That has also created minutes for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to shine against weaker Raptors groups and helped them win game two even with the Raptors starters having a good game.
The Raptors knew this was a problem earlier than the playoffs even. The bench being weaker than last year’s group has been a storyline underneath the Raptors season all year, and the injuries the team has dealt with have definitely allowed some of those issues to go under the radar, with the assumption that they’d find a resolution once the Raptors got healthy, and that just never seemed to materialize. Especially, with the Marc Gasol/Jonas Valanciunas swap sending out Delon Wright and CJ Miles in the deal, that further weakened that depth.
Still, the Raptors could’ve made an attempt to address those minutes, to find a solution to take some of the pressure off the Raptors’ starting lineup to dominate all of their minutes and to make the variance less punishing when the Raptors starters eventually had a rough game, and the team didn’t seem to be looking to do that in the playoffs. OG Anunoby’s absence is definitely playing a role in some of these struggles, but there’s also been time to adjust for that and find solutions. Part of winning in the playoffs is reacting to changing circumstances, and that’s something the Raptors haven’t yet done in this series, and that’s creating advantages for the Sixers in this series.
Heading forward, not just against the Sixers, but also against any other potential future playoff opponents if the Raptors do escape this series, Nick Nurse needs to find ways to mitigate the minutes the starters aren’t on the floor. Playoff opponents are going to have the focused scouting to take away the initial gameplan that the Raptors want to execute and force them to win in other ways, and the more tools you have in your kit to create winning minutes, the harder that is for an opponent to execute.
Thus far, the Raptors have won their playoff games through the same method every time, the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam creating large amounts of great offense and the defense holding up with the other members of the starting lineup. On Thursday night we saw the first time where that strategy slipped and there wasn’t much left to hold the Raptors up in that game, and that’s a question the starting lineup needs to find an answer for now.