Raptors are long, athletic and old enough to compete with the best

The Toronto Raptors were stuck in mud. Their best players were struggling to find a groove and Trae Young kept the Atlanta Hawks in a groove offensively, leaving Nick Nurse to look for some kind of spark.

A bench unit of Patrick McCaw, Terence Davis, Norman Powell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Serge Ibaka is what the head coach turned to with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter and the Hawks leading by one, and with just over four minutes remaining, that five-man group had given the Raptors a 112-91 lead. That Atlanta somehow managed to make the affair a one-possession game at one point is a topic of discussion for another day, but what that 22-point turn of events did do was create a conversation between two talking heads on Twitter. Because of course.

Kendrick Perkins, a big believer in these Raptors, expressed his admiration for the depth Toronto has and considered them right behind the Milwaukee Bucks in that regard when fully healthy. Ryan Hollins didn’t agree.

One of the reasons Toronto was viewed as a possible seller before the season began is because of the older veterans on expiring deals. Marc Gasol will be 35 in a week, Kyle Lowry is turning 34 in March, and Serge Ibaka hit 30 in September. Lowry has since re-signed, but even that one-year extension was believed to make him even easier to trade, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe at the time.

Now the Raptors are looking like East contenders but aren’t really because they’re too young? Something doesn’t add up. So, naturally, I decided to compare the core rotations of the best teams in the conference and see where Toronto stacks up.

Did I include Patrick McCaw in the core eight of the rotation to bump up the ring total? Who’s to say. But he has been a part of the rotation thus far and Nurse has given no indication that that will change anytime soon. While Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher are likely to figure on some level during the playoffs, focusing on the core eight helps establish a clearer reflection of who will occupy the bulk of the postseason minutes.

Only the Bucks are older, but the Raptors have played the most playoff games and have the priceless experience of knowing what it takes to win it all. Battle tested, as Perkins would say. Ibaka leads the team in playoff games played with 133, while Lowry and Gasol are second and third, respectively, with 86 and 83. Who can forget Ibaka reminding the Raptors locker room after they fell into an 0-2 hole against the Bucks that he knew what it took to get out of it, having done it against Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and the Spurs during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Marc Gasol’s old head is why Erik Spoelstra referred to him as someone who doesn’t get sea sick in the game’s biggest moments. And Lowry, well, NBA Finals Game 6.

With Lowry and Gasol, their influence particularly matters because of just how much they dictate what Toronto does on both ends of the floor. There will undoubtedly be times when Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and others look to one of the two to get the offence back on the straight and narrow or spark the team defensively and they have come through on several occasions this season and the odds will be in their favour of doing so in the postseason. The Raptors have a net rating of plus-10.9 over 907 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, when Lowry and Gasol are on the court together.

Of the younger players, 25-year-old VanVleet is someone who has always looked wise beyond his years and those winning habits that seem to have been instilled in him well before he was with the Raptors played a major role in helping Toronto win the championship. Siakam warps all expectations on the relationship between time and progress, learning things in a month that would require most six. Also true: he has played as many playoff games as Wesley Matthews.

Now, viewed in isolation, has Milwaukee added enough experience that solidifies their status as favourites to this point? Sure. The additions of Matthews and Kyle Korver will give them players unafraid of big moments, and although Robin Lopez isn’t a key rotation piece, he has always been viewed as someone who provides a positive intangible value to any locker room he’s in. On top of all that, the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and George Hill will all be champing at the bit to erase the bitter memory of losing four straight to the Raptors last year, and that may prove the biggest source of at least going one round better this year.

If there are teams that seem too young, it’s probably the Heat and the Pacers. Miami will be depending on two rookies in Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro, as well as a second-year player in Duncan Robinson. Their core only has 151 games of playoff experience, a number only higher than Indiana’s 89. Victor Oladipo will undoubtedly be a boost to their rotation — to what extent remains to be seen — but what the likes of T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and the Holiday brothers can produce under the bright lights is open to debate.

But hey, let’s add Long Athletic Siakam to the daily vocab.

Waste Yutes?

Later in their back-and-forth, Hollins specifically points to OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher as too young to defend Giannis, since Siakam can’t be depended on to do it alone.

Despite Siakam starting out on Giannis in their lone matchup in Milwaukee early in the season, I’d be surprised if that continued going forward due to the potential foul trouble it could cause the Cameroonian star. It’s also highly unlikely that Chris Boucher spends any meaningful time defending Giannis outside of foul trouble to all the other primary options. Ditto, Norman Powell. Anunoby has defended a variety of players this season and over the course of his first few seasons and has never seemed too small for the occasion. His first bit of NBA recognition came defending James Harden — arguably the greatest scorer of this era — on the road. He should pick up the assignment to start games with Siakam and possibly Hollis-Jefferson occupying a bulk of the other time.

But that’s all besides the point, too, as Perkins points out once again. The Raptors turned around the series against the Bucks last year by walling off the paint and challenging Milwaukee as well as Giannis to score in ways that they hadn’t really needed to prior to Game 3 of that series. As much was made of Kawhi Leonard taking over as the primary defender last year, it really was about a tremendous team effort. Toronto did as good a job as one can hope to do in minimizing the opportunities Giannis had to take those massive strides, walling off the paint and using Gasol and Ibaka’s size to double him to perfection. Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball does a far better job with his video than I could in writing, so I’d strongly recommend watching it below if you haven’t already:

Giannis has already admitted he spent a lot of time in the off-season figuring out how to attack these schemes better, but you can bet Nurse will spend quality time in the Jank Lab figuring out every which way he can present some new challenges to the Greek Freak. He’s done it this season against Leonard, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and initiated a defensive movement against James Harden. Who’s to say he can’t come up with the goods again?

Toronto losing to Milwaukee or any of the other top teams in the East is certainly a possibility, but it most certainly won’t be for a lack of experience or preparation.

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