WASHINGTON — In each of the opening games of this playoff series between Toronto and Washington, the Dwane Casey of today made moves that would have caused the Dwane Casey of five years ago to recoil in horror.
Late in Game 1, he inserted Lucas Nogueira, the little-used Brazilian centre with the wing span of a two-lane road, who promptly altered the game defensively while making a couple of sweet passes on the offensive end.
Late in Game 2, it was Lorenzo Brown, the guard who spent most of the season playing for Toronto’s developmental G-league affiliate, who was playing fourth-quarter minutes, even when the outcome was still in doubt.
And in both cases, as he has done for much of the year, Casey started the contests with OG Anunoby, a rookie, at small forward.
That the Raptors have made much use of a deep bench in this record-setting season is not exactly a new story. They had the fourth-highest scoring bench in the NBA, and the best bunch of reserves as judged by point differential when they were on the floor.
But that development, much talked about this year, also carried with it the question of whether it could be carried into the post-season. Received basketball wisdom is that coaches tighten their rotations during the playoffs, giving starters heavier minutes — partly because there are more off days — and sharply limiting the contributions of the supporting players. Casey has said repeatedly this year that he knows the Raptors are doing things differently, and he has insisted that will not change.
So far, he is living up to his word.
“It’s what we’ve done all year. I trust everybody that’s under contract,” Casey said on Friday morning as his team prepared for Game 3. “I’m willing to use everybody under contract. Because I’ve seen what they’ve done, I see what they do in practice. I saw what they’ve done in training camp. I saw what they did the few games that they played in the G League.”
The coach makes it sound like no big deal when he puts it like that, but one only has to look at his lineup deployment from previous seasons to understand how much of a departure this has been from what Casey himself used to do. In his first visit to the playoffs with the Raptors, in 2014, Casey played DeMar DeRozan for more than 40 minutes per game, and Kyle Lowry just under 39 minutes. Four more players averaged more than 27 minutes.
In this season, only three players averaged at least 27 minutes: DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, with the first two playing significantly less than they did five seasons ago. That trend has held in the playoffs, where nine different players have averaged at least a dozen minutes. Without the injury to Fred VanVleet, that number would almost certainly have been 10 players.
Much like the way the game has changed in recent years toward increased shooting of three-pointers, the Raptors are trying to turn conventional basketball wisdom on its ear by playing more players more often. And because Casey has used his Leatherman roster all season, mixing up all kinds of diverse lineups, the players say they are comfortable with whoever happens to be next to them on the floor.
Asked on Friday if it was tough to adjust to the frequent juggling, DeRozan said: “Nah, it’s expected. It’s easy. It’s simple. We’ve been doing it all year, it’s nothing new for us.”
It doesn’t always work — Casey went back to Nogueira in Game 2, and he committed five fouls and two turnovers in five minutes. But if he comes back with him again, it won’t throw anybody off.
“Anybody come in, we embrace it, we give them the confidence like they started the game with us, and that’s just the confidence that we have with all our guys,” DeRozan said.
Somewhat ironically, the increased bench usage has come as Casey has settled into a comfortable starting five: the All-Star guards, Anunoby, Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. By this time in previous playoffs, the coach had normally shuffled his starting lineup at least once.
“Before we had to scramble, let’s try this, try this, before the game, and it kind of throws us all off, you have to try to make that adjustment on the fly,” DeRozan said. Now they have their starting group, and when they start mixing things up later, it feels planned and deliberate.
One could say the same for much of what the Raptors have done this season: the new offence, the off-season roster changes, the increased use of the bench. All of it comes from a new-school way of analyzing the sport, where you trust what the data says about optimizing your lineups, instead of trusting traditional basketball instincts.
That Casey, who just turned 61 last week, would be the one deploying this interchangeable roster didn’t seem that certain as late as last spring. But he’s the one doing it now. Doing it rather artfully, too.
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