Building the Ideal Playoff Rotation for the Toronto Raptors

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Building the Ideal Playoff Rotation for the Toronto Raptors
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Since the core of the roster has zero postseason experience under its belt together, an ideal playoff rotation for the Toronto Raptors will have to be created from scratch.

There's literally nothing to go on from years past. No one on the team or coaching staff was around when the Raptors were eliminated in five games by the Orlando Magic in the opening round of the 2008 NBA playoffs. 

Head coach Dwane Casey is going to have his work cut out for him. The playoffs and regular season are entirely different entities. In the postseason, the style of play slows down, and rotations and lineups get much tighter. Since he has no idea how his players will perform under the bright lights, Casey will have to undergo a trial by fire and make adjustments along the way. 

One luxury he has going for him is the depth of the roster. He has a variety of options to work with, which is never a bad thing. Now he's going to have to narrow down the rotation, but at least he'll be comfortable if he ever has to go to the end of his bench to find production. 

Give credit where credit is due to a coach who has his team looking at the big picture and less at individual success. Everyone has checked their respective egos at the door in order to get the Raptors to where they are today.

If minutes are extended or cut for the playoffs, then so be it. It's all about making the most of this opportunity and emerging as more than an easy out for a more experienced club. 

 

Starters

Elise Amendola

Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry (38 minutes), SG DeMar DeRozan (39), SF Terrence Ross (23), PF Amir Johnson (30), C Jonas Valanciunas (23) *allocated minutes are shown in parentheses

No surprises here.

This is the starting lineup that helped get the Raptors to this stage. There's no need to make any drastic changes to a five-man unit that's proved its worth over and over again since the Rudy Gay trade back in December. 

With Terrence Ross inserted at small forward, the Raptors have won 53.4 percent of their games with the aforementioned lineup, outscoring their opponents by 64 points. This group is also ranked 18th in the NBA in offensive rating at 107.3.

The one thing that may hold Ross back when conjuring up a postseason rotation is something that's beyond his control: He's a sophomore. The same goes for Jonas Valanciunas, who is also in his second season in the NBA.

Both players have had to do their fair share of convincing in terms of earning and maintaining their roles on the Raptors. Foul trouble, inconsistencies and defensive errors have been the bane of their existence.

Would anyone blame Casey if he went with more battle-tested options instead? This is still a rebuilding situation in Toronto, and playoff experience will mean a great deal to the sophomores, but the team is still trying to win. If Ross and Valanciunas were to regress in late April and early May, a decline in playing time may come as a result. 

Amir Johnson has participated in playoff basketball before as a Detroit Piston in 2009. He will now experience it again as a Toronto Raptor, which is something he's really looking forward to, per Yahoo! Sports: "It's a satisfying, kind of overwhelming feeling. It's been six years since this team, this organization made it to the playoffs. This team has worked so hard. We deserved it."

His ankles remain a concern, so his minutes will need to be monitored. If all checks out, expect to see him leave it all out on the floor until his body tells him otherwise. The mere fact that he is playing meaningful basketball once again will be motivation enough. 

 

Second Unit

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

Lineup: PG Greivis Vasquez (27 minutes), SG John Salmons (15), SF Steve Novak (2), PF Patrick Patterson (28), C Tyler Hansbrough (15)

The Toronto Raptors bench has been in shambles ever since Patrick Patterson went down with a right ulnar collateral sprain, which has kept him out of action for the past 12 games.

In the meantime, Casey has experimented with different second-unit combinations with the hope that someone would step up and put points on the board, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun

We know Pat is down and, obviously, he can’t perform right now. When he comes down we want him to be fully healthy. We don’t want this to be a lingering thing, so until then we have guys that can step up. We have different combinations of players we can put in a rotation and that’s been one of our greatest strengths since the trade, that depth.

Patterson is expected to be back at 100 percent by the start of the postseason, if not earlier than that. The team needs his scoring, rebounding and defense off the bench with so much at stake in the coming weeks and beyond. 

According to HoopsStats.com, the Raptors bench mob is fourth-worst in the NBA, averaging just 25.9 points per night. Patterson and backup point guard Greivis Vasquez combine to score 18.4 of those points, so there's proof in the pudding as to how important Patterson is.

Tyler Hansbrough has 35 games of playoff experience as a former member of the Indiana Pacers. He can get to the charity stripe (2.9 attempts in 15.4 minutes) by being physical under the basket, but he can't be relied on to create his own offense, which may make him a liability in that regard.

You'll take his energy and toughness on the glass, though. For a team that's just 16th in the league in rebounding, a few extra boards here and there could make a world of difference. 

Speaking of possible liabilities, Steve Novak is the definition of a liability on the defensive end. He'll see spot minutes with the shot clock winding down or on final plays late in quarters because of his knack for shooting the basketball (43.3 percent from behind the arc), but that's about all he can be counted on for. 

There may be a reluctance to give veteran swingman John Salmons heavy minutes off the bench in the postseason until he gets his act together on offense. He's had just one positive plus-minus rating since March 10 (plus-15 against Boston on March 28). This cold streak could be his downfall.

Fortunately for him, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross can't play 48 minutes each, so Casey may have no other choice but to live and die with Salmons. 

 

Crunch Time 

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry, SG Greivis Vasquez, SF DeMar DeRozan, PF Patrick Patterson, C Amir Johnson

Playing two point guards at the same time is nothing new to Coach Casey. Having Lowry and Vasquez play alongside each other provides the team with two playmakers who can not only run the offense but defend multiple positions and play off the ball as well.

In 414 minutes together, the duo of Lowry and Vasquez has drastically improved Toronto's efficiency across the board, per Pro Basketball Talk:

  • Offensive rating: 108.3 (3.1 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Defensive rating: 94.7 (6.8 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Net rating: +13.6 (10.0 better than Toronto’s season mark)

DeRozan leads the Raptors in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging 5.7 points on 37.7 percent shooting. That percentage doesn't evoke much confidence, but that won't stop the first-time All-Star from being a go-to guy in dire situations. 

In 72 games, Valanciunas has only competed in 54 fourth quarters. Casey likes using smaller frontcourts, especially with Patterson at the 4 and the 6'9" Johnson at the 5. Valanciunas offers more in terms of size, but his two teammates are higher on the pecking order at times such as this. 

Johnson showed off his clutch gene against the Boston Celtics on March 28, hitting a game-winner with 7.1 seconds on the clock to put the Raptors ahead for good, 105-103. 

Patterson did the same on Jan. 27, stealing an inbounds pass and knocking down a 12-foot jumper to give Toronto a 104-103 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

In both situations, neither guy had a play drawn up for him. They created opportunities through movement and pure effort. DeRozan and Lowry are options A and B, respectively, in terms of who takes the last shot, but it's a blessing in disguise that there are at least two other options with experience in making key baskets. 

 

*All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com unless noted otherwise. All numbers are current as of March 29, 2014. 

Follow Toronto Raptors Featured Columnist Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports 

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