“When are you coming back?”
VanVleet injured his right shoulder during the final game of the regular season at Miami, and had played only three minutes over the first five games in the series. He powers Toronto’s devastating second unit, which posted a net rating of plus-17.1 per 100 possessions — second only to the Philadelphia 76ers starters among lineups who logged more than 300 minutes this season.
“He just keeps us all calm out there, even when things are not going right,” Siakam said. “He just controls the tempo. We just have a cool factor when he’s there.”
VanVleet fully assumed his critical role in Game 6 on Friday night. It wasn’t a statistically impressive evening for him — five points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field, with four rebounds and four assists — but for the first time in the series, with VanVleet exuding that calm and coolness in the second unit, the Toronto Raptors truly looked like the team that dominated the Eastern Conference this season.
Not coincidentally, they closed out the Washington Wizards in six games, winning 102-92, the crucial stretch being a six-minute run to start the fourth quarter by the vaunted bench unit when it reversed a five-point deficit into a three-point advantage.
“Just added Freddy to the group, that was the difference,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “He was the difference. That little group has a playing personality, and he does make a difference with that group. He’s kind of the engine, the toughness, that little birdie on the shoulder. I thought it really propelled Pascal and those other guys to give them a sense of confidence.”
The unit composed of VanVleet and Siakam, along with Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Jakob Poeltl is yet one reason why it’s reductive to regard the 2017-18 Raptors as nothing more than a latter-day extension of the Raptors of disappointing postseasons past. Yet at the same time, continuity has become an essential part of Toronto’s identity and, in a certain sense, its underlying strength, as the Raptors move into the conference semifinals for the third consecutive postseason but look to avoid the unceremonious exits they’ve endured in previous years.
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakim convert on the pick-and-roll in the 2nd quarter.
After six seasons together with only a single conference finals appearance, few around the league would’ve questioned a decision last summer to break up the core pieces of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. Likewise, had Lowry chosen to go the Chris Paul route when his contract expired last June and move on from a 50-plus win team that has fallen short of its goals, few would’ve batted an eye.
“When you do something repeatedly and it doesn’t work, you have to figure out some different ways to go about it, if possible,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said.
Ujiri raised eyebrows last spring when following the Raptors’ sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he demanded a “culture reset” in Toronto. He explicitly criticized the one-on-one style of play that doomed the Raptors every spring, and challenged every member of the organization to adopt more progressive thinking about how to improve their job performances. Moving forward, he would hold everyone, including himself, accountable.
“After talking to these guys — whether it was coach, DeMar or Kyle — they felt it was possible,” Ujiri said. “We just had to figure out the ways to go about it. I’d say sometimes the grass is greener where we stand.”
Despite what was a radical edict in a league where basketball operations chiefs are notoriously politic and reluctant to call out their own coaches, players or colleagues publicly, Ujiri decided to bring back four of the five starters and forge ahead with the team that chalked up five fewer regular-season wins and six fewer postseason wins than the previous season.
“I look at it like, you have a long-term girlfriend,” DeRozan said. “You get into an argument with her. Things aren’t great. But that doesn’t mean you need to break up.”
Relationships require work, and the Raptors ultimately concluded that it wasn’t the core that needed to change, but the philosophy. The margin for growth in Toronto wouldn’t be in the component parts — though each would have to improve — but more so in the way they’re applied and used.
“Guys can still grow in this league — not just from 19 to 23, but from 28 to 32 — whether they become better 3-point shooters, better playmakers, or better leaders,” Casey said.
Lowry would continue his maturation process, continue to develop empathy. DeRozan would need to be a more vocal leader, and a player willing to devote himself to a new system that demanded more playmaking and efficiency and less freelancing. Both he and Valanciunas would need to expand their range on the floor, and the latter would need to modernize what, at times, could be a mechanical game.
One truth that often goes overlooked in pro sports is that the longer a guy stays in a place with a team, the more ownership he feels over the operation. As his legacy becomes more inextricably linked with the team, the sense of responsibility for the success or failure of the team grows. So it is for Lowry, who blossomed as an All-Star in Toronto, and for DeRozan and Valanciunas, who have spent their entire careers with the franchise. Blow it up, and the compounded wealth that comes with that continuity evaporates.
“Sometimes you have to keep it together, because there’s nobody better than the guys you’ve failed with,” DeRozan said. “You might not have accomplished the goal, you do understand how to regroup.”
DeMar DeRozan tells Kyle Lowry ”you just want me to answer everything” after the two were asked a question about their minutes played in the Washington-Toronto series.
Then there’s the improvement that accompanies familiarity on the court. As much as Lowry and DeRozan play the old married couple at the postgame news conference — with Valanciunas providing dry comic relief when he joins them — their sense of timing and trust was a key factor in the Raptors’ vaulting to 59 wins this season and finishing atop the Eastern Conference standings.
“It’s kind of like twins, even when they’re away from each other, what’s that called?” DeRozan asked.
“It’s kind of like twin telepathy, in the sense that you just have that feel where, I see him doing a certain thing and I just know. I know how he understands rotations of defense. There are times when, I know he’s seeing something — and I know what his next option is because we’ve been playing together for so long. It becomes second nature for me and Kyle.”
Casey said he marvels at how Lowry and DeRozan will simply make eye contact in early offense and orchestrate a level choreography that wasn’t consistently achievable a few years ago. He has noticed how Valanciunas knows the precise spot off a pick-and-roll where Lowry can deliver the perfect pocket pass.
“The synergy and rhythm that’s grown and developed is a product of continuity,” Casey said. “There’s terminology amongst each other — that takes time. The great thing about it is that it’s not a finished product.”
For a team that needed to extend possessions with coherent second and third options, and needed structure to preside where isolation used to, that twin and triplet telepathy is vital. Yet, just as the core needed additional time to refine its structure, a reformulated and efficient supporting cast could bolster that improvement.
Enter the Toronto bench unit, and the trust afforded them by Casey. Time and again this season — and in the clincher Friday night — the five reserves were allowed to build their rapport with one another. Whereas many teams regard the opening minutes of the second and fourth quarter as an inconvenient necessity in a league where starters simply can’t play the full 48, the Raptors thrive watching their bench annihilate the competition. By the time opponents reinsert their starters, the Toronto six-through-10 is just getting warmed up.
To wit, DeRozan on Friday night didn’t make his return in the fourth quarter until the 3:31 mark, in a clinching game with a single-digit margin. In contrast, both John Wall and Bradley Beal played more than 40 minutes in a Game 6 loss for Washington.
During their first 10 seasons together in Utah, Karl Malone and John Stockton reached the conference finals three times but usually bowed out in the first round or conference semis. It wasn’t until their 11th and 12th season together, measurably past their individual primes, that they reached the NBA Finals. The decisive factors: Twin telepathy and a supporting cast that complemented it.
“There’s a huge case to break it up, but it takes balls to stick with it,” Lowry said. “You have to be mentally tough enough to say, ‘Look, I believe in what we’re doing, even if we haven’t reached our goals. We’re going to keep doing it.'”