Raptors vanquish Wizards to advance to 2nd round
Toronto plays winner of Cavs, Pacers series
Dwane Casey had been asked the question so many times since the post-season began: Sure the Raptors' second unit was excellent in the regular season, but could they carry that over to the playoffs, when the arena lights are the brightest and the stars step up their games?
Friday, in the Raptors' biggest game so far this season — and on the road — the Toronto Raptors coach and his "bench mob" answered with an emphatic yes.
Kyle Lowry scored 24 points, but it was the bench, finally complete with the return of Fred VanVleet, that came up big in a 102-92 victory over Washington. The Raptors clinched the series four games to two, and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third straight season.
"I'm still looking for that manual that says you can't play your second unit. They're too young, they're too this, they're too that. As long as they're productive, they're going to play," said Casey. "They've been good to us all year, and they closed it out for us tonight."
DeMar DeRozan added 16 points for Toronto, while Jonas Valanciunas finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Pascal Siakam scored 11 in an energetic performance.
Raptors keep their composure
The home team had won each of the first five games of the series, the Raptors taking a 3-2 lead with Wednesday's 108-98 victory at the Air Canada Centre. But Toronto was intent on preventing a Game 7.
The Raptors trailed by 12 points early, but kept their composure. Behind 78-73 to start the fourth quarter, the Raptors' second unit galloped out to a 15-5 run, steered by VanVleet, who'd played less than three minutes in the previous five games due to a shoulder injury.
"[I felt] super comfortable," VanVleet said. "That's just kinda the person I am, the player I am, on the road, hostile environment. I just wanted to be a support guy out there to kinda ease the storm a little bit. Running the team and playing defence and stuff, I can do those things in my sleep. It's just gonna take a little bit to get the scoring."
A Siakam dunk punctuated the run and put Toronto up by five points with 6:51 to play. Siakam took flight for another dunk that stretched the Raptors' lead to 96-88, then four consecutive points by Lowry made it a 10-point game with 1:55 to play, sending heartbroken Washington fans pouring toward the exits.
VanVleet makes instant impact
VanVleet had five points, four rebounds, and four assists, but the backup guard's toughness and infectious confidence, said Casey, changed the game's momentum.
"We tried not to make a big deal out of it while he was out, keep the other guys motivated, but he was the difference," Casey said. "That little group has a playing personality that he does make a difference with that group. He is the engine, the toughness. It is that little birdie on the shoulder, and I thought it really propelled Pascal and those other guys to give them a sense of confidence."
WELCOME BACK, <a href="https://twitter.com/FredVanVleet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@FredVanVleet</a>! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BetOnYourSelf?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BetOnYourSelf</a> <a href="https://t.co/V1jMt4kgTs">pic.twitter.com/V1jMt4kgTs</a>—@Raptors
That little group would outscore Washington's bench 17-2, which came as no surprise to DeRozan.
"It's nothing new to us," DeRozan said. "Like I said, them guys been doing it all year, been countless games where our starters didn't even see the fourth quarter because of our bench. What those guys are capable of . . . they're capable of going out there and playing against starters on the other team and competing at a high level."
'This is a team'
In previous post-seasons, the lion's share of Toronto's offence went through DeRozan and Lowry. Casey spent a good chunk of his off-season developing his bench to help alleviate that, and the second unit's strong play is a big reason the Raptors won a franchise-high 59 games in the regular-season, and has Casey the favourite to win coach of the year.
"I think the overall confidence that we have in our group, coach has kind of just instilled that into all of us," Lowry said. "This is a team. It's not about individual success, it's about team success."
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Casey would have his vote for coach of the year, and praised Toronto's bench.
"They played hard, their bench is really good," Brooks said. "VanVleet plays winning basketball. He has a good spirit about him. He didn't shoot the ball well, but he makes big shots. That unit just moves the scoreboard and in that fourth quarter that's what they did."
DeRozan played just 33 minutes Friday, while Lowry played 31. A weary John Wall, who scored 32 points, and Beal (23), on the other hand, played 86 minutes between them.
The reduced minutes for DeRozan and Lowry could pay off big in the second round, when the Raptors will either face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight season, or the Indiana Pacers.