Raptors' 'Bench Mob' has playoff foes on its hit list
Second unit boosts Toronto to record-breaking season
To take a page from Fred VanVleet, the Toronto Raptors bet on themselves.
After being swept away by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, many called for a rebuild and coaching change — but the organization stayed the course.
Toronto re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to keep its "big three" with DeMar DeRozan intact, while head coach Dwane Casey and his staff were kept on and went to work transforming the team's style of play to better fit the modern NBA game.
It all paid off. The Raptors enter the 2018 playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, where the road to the NBA Finals runs through Toronto, beginning with Game 1 against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. And perhaps it's only fitting that VanVleet and the Raptors' second unit, aka the "Bench Mob," have played an instrumental role in their record-breaking season.
The reserves have been so crucial that the team even launched a campaign on its Twitter account for the entire second unit to be named Sixth Man of the Year — an honour annually awarded to the league's best individual player who primarily comes off the bench.
"It goes back to the work that they put in," Casey said of his reserves. "Everybody wasn't sure of how they were going to come along and they have in a big way. They're nowhere near a finished product, and guys like Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam — their growth chart is out of this world."
The unit, primarily comprised of those four players plus sharpshooter C.J. Miles, is undoubtedly one of the league's finest.
The Raptors' bench averages nearly 42 points per game (tied for fourth in the NBA) and leads the league with a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of plus-8.3.
They also finished in the top five in numerous other categories, including assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage and rebounding.
The latter two stats are a credit to Poeltl, who shoots a team-leading 65.9 per cent from the field, is second on the club with just over a block per game, and is ninth in the league in offensive rebound percentage.
Poeltl's emergence along with the "Bench Mob" has done wonders for DeRozan and Lowry, most notably in the fourth quarter, where opposing defences have no choice but to respect the diverse skill set of the Raptors' reserves. That helps free up the Raptors' stars.
Siakam never seems to run out of energy, Miles can catch fire in a hurry from downtown, and VanVleet or Wright can take over ball-handling duties while holding their own defensively.
"It's much more difficult to key in, especially when we have a bench that can take over a game. With that, it makes our job a lot easier and it's not that predictable. Anybody can get it going and rolling," DeRozan says.
Toronto's all-star backcourt has had its share of post-season struggles, where their offensive numbers have taken a dip from their norms. Casey admits that heavy minutes in past regular seasons may have resulted in "worn-down versions" of DeRozan and Lowry by the time the playoffs rolled around.
The strong play of the bench has allowed Casey to keep his starters fresh and manage their workloads. At times, DeRozan and Lowry aren't even needed in the fourth quarter, simply because the second unit has put the game away.
But Raptor fans have also become accustomed to seeing a combination of both units on the floor in crunch time — a testament to the amount of confidence the coaching staff has in the bench.
Casey says that DeRozan and Lowry always used to feel like they needed to make the clutch plays, whereas now they have faith in other guys to step up.
CLUTCH!<br><br>Fred VanVleet knocks down the corner jumper to seal it for the <a href="https://twitter.com/Raptors?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Raptors</a>!<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WeTheNorth?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WeTheNorth</a> <a href="https://t.co/XTKCXVjknm">pic.twitter.com/XTKCXVjknm</a>—@NBA
"I just see the trust level in DeMar and Kyle in the young players and the respect they're getting across the league by other teams breaking up their rotations and bringing their starters back to play against them," Casey says.
Sixth Man of the Year?
VanVleet played four seasons at Wichita State University, helping a relatively unknown basketball program emerge into the national spotlight with a Final Four run in 2013.
Despite a successful collegiate career, the Rockford, Ill., native flew relatively under the radar during his time in college and went undrafted.
In 2016, VanVleet agreed to a two-year deal with the Raptors and has quickly grown into an important piece.
"I don't know why I haven't it heard it much, but Fred should be Sixth Man of the Year or at least mentioned. The things he's been doing leading that second group as a second-year player is incredible. He goes out there and plays like he's been in the league eight, nine, 10 years," DeRozan says.
Casey agrees that VanVleet should be in the conversation for the award and many others.
The 24-year-old trails only Houston's Chris Paul and Eric Gordon in individual net rating, demonstrating his value on both ends of the floor, and is averaging 3.3 assists per turnover (the eighth-best ratio in the NBA).
VanVleet left the regular-season finale against the Miami Heat with a right shoulder bruise and didn't return. Should the sophomore guard miss any time, it could loom large in the playoffs, especially against a talented Washington backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal.
"Fred VanVleet is one of the great stories in our league," Casey says. "Our management had the foresight to see this young man had something we were looking for — that toughness. I see a young Kyle Lowry in Fred VanVleet as far as his level of play, toughness, and basketball IQ."
VanVleet's three-point shooting alongside the length and unorthodox style of Wright has given the Raptors an additional backcourt tandem.
It's another asset Casey hopes could make a difference in the post-season.
"They make a mistake once, you don't have to tell them twice. They fit together," the coach says. "I saw a great picture after the game the other night of those two hugging each other. They're meant for each other because they cover up for each other in a lot of different ways."