The Raptors went with a big starting lineup in Game One of their second round series against the Cavaliers, but in the ever changing landscape of today’s NBA, head coach Dwane Casey must ignore the traditional matchups and start second year guard Norman Powell over center Jonas Valanciunas if he wants to win.
This isn’t an easy call for Casey. Valanciunas (“JV”) has been his starting center for five successful seasons and the big man has been nothing less than awesome in the postseason, at least he used to be awesome until this year. Telling a 24-year-old that he’s lost his starting job at this point in the season isn’t easy and could have future implications, but if the Raptors want to have a chance at getting by the heavily favored Cavs, that’s a bitter pill Casey is going to have to hand to JV.
JV had already been pushed into taking a back seat to Powell in round one out of necessity. For whatever reason, the high energy dominant center of the past three postseason runs hasn’t shown up yet and in his four starts (including Game One versus the Cavs), JV is a +/- of -11.5 points per game and in this case that +/- stat accurately reflects his impact on the games he’s started.
Powell, on the other hand, was a +14.3 points in his three starts so far this postseason (all against the Bucks) and there is no way to sugarcoat it, the Raptors would have lost that first round series if Casey hadn’t made the change.
The object of using a big starting lineup was to matchup DeMarre Carroll with LeBron James, Serge Ibaka with Kevin Love, and JV with Tristan Thompson. However, JV didn’t dominate Thompson and the lack of three-point shooting and poor perimeter defense quickly put the Raptors into an early hole they didn’t get out of. JV was a -9 points in the first quarter of Game One in Cleveland.
Like the red hot three-point barrage the Bucks buried the Raptors with early in that series, the starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan Carroll, Ibaka and JV (-5.8 points per game this postseason), didn’t score and couldn’t stop the Cavs (30 points and 4-7 from three in the first quarter) from scoring either.
The Raptors starting unit was +5.3 points in the three games Powell got the nod over JV.
As bad as a small forward matchup between the 6’4 Powell and the 6’8 reigning King of the NBA James looks and undoubtedly is, this postseason Powell has given the Raptors starting unit the elements they are going to need to survive the offensive onslaught in the opening minutes against the defending champion Cavaliers.
“The league is changing,” admitted Casey after practice on Tuesday. “The league is changing and believe me, you’ve got to change or you get stuck in the mud. It’s more of a scoring league now.
“We’ve got to score points. We’ve got to manufacture points and not get down cause the other team scores.
“We’ve got the players to do it, to put points on the board tit-for-tat.”
As it quickly became obvious against the Bucks, Powell gave the Raptors starters a third ball handler that frustrated Milwaukee’s efforts to disrupt Toronto’s offense by putting pressure on Lowry and DeRozan. Powell also provided a badly needed three-point shooting relief valve as he went 9-9 on threes as a starter in addition to creating a faster paced offense and another player that could drive and finish in the paint.
What the Raptors give up in size defensively with Powell they should gain in better perimeter defense and a harder to defend offense. They may or may not be able to stop the Cavs from scoring, but at least their own offense should be more effective.
There have also been calls for P.J. Tucker to get the start over Carroll, but the numbers don’t back up that move. The best two man unit for Toronto this postseason has been Carroll and Powell at +9.3 points. Powell and Tucker have been +3.4 points. Conversely, the worst two man unit has been Ibaka and Valanciunas at -6.0 points, so it isn’t that hard to see which two-man unit is the one that needs to be broken up.
Breaking up Ibaka and JV seems to be the Raptors answer to improve defense and offense. Five-man lineups with Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Valanciunas and either of Carroll or Tucker have been +4 points in the postseason. For the most part, JV has looked good coming off the bench and gives the Raptors a superior backup center.
Three years ago it was all about player development for the Toronto Raptors when they finally got back to the postseason after a five year absence, but this year is different. Coming off consecutive 50+ win seasons and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, winning in the postseason matters. It might ruffle some feathers, but coach Casey has to do what is necessary and the numbers say start Powell and bring in JV off the bench.