Published On: Thu, Apr 26th, 2018

How an unlikely Raptors lineup buried the Wizards in Game 5

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TORONTO – NBA teams play 82 regular-season games before the playoffs begin, giving players, coaches, and scouts massive sample sizes of data to study heading into a postseason series, leaving little room for improvisation or secret weapons.

That’s what made the final nine minutes of the Toronto Raptors‘ Game 5 victory over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday so fascinating. With his team down five and Toronto’s season potentially hanging in the balance, head coach Dwane Casey dug deep into the well, rolling with a five-man lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and Jonas Valanciunas.

The unpredictable unit, which had logged a grand total of seven regular-season minutes and zero playoff minutes together before they found themselves sharing the court in the fourth quarter of Game 5, proved to be a stroke of genius for Casey.

A 9-3 run to start the final frame had Washington up 87-82 when DeRozan and Valanciunas checked in to join Lowry, Wright, and Miles with 8:52 remaining. By the time that unit was finally broken up in the final minute of the game, the Raptors found themselves up 106-93.

4th quarter (8:52-0:25) Raptors Wizards
Points 24 6
Field goals 8/15 2/14
3P 2/4 0/7
FT 6/6 2/2

“You’re searching, you’re trying to pull strings,” Casey reminisced postgame after stumbling upon what was his 82nd-most used lineup during the regular season.

“Jonas gave us some big minutes in the fourth quarter. We had the matchups that we liked in that situation. I thought Delon Wright did a good job down the stretch, handling the ball, gave us an opportunity for Kyle and DeMar to get off the ball a little bit more, and I thought that was the difference.

“The key was Jonas did a good job of moving his feet, guarding (Markieff) Morris, guarding their small lineup, which was huge. And that gave us an opportunity to stay with that lineup. I thought C.J. was huge at the four.”

There’s a lot to unpack there.

After spending much of his career watching fourth quarters from the bench in fear of opposing teams pick-and-rolling or small-balling the immobile big man to death, Valanciunas emerged as a more reliable closer for Casey this season. That hadn’t been the case through the first four games of this series, but with Serge Ibaka a no-show in Game 5, and the Wizards feasting on the glass (Washington posted an offensive rebound rate of 32.6%), Casey turned to Valanciunas to serve as the lone big man on the floor.

Valanciunas rewarded his coach with a fine two-way performance, even shockingly picking John Wall‘s pocket as the speedy point guard attacked him midway through the fourth.

Wright, whose hesitance to let it fly played a role in the Raptors’ undoing down the stretch in Game 4, was a more willing shooter in Game 5, and made numerous defensive plays on each of Wall and Bradley Beal in the fourth quarter. Wright capped his game with 11 points, three rebounds, two steals, an assist, and a block in the final 12 minutes alone.

Miles, who made just one of his eight 3-point attempts during the two games in Washington, only made one triple in the fourth quarter of Game 5, and was 2-of-7 overall. But, he soaked up some physically taxing minutes at power forward in a smaller lineup, and his gravitational pull on the Wizards’ defense gave Lowry and DeRozan some much-needed extra space to operate.

“I told my wife it’s like being on a date,” Miles told theScore of the extra attention the Wizards are paying him since he scored a combined 30 points on 9-of-15 shooting in Game 1 and 2. “Like, we’re literally eye to eye the whole time. And I’m just trying to move as much as I can, if I can screen for some guys or things like that, it’s creating space. So I’ve just got to be able to make the shots I do get – make the clean looks. And now the gauge of what a good look is changes. If you’ve got any space, you’ve got to carry the threat and be able to either knock it down or make that guy not give you space next time so it creates space for somebody else. That’s basically where I’m at now.”

And then there’s Toronto’s All-Stars, whose postseason struggles have been well documented in the past, and reared their ugly head again during a fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 4.

Lowry and DeRozan only combined for four points and four assists in the fourth quarter of Game 5, but both set the tone throughout the game. Lowry posted an efficient double-double (17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, 10 assists, one turnover) while chasing Beal around all night and effectively taking the Wizards’ star shooting guard out of the game. DeRozan, meanwhile, finished with 32 points on 50 percent shooting while logging a team-high 39 minutes.

In the end, the pair received the help they desperately needed three nights ago in Washington.

“We always prepare for any lineup that goes out there, even though we didn’t play much with that lineup this year,” DeRozan told theScore of the team’s closing combination. “We understand each other’s capabilities. When guys line up out there, we know what we’re all capable of doing offensively, defensively. It showed tonight. Everybody stepped up. Delon stepped up big. With CJ out there, he spaces the floor tremendously. You’ve got to worry about a knockdown shooter like him. We just exploited everything, individual wise, that we could.”

Whether Casey and the Raptors use that lineup to exploit the Wizards again will be one of Game 6’s burning questions, but it’s directly because of that unit Friday now serves as a potential gateway to the second round for Toronto instead of a potential season finale.

(Photos courtesy Getty Images)

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