Published On: Wed, Apr 18th, 2018

Why the Raptors remind Grant Hill of the 2009-10 Suns

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Three years ago, before the Raptors faced Washington in the first round of the NBA playoffs, then-Wizard Paul Pierce said Toronto lacked a certain “it” factor. Pierce’s words proved prophetic, as the Raptors were swept in four games, losing by a combined 56 points after a 125-94 Game 4 demolition.

These are not those same Raptors. Through two games in their first-round series against the Wizards, Toronto has carried over the identity it’s spent the entire 2017-18 regular season developing, after years of working toward becoming a true contender.

Dwane Casey used 11 players in Game 1 and all 13 in Game 2, with seven different players making at least one 3-pointer in the Raptors’ 130-119 victory on Tuesday.

NBA TV analyst Grant Hill knows about playing on a deep squad. He was a member of the Phoenix Suns during their 2009-10 season when the team made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals. Hill sees similarities between that Suns team and this Raptors one.

“Dwane (Casey) has gotten guys to embrace in using the bench all season,” Hill told theScore. “It looks like the guys don’t really care who scores. It’s just about the Raptors scoring as a team. We had closers in (Steve) Nash and (Amar’e) Stoudemire, and they have that in Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan). The depth, though, can be a huge weapon in the postseason.”

That 2009-10 Suns team had a second unit led by Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, and Lou Amundson, who together earned the trust of head coach Alvin Gentry during the regular season, in which the team won 54 games.

Just like the Raptors’ five-man bench unit of Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles, who, per, outscored opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, Phoenix’s bench mob helped alleviate the pressure from the starters during the 82-game schedule.

“It helped preserve the starters during the season,” Hill said. “You could let them go. They came into the game and there was rarely a period where we lost a lead.”

In the postseason, Phoenix’s bench unit did more than just play opposing teams to a draw. In a Game 3 win over the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Dragic came off the bench and scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, giving the Suns a 3-0 lead in a series they would eventually win in four games. In Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, the five-man bench unit combined for 54 points and shot 9-for-18 from beyond the arc in the win, while none of the Suns’ starters had a positive plus-minus.

“There would be no drop-off,” Hill said. “They would win the battle against the opposing team’s bench. They had great chemistry.”

The Raptors have watched their second unit contribute in the same way. In Game 1 against Washington, it was Wright who scored 18 points in 25 minutes.

Heading into Game 2, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks talked about his team having to pick its poison when it comes to defending against the Raptors. “It’s not like we’re guarding two players on the floor.”

In that second game, Miles hit four 3-pointers and scored 18 points in 22 minutes, including a big three during Toronto’s 17-4 fourth-quarter run after the Wizards trimmed the deficit to five points. Wright added 11 points, three steals, and two blocks, including one on John Wall during that late run.

“When guys can shine in their roles and have those moments,” Hill said. “You have a pretty tough team to prepare for.”

Hill attributes the success of the 2009-10 Suns, a team he calls the most special group he’s been around, to Nash creating an environment for unselfish play, and to the team’s front office for recognizing the importance of chemistry.

“A lot of people look at talent and skill set,” Hill said. “But you also have to ask questions like, ‘What’s that personality like? How would that fit into the locker room? Is that person willing to be part of something bigger than themselves?’ When you have an environment where guys really see the value of building a sense of ‘we,’ good things happen.”

The Raptors have spent all season fostering that culture. Lowry and DeRozan have bought into trusting their teammates more, and in return, they set a franchise record for wins during the regular season and are up 2-0 in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.

Hill also doesn’t buy into the theory that younger players tend to struggle on the playoff stage because of their lack of experience. “It might work in their favor because they’re so young, they don’t understand what’s at stake,” Hill said, laughing. Instead, he believes the Raptors, like the 2009-10 Suns, have a balance of stars in their prime and younger players who are comfortable in their roles.

That chemistry can also make it easier to communicate and have difficult conversations in the playoffs. “When you have a sense of togetherness, you can be real with each other,” Hill said. “You can be honest. You know nothing is personal. Your goals are aligned. Your visions are aligned. In the heat of the moment, we talk tough to each other and it’s not personal.”

There are different ways to look at the comparison of these two teams. With Nash, the Suns were eliminated by the Spurs three times in four playoff appearances. In a second-round sweep of San Antonio in 2010, Phoenix finally got past its playoff nemesis. The Raptors are looking to do the same thing this season. A potential second-round matchup looms with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have eliminated Toronto the past two years. On the other hand, Phoenix’s depth was not able to overcome the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, when Kobe Bryant averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 8.3 assists, and scored 37 points in a series-clinching Game 6 win.

Getting past a once-in-a-generation superstar in the postseason remains a difficult challenge, but if the Raptors want to emerge as a legitimate championship contender, they will need their depth and chemistry to play a large role.

“We’re strong as a team,” Jonas Valanciunas said after Game 2. “We’re not strong as individual players … This is a team sport, when you play together, when you support each other, when you help each other, it’s fun. It gives you that extra confidence to enjoy the game.”

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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