PHILADELPHIA — Last year’s Bench Mob is a distant memory.
These days, it’s a minor miracle when any substitute makes a positive impact for the Toronto Raptors. The second unit that powered the franchise to 59 wins from a season ago is now being outdone by journeyman veterans such as James Ennis and Mike Scott. Even if the Raptors outlast the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7, it will be the bench that keeps them from going any further.
Nick Nurse has come under fire, but what would you have him do? Nurse ditched the hockey lineup changes, staggered his stars, and in a moment of absolute necessity in Game 4, Nurse even trimmed his rotation to six players. But eventually, his $40-million bench just needs to perform, and they’re not earning their due.
Fred VanVleet finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season, but he is now a liability. VanVleet is hopelessly undersized to the point where his shot has been blocked (4) as many times as it has fallen, and playmaking was never his strength. It’s not as if Nurse can just ditch VanVleet either, as third-stringer Jeremy Lin is on the verge of washing out of the league.
Past that it’s Norman Powell, who must be a nightmare to coach because he’s so inconsistent. Powell is always either doing too much or nothing at all, and coach clearly doesn’t trust him. Nurse has even reached for Pat McCaw - who is so gun shy that he makes Marc Gasol look like Antonine Walker - ahead of Powell, simply because McCaw can at least be a pest on defense in limited doses.
The frontcourt is even more dire. Nurse’s only viable option is to rely on Serge Ibaka, whose confidence waivers like a rookie despite this being his ninth playoff run in 10 seasons. If his first shot rims out, then chances are Ibaka will be lost for the night, which was the case in Games 1, 2, 3, and 6. To make matters worse, Ibaka has suddenly been forced to revert back to power forward after transitioning into a full-time centre, because OG Anunoby underwent an appendectomy that might sideline him for the rest of the playoffs.
So again, what would you have Nurse do? His starters have been the best unit in basketball throughout the playoffs, yet the reserves have been so abysmal that the Raptors find themselves in a do-or-die scenario this weekend. Odds are that Nurse can just squeak past the Sixers if he goes full Tom Thibodeau and plays his veterans upwards of 40 minutes, but that formula won’t work in the East finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the deepest team in the league, and with a full week off in between series on top of having home-court advantage, the Bucks are ready to jump their next opponent. Not only does Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer stagger his minutes so that Giannis Antetokounmpo often checks in against backups, but Budenholzer is almost spoiled for options with his second unit.
Budenholzer can reach for George Hill, who just dominated Kyrie Irving in the second round and has a track record of neutralizing Kyle Lowry in the playoffs. There’s super sub Pat Connaughton, who is everything that Powell isn’t while drawing a tenth of the salary. Budenholzer also has the luxury of bringing one of Nikola Mirotic or Malcolm Brogdon off the bench as a reliable source of offense, while Ersan Ilyasova, Sterling Brown, and Tony Snell are also viable options.
The Raptors just don’t have the personnel to match. The assumption that went into stockpiling stars was that depth would lose value in the playoffs, but what good is having a stacked starting five if the bench is destined to give it away? The likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl would look pretty good right about now, but they were deemed expendable and the front office did little to replace them. Lin appeared to be a bargain before he started playing to his price, while the likes of Jodie Meeks and Eric Moreland were already bottom barrel options. The Raptors also left themselves vulnerable at power forward all season to save a few dollars, as Anunoby was already iffy in that role even before he went down, and now they’re paying the price. These are issues that must be addressed in the offseason.
For now, they must focus on the task ahead. The Raptors march into Game 7 praying that at least one reserve can deliver something similar to Ibaka’s performance in Game 4. Maybe that will be enough against a similarly top-heavy side in the Sixers, but Toronto’s lack of depth will be their undoing in the end.
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