MILWAUKEE – As chess moves go, this one was straight out of checkers. Dwane Casey, coach of the Toronto Raptors, swapped out center Jonas Valanciunas from his starting lineup in Game 4 of his series against the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday, using guard Norman Powell instead.
In giving up eight inches and 50 pounds, size-wise, Casey was looking for quicker feet, better perimeter defense, a deeper scoring threat and more switchable matchups across the board. It was a logical move in the wake of the Raptors’ 104-77 loss in Game 3, and not exactly a surprise: Casey had used guard Cory Joseph in Valanciunas’ spot to start the second half Thursday, although that one already was too far gone (Toronto trailed 57-30) to see a tangible difference.
This time, though, it worked. Powell logged 34 minutes, made all three of his 3-point attempts, scored 12 points and matched Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry with plus-15 ratings in their 87-79 victory to even the series at 2-2. He helped bother his man, Khris Middleton, to 4-of-13 shooting for 10 points, on the heels of two 20-point performances.
Toronto used the energy boost and versatility to hold the Bucks’ best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to a series-worst 14 points on 6-of-19 shooting. And Valanciunas was fine in reserve, matching up directly with Milwaukee sixth man, backup center Greg Monroe, and posting his series high of 12 points.
Based on the outcome and the reversal in the Raptors’ fortunes in less than 48 hours, Casey could be hailed at least until Game 5 Monday at Air Canada Centre as some sort of genius. Which at least was better, if not more enduring, than being considered a bum the way he had been over the previous two days.
Such are the mood swings of a team’s fan base and media characterizations frequently fueled by nothing but crankiness, innuendo and the score of the most recent game.
“I understand where it comes from,” Casey said. “I understand who it comes from. They have you buried one day and the king the next day. Then they say, ‘aw, it’s just my job.’ I understand that, everybody has a job to do.”
The thing is, just like the ticket-buying critics, they do it every day. Casey has lost 20 playoff games over the past four seasons, which approximates the number of times he’s “been fired.”
And yet, here he is.
“I’ve been in it too long, college and the pros, it’s same thing,” Casey said. “You understand who the good basketball people are in this business, they stay the same. They’re level-headed, they understand that this is an up-and-down league. One day you’re statue and the next day you’re the pigeon.”
Different day, different bird poop. Bucks coach Jason Kidd and his players said they saw the Raptors’ lineup change coming. No element of surprise there.
But expecting it and thwarting it are two vastly different things. Now it will be the Bucks’ turn to adjust to the adjustment. Kidd has been calling his young guys the more “desperate’ team since the series began and now, finally, it’s true. This is a best-of-three tussle now, two of the games in Toronto, to see who gets to face next the winner of Cleveland-Indiana.
Powell, 23, wrapping up his second NBA season, learned of the switch Friday. He came off the bench in all but 18 games for Toronto this season and tried not to change his play one bit. He was just doing it with a different group, at a different time.
“Energy, defense, aggressiveness to the rim,” said Powell, a second-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.
Of crowding Middleton and otherwise making the Bucks shooter uncomfortable, Powell said: “I was trying to set the tone early. It was going to be a physical game for him. He wasn’t going to get easy runs, easy cuts. I’m gonna be there, I’m bumping him. Just try to get into his mid-range.”
Powell got promoted for the day and produced, assuring Casey and his staff he could fit his game to whatever circumstance they asked. Valanciunas got “demoted” and produced anyway, earning even greater admiration in a show of selflessness.
The 7-foot center, after all, had started 357 of his 363 regular-season games and had come off the bench just once since his rookie season four years ago. He was 24 of 26 in the postseason, only subbing in for the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals last spring because he had missed the eight games prior to that with a sprained right ankle.
Casey said he expected every one of his players to accept whatever role they might get handed in a playoff situation. But that doesn’t mean it always happens.
“Routine is the same, you know,” said Valanciunas, who did manage to stir some old-school echoes in his low-post banging with Monroe. “I don’t take that personally. No. One hundred percent it’s not personal. It’s about team, not about me. I do everything for the team. It’s not me, it’s not anybody else in this room. It’s Toronto Raptors. I can play zero minutes – as long as we’re winning the game, I’m OK with it.”
None of it would have mattered had DeRozan not buried the remnants of his miserable eight-point outing in Game 3 by scoring 33 points. He was assertive and slippery start to finish with an array of mid-range baskets and layups, and shot 12-0f-22 (54.5 percent) when the rest of the Raptors were a combined 21-of-58 (36.2).
Lowry got busy after halftime, scoring 14 of his 18 over the last two quarters. In fact, he and DeRozan had 26 points to the entire Milwaukee team’s 35 in the half. By contrast, Middleton and Antetokounmpo – derailed by Toronto’s peskier Five points as a tandem on 1-for-12 shooting.
Fear the deer? More like fear the pigeons Saturday for Milwaukee.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.