WASHINGTON – There were times on Friday when Dwane Casey's trust was tested.
The Toronto Raptors' second possession of the fourth was brutal, like Jakob-Poeltl-pull-up-three-with-one-second-on-the-shot-clock brutal. A minute later, Pascal Siakam bailed them out of another ugly possession with a 15-foot, one-handed turnaround jumper.
Game 6 of their first round series with the Washington Wizards was tied. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were on the bench, and an outside observer may have wondered why Casey didn't immediately turn to his All-Stars upon witnessing those two possessions. At that point, DeRozan had played just 30 minutes and Lowry had played just 25. The point guard could have been on the floor for the entire fourth quarter and he would have played fewer minutes on Friday than he averaged last season.
But Casey didn't flinch. He stuck with the five-man bench unit that has been winning him games since October. And it won him another one on Friday, pushing the Raptors into the conference semifinals with a 102-92 victory in Game 6.
"It was ugly," Casey admitted about the first couple of minutes of the fourth. "It took them a little while. And usually, those guys have some ugly possessions. But sooner or later, they usually figure it out."
They figured it out on Friday, to the tune of an 11-2 run that turned a five-point deficit into a four-point lead. Fred VanVleet hit a late-clock three. Poeltl got to the line after grabbing an offensive rebound. Then Delon Wright found C.J. Miles for a trail three that forced a timeout for Washington.
That was another opportunity for Casey to turn back to one or both of his All-Stars. But Toronto came out of the timeout with the same five reserves, and they held onto the lead against Washington's starters. Wright had a pretty, isolation spin-move against Marcin Gortat. Siakam swatted Bradley Beal and threw down a put-back dunk. Poeltl even contested a couple of shots without fouling.
"Most of the time, that group has to be unscripted," Casey said. "The more you try to set things up with that group and take away their imagination, whatever it is, it hurts them a little bit."
"They turned the pressure up a little bit," VanVleet said of the Washington defense early in the fourth. "But we just kept doing the same thing, kept moving, got into our sets a little bit more, got some back-cuts and some DHO action just to loosen them up a little bit. It took us a couple of possessions to adjust."
A couple of possessions that Casey afforded them. This was a coach that, over the last four years, always had one All-Star on the floor, DeRozan to end the first and third quarters, Lowry to start the second and fourth. And the East's best record over those four years says that staggering the stars' minutes worked just fine.
But this year, in addition to changing both the offense and defense, Casey changed the rotation, going with five reserves on the floor together. And that worked even better.
The lineup of VanVleet, Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl outscored its opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, the second best mark among 29 lineups that played at least 300 minutes together. Lowry averaged just 32.2 minutes per game, the fewest in the last five seasons. DeRozan averaged just 33.9, the fewest since his rookie year. With fresher stars and a bevy of options off the bench, the Raptors were the best fourth quarter team in the league, outscoring their opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes of regulation.
Something was missing in Games 1-5 of this series, though. VanVleet suffered a right shoulder sprain in the last game of the regular season and tried to play in Game 2, but wasn't ready. And statistically, what was the best bench in the regular season was the third worst bench in the playoffs through Game 5.
But after nine more days of recovery, VanVleet was in the game to start the second quarter on Friday, helping the Raptors cut a 10-point deficit to two and allowing both Lowry and DeRozan to rest for the first six minutes of the period.
"He was the difference," Casey said of VanVleet. "He's kind of the engine. The toughness. That little birdie on the shoulder. I thought it really propelled Pascal and those other guys to give them a sense of confidence."
"There's a different energy," Miles said of having all five of the "bench mob" together, "It's a comfortable thing. We have been doing it all year and we have just a camaraderie, a good energy. There's a lot of things we can do without having to say it out loud just because we have played together for so long."
And in the final period, when John Wall (40 minutes) and Bradley Beal (43 minutes) appeared to run out of gas, the Raptors' stars were fresh. Lowry checked back in with 6:15 left in the fourth and carried the Raptors home, scoring eight points as the Raptors put the Wizards away. Siakam and Wright stayed on the floor for all of what was a 29-14, series-deciding fourth quarter.
Lowry said afterward that he felt "great" down the stretch. It took him a while to buy into play fewer minutes this season, but he eventually saw the benefits, for the team and for himself.
"Honestly, it's showing in the playoffs," he said. "I'm able to go out there and play with more energy, more spunk, more everything."
Asked if, after those ugly possessions early in the fourth, he wanted to jump off the bench and check into the game, Lowry was clear.
"No," he said. "That's why we've been the team we've been all year. We've let those guys figure it out. And that's why they've played so well."
It's a trust that has been built over six months. And it didn't go away after a couple of ugly possessions.
"He let us work through that and it paid off," VanVleet said. "That's the kind of relationship we've had all year. So, none of this stuff is new. It's just the biggest moment of the year, the biggest time, and the most pressure. We just got to keep performing."
They'll have that opportunity in the conference semis, where they'll meet the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Indiana Pacers. This is the most complete team the Raptors have ever had, and they looked like it on Friday, with the best bench in basketball back at full strength.
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