Raptors' second unit firing on all cylinders
Rookie Terrance Ross has been tearing it up for the Raptors recently. (Reuters)
Amir Johnson may have overstated things a bit yesterday when he compared the Raptors bench to that of the 17-consecutive win and league-leading L.A. Clippers which goes by the name A Tribe called Bench, but we see where he’s going.
With Kyle Lowry running the point, a minute-by-minute improving Terrence Ross at shooting guard, Mr. Everything Alan Anderson at small forward, an undersized power forward in Landry Fields at the four and Johnson himself at the five, there is plenty to like about Dwane Casey’s second unit.
To be clear they are not as feared as that Clippers tribe which includes Jamaal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, and Matt Barnes, but like those Clippers reserves the Raps reserves are having an impact.
Just as Toronto’s starting five has morphed into a solid quintet, primarily put together because of injuries, the second unit is a product of injuries and to an extent a decision by head coach Dwane Casey to spread his talent out over two units.
In a perfect world a team’s five most talented and productive athletes are part of its starting five.
In Toronto, particularly now with injuries playing a role, that’s not necessarily the case.
In Mickael Pietrus and Aaron Gray, Casey is getting solid starting contributions, but the case can be made that their supposed backups in Anderson and Johnson have outperformed them.
Casey though has found a nice balance with the two units and he’s reluctant to play with it right now.
With seven wins in the past eight games, and two in a row since Lowry returned as a non-starter, the vibe is pretty good with both units.
Casey began to use the phrase buying minutes in reference to starting Gray, but caught himself. The phrase has a negative connotation but in this case it’s accurate.
He can’t play Amir Johnson for 40 minutes every night and Gray’s a big body that sets great screens and knows how to defend fellow bigs.
As for Pietrus, the Frenchman may not have the wheels he once had but defensively he is still a savvy veteran who knows the tricks of the trade. That experience and his streaky three-point shooting ability are enough to keep him with the starters allowing Casey to use Anderson with the next group.
Johnson sees a lot of similarities between the Raps two units.
“It’s definitely more up tempo,” he said of the second unit since Lowry has joined. “It’s just like our starting five. With Kyle in there it’s like having another starting five, kind of like that Clippers offence. When we come off the bench we definitely score in bunches and the defence is still there too. It’s just a little bit more up-tempo.”
Fields is still getting his feet wet playing the four, but he’s willing.
“If it gets me on the floor, I will take it,” Fields said. “I will try to the best of my ability to produce at that spot.”
He’s only been at it in limited minutes in the past two games, but he’s a quick study and sees the day where he’ll be comfortable there as well.
“It creates matchup problems for the other team,” he said. “When we go small they’re going to have to adjust to it (assuming) we’re successful with our lineup at that point.
As for how Fields specifically can use the position to his advantage, he’s a little hesitant to say too much until he’s been at it for a while.
“It’s only been two games,” he said, “but really it allows me to be quicker than guys and take more guys off the dribble. I’m assuming that is what it will evolve into, but we’ll see.”
Casey certainly likes what he has seen from his bench, but he also raised an eyebrow at the Clippers comparison.
“That’s a strong statement,” Casey said smiling. “I do like the energy of the second unit. I don’t want to make a team comparison to it, but I think they’re identity is coming in and playing with energy, playing defence, playing aggressive and picking up the tempo a little bit.”
In that regard it makes perfect sense to have Lowry playing with the second unit. As for having Fields, and by times Anderson, at the four, Casey sees it as a logical solution.
“I think (Landry) sees that Terrence Ross is playing well, DeMar (DeRozan) is playing well, Alan Anderson is playing well,” Casey said. “For me to get him in the floor, I don’t even want to call it a position or put a number to it, but that position is a place (where we have some need) so he’s got to prepare and be ready for it.”
And with the team playing as well as they are right now, all anyone wants is to be a part of the success no matter how or where.
Casey still not content
Dwane Casey certainly didn’t appear as happy as one would expect a coach of a team that had just blown out its previous opponent by 35 points.
And there was a good reason for it.
The same way Casey saw signs of defensive slippage in the pre-season that would lead to serious deficiencies in the regular season, he got a sniff of some bad defensive habits early in the game in Orlando and took steps to address it immediately.
“I think we let them catch the ball too deep in the paint,” Casey said. “The kid (Andrew) Nicholson was catching it deep. (Nikola) Vucevic was catching it deep and getting into our paint too easily. Our bigs needed to do better of resisting, especially Nicholson. I just thought they were getting in there too easily. Our first part of the game looked too much like we were just feeling our way into the game, so I had to call a timeout and talk about that.”
The message was basically, “Toughen up.’
“Just be more physical,” Casey said. “Don’t let them come and park in the middle of the lane. Give some resistance. Body them up and don’t just let them do what they’re going to do. I didn’t see the fight early in the game.”