Toronto Raptors: The difficulty with resting players while contending

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: DeMar DeRozan
TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: DeMar DeRozan /

With seven games left and a three-game lead on the Boston Celtics, Dwane Casey and his staff need to consider a balance between the Toronto Raptors winning games and rest.

The Toronto Raptors are on the hunt to reach the NBA finals (and ultimately win a championship) for the first time in franchise history and the best way to do this is with the number one seed.

The most successful finals run are those made through the path of least resistance. Although the second seed effectively means the same thing as the first in the opening round this year (none of the Bucks-Wizards or Heat is fearsome) it most likely means sharing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ side of the bracket.

When The Raptors held a five-game gap over the Celtics, it was all good. They were sipping Virginia Black, watching Pascal Siakam fly down the court, dishing dimes and ooping alleys from Kyle Lowry on the break. Now, after losing three of the last five games, jeopardizing a 60-win season and by extension the number one seed, we’re questioning existence in the NBA sphere.

With seven games left and a three-game lead on the Boston Celtics (whom the Raptors still must play two times) Dwane Casey and his staff need to consider a balance between winning games and rest.

The Raptors are slumping, although it’s not entirely their fault. They have played 10 games in the last 17 days. They’re tired.

This team is a natural scoring team; they’ve been that way for years, but the defence has slipped dramatically.

Since Mar. 1 their defensive rating has slipped all the way to 17th in the league and even further, posting an abysmal 111.7 (27th) defensive rating over the past five games.

The Toronto Raptors are supposed to be an elite defence and when you can’t put the clamps on teams, this leads to absurd scoring spurts, which leads to meltdowns, which leads to lost games.

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Altogether, playing an 82 games in a season plus practices is gruelling, especially when you play a large amount of those games in short order.

Over the past five games, DeMar DeRozan‘s and Serge Ibaka‘s effectiveness has fallen off a cliff. DeRozan’s only averaging 18.4 points per game and shooting a paltry 24 percent from deep. Ibaka, a player Casey calls an elite defender has seen his d-rating inflate to 111.5 over the past 5 games.

Ibaka, of all players on the roster, could use the extra time in a suit. He’s infamously better with multiple days of rest instead of one and the kilometres also add up over time.

Casey’s bench has given him the opportunity to reduce the minutes’ load on all starters, but fatigue is still cumulative. Lowry is still 32, Deebo is still leading the team in minutes played and they get nary a day off.

When fatigue builds up, your body takes shortcuts and when it takes shortcuts, it gets injured. Injuries are a scary reality of the NBA and its one the Raptors have barely faced this season. Sure, OG Anunoby spent a handful of games on the bench and Delon Wright was sidelined with a sprained toe, but we’re talking about single digit missed games. The Raptors look like a finals team, but that could change pretty quickly. The 73-9 Golden State Warriors were world beaters until Steph Curry slipped on a wet spot, spraining his MCL.

On the low, the Raptors battling injuries in the post-season is a regular occurrence. Whether it be a Jonas Valanciunas‘ ankle, Lowry’s wrist,  a DeRozan thumb, Lowry’s elbow or DeMarre Carroll knee, the Raps have rarely had their full squad healthy when the games really mattered.

When the team pressed the Cavs to six games in the eastern conference finals, Lowry had an elbow the size of a golf ball and DeRozan was tying a shoestring around his thumb to reduce swelling. The Raptors were always pressing to secure seeding, but it possibly hurt them down the road.

These past three days are a nice reprieve for a team that’s been struggling, but it’s not exactly sunshine and lollipops on the way to playoffs. The Raptors play the Celtics, Cavs, Celtics again, Pacers, Magic, Pistons and Heat in their last seven games. All of which are on single or two days of rest heading into the playoffs. And very few of those games are walkovers.

Statements still need to be made and pole position still needs to be jockeyed for while the Raptors run through the  third hardest schedule in the league to end the season.

And if they can’t nail it down, things get stickier than they already are. Casey and co. pointed out multiple times this year that the first seed is important. If the Celtics close the gap or the Raps drop games, it’s going to be harder to justify resting.

To win long-term, pressing every available advantage is imperative. Nobody beats LeBron James on one leg. The Bench Mob is the best squad off the bench this year (for multiple reasons) and the end of the season is an opportunity to really flex that if Casey really trusts them.

Playing 82 games is a priority for James this year, whether it be for pride, MVP candidacy or necessity; it’s an aberration from the King’s typical rest heavy schedule. Sneaking a couple extra days off for Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka leaves them with a few notches above ‘E’ in their gas tank, while LeBron is still riding the high of an 82-game season (leaving Oscar Robertson‘s numbers in his wake) possibly into the ground.

This year’s Toronto Raptors broke the franchise record, winning 11 games in a row and might be a 60-win team in the making but no matter who you ask, the Raptors will be judged on their success in the postseason. The Raps are postgraduates of regular season admiration; consistent winning seasons means expectations, and this year is the ultimate set up.

Next: Leafs clinch second straight playoff berth

If the Toronto Raptors are really looking to make that serious push for the finals, it’s going to take more than just impressive play on the court. Rest is a hard pill to swallow when you’re fighting for seeding heading into the playoffs, but when you plan on conquering King James’ kingdom, you’ll need all the strength you can get.