By Steven Lebron
After surprising everyone with 48 wins and the Atlantic Division title last season, the Toronto Raptors saw their playoff run end in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, losing a heartbreaking Game 7 at home 104-103 after Kyle Lowry's game winning attempt was blocked by Paul Pierce at the buzzer.
In the offseason, the team moved quickly to re-sign starting point guard and leader Kyle Lowry, but general manager Masai Ujiri also focused on improving the depth on his bench. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson both returned, Lou Williams was acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks, and James Johnson was signed for his second stint in Toronto. Over a month into the season, the Raptors are 19-6, the best record in the Eastern Conference and well ahead of their division where no other team is above .500.
So far, the second unit assembled by Ujiri has been paying dividends.
"For sure, hands down," Johnson said after Sunday's victory over the New York Knicks when I asked whether Toronto has the best bench in the league.
In the seven game playoff series against the Nets last season, Joe Johnson averaged 21.9 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from downtown. In Game 7, Johnson went 11-for-25 from the field for 26 points, and the Raptors had no answer for him on the defensive end.
Johnson was signed to address that need. While starting small forward Terrence Ross starts the game guarding the opponent's best perimeter player, Johnson has played crucial minutes taking on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James so far this season. He's already made an impact. With Johnson on the floor, the Raptors have allowed just 99.4 points per 100 possessions, a number that would put them near the top five in defensive efficiency.
As a team, the Raptors rank 15th in defensive efficiency so far this season. They recently went through a stretch of nine consecutive games in which they allowed over 100 points. On the season, the Raptors are 11-0 when opponents score below 100 points.
Prior to Sunday's game against New York, Casey admitted that his team had lost some of the consistency that made them a top-10 team in defensive efficiency last season. While the Raptors continue to work on improving on that end of the floor they've also had to address the absence of All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who went down with a groin injury in late November. DeRozan has said he hopes to return in four weeks, and was shooting free throws prior to Sunday's game, but his timetable remains week to week.
"The first couple of games without him, I think one or two guys felt like they had to step up and replace his numbers. But it's a team effort," said head coach Dwane Casey. "Unfortunately, a lot of our sets are built around him, so we've had to improvise a bit with our offensive system."
Since losing DeRozan, the team has gone a respectable 6-3. In those nine games, they've scored 110.8 points per 100 possessions, which is on par with their overall offensive efficiency on the season (110.7 points per 100 possessions), the second highest rating in the league behind the Dallas Mavericks.
The second unit has been playing a key part in keeping the offense humming. Williams is an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging 14.6 points in 22.5 minutes per game. He plays a similar role as Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles, coming off the bench with the ability to create shots by himself and taking over games as he did earlier this season when he scored 36 points to help the Raptors erase an 18-point deficit in a victory at Cleveland.
Vasquez led the league in total assists just two seasons ago. He can run point for the second unit but has proven to be efficient with the starters as well. Last season, when Vasquez and Lowry were on the floor together, they outscored opponents 111.1 to 96.2 per 100 possessions in 490 minutes together.
Patterson has developed into the ideal stretch four off the bench. On the season, he's shooting 46.4 percent from three on 3.4 attempts per game, which puts him seventh among the league leaders in three-point percentage.
"On any given night. It could be me, it could be Lou [Williams], it could be James [Johnson], it could be any of one of us," Vasquez said about the bench, which ranks sixth in the league with 38.7 points per game. "We're always hungry and looking to put our two cents on the game."
Against the Knicks on Sunday, Vasquez played 14 quiet minutes, finishing with just two points. Johnson made just one field goal on the night. But the second unit still managed to score 38 points, thanks to 15 points from Williams and a trio of three-pointers of Patterson, who hit one to put the Raptors ahead in the fourth quarter, and also to open the overtime period. Casey also gave Patterson the assignment of guarding Carmelo Anthony down the stretch and credited him for his defensive effort.
Having one of the best second units in the league also makes for a lot of trash talk between the players. Vasquez called it a privilege to go up against Kyle Lowry and DeRozan in practice, while Johnson didn't hesitate to brag just a little.
"Our second unit be beating the first unit all the time [in practice]," Johnson said after Sunday's victory. "The starters know we're a good bench. They know they can rest easy during the games and take their break when they need it."
There are players in the second unit who could start for other teams, or have already established themselves as starters elsewhere. The key to the chemistry of this team is getting everyone to buy in and understand their role. Johnson admits to being comfortable in his role with the second unit. Patterson says that while he, like every other player in the league, would like to start, everyone's on the same page and he feels the environment in Toronto was "too perfect to pass up" despite the potential for more minutes or money elsewhere this offseason.
The one thing that distinguishes the Raptors' bench unit is their ability to finish games as a complete five man unit. Vasquez, Williams, Johnson, Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough have logged 113 minutes together this season as a five-man unit, and have a net rating of +18.4 (107.8 points per 100 possessions on offense, while allowing 89.4 points per 100 possessions on the other end).
In Monday's victory at home over the Orlando Magic, this five man unit played the majority of the fourth quarter, helping the Raptors extend their six-point lead at the end of the third to a double digit cushion on their way to a 95-82 win. On the second night of a back-to-back, the starters were able to, in Johnson's words, "rest easy".
"A lot of guys in this league don't like coming off the bench," Vasquez said. "That's the beauty of our team. We're coming off the bench, doing our job and making it fun."
Despite the team's early success, many have pointed to the Raptors schedule to explain their fast start, especially since they played 11 of their first 15 games at home to start the season. But to their credit, the Raptors have won almost all of the games they're supposed to so far. To date, they've only lost twice to teams who are currently below .500 (both on the road, to Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers). In the East, simply taking care of business will be enough to get a team to 50-plus wins.
So, the remainder of the regular season becomes an exercise in building good habits, staying healthy, and locking down one of the top seeds in the East. The Raptors know they'll be evaluated on their postseason success. Vasquez and Patterson admits there's unfinished business with this core group after losing Game 7 at home to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round last season. The Raptors are in their 20th season in the league, and have won just one playoff series in franchise history.
"We're playing for something bigger," Vasquez said. "That experience in the playoffs last season really helped us. Now we're just taking it game by game, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We're a good team, but we're trying to be great team. Throughout the course of the season, we don't panic, we don't go too fast, too slow."
The Raptors will enter this year's playoffs with the expectation of making a deeper playoff run this time around. They'll go as far as Lowry takes them, but in a seven game series, it might be Johnson's defense, the game-changing offense of Williams, or a boost from Vasquez or Patterson that might make the difference. More than anyone, the Raptors know how playoff series can come down to just one play. With the capable difference makers on their bench, maybe it won't have to come down to that this postseason.
Steven Lebron is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. He has published work for Grantland, The Classical, VICE Sports, GQ, Rolling Stone and various other publications. You can follow him on Twitter@steven_lebron.