The Canadian Press
TORONTO–Lucas Nogueira had played about eight minutes each in 49 games during the regular season.
And when Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey called his name with the game on the line Saturday night, Nogueira was sitting in his usual spot near the end of the bench, slurping on a drink.
But as always, the big Brazilian was ready to go in.
Casey’s confidence in his bench never faltered during the regular season, and Toronto’s “bench mob” grew into one of the best in the league.
One through 11 on Saturday night, the Raptors’ depth played a huge part of their 114-106 Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards–and will be a theme throughout their playoff run.
“I never know [if I’m going to play],” Nogueira remarked. “I’m always there sitting on the bench, drinking coconut water, watching the game.
“Some days, they say ‘Lucas, go ahead,’ and I just go and play.
“It’s nice,” he added, referring to Casey’s confidence in him. “You don’t see that as much on other teams, they play like five starters and three, max four, guys on the bench.
“It’s good to see Casey trusts the whole crew,” Nogueira added. I think he knows, right? I think if you’re in the NBA it’s because you’re capable to do something, right?
“I think everybody is capable to play,” he reasoned. “I understand it’s the playoffs, it’s the time to win, but I believe in every single guy on the team.”
Casey clearly does, too. The 60-year-old coach has been asked several times whether keeping the same rotation would work during post-season.
His answer hasn’t changed: why wouldn’t it work?
“It’s the belief in the work that guys have put in all year,” said C.J. Miles, the veteran leader of the Raptors’ second unit.
“It started before the season and then during the season. Just the growth,” he noted. “Throughout the season, since training camp, we’ve just gotten better and better, especially those young guys.
“They’re proving themselves over and over. They’re proving they want to win,” Miles stressed. “They’ve been battle-tested all year.
“You’ve got to let them get a shot at this.”
Miles had four three-pointers, and his long bomb with 6:28 to go–off a long pass from Nogueira–was part of Toronto’s game-turning 10-0 fourth-quarter run.
The development of the bench began in earnest last off-season. The majority of them spent the summer together either training in Toronto or on the west coast.
After being ousted by Cleveland in the post-season for the second-straight year, it was clear the team needed offensive options beyond DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Casey is enjoying the fruits of his labour.
“It’s a luxury, I have to say,” he remarked. “They’re young, our young guys have played great, they’re learning about playoff basketball.
“Delon [Wright], when he went in was a little tight at first, but I thought he got into it as the game went on,” Casey noted.
“And that’s what you have going into this part of the season with young players . . . they’re being baptized into playoff basketball.”
The Raptors also moved the ball Saturday night as well as they did all season–another new emphasis after Toronto’s second-round playoff exit last year.
DeRozan and Lowry doled out 15 assists between them.
“That was one of the first things coach talked to me about,” said Miles, who was acquired from Indiana last summer.
“That’s one of the things he wanted to change and that’s one of the things we worked on all year in the offence.
“It’s become a part of who we were,” he noted. “I think we went from almost last in the league in assists last year to sixth this year.
“That’s a tremendous turnaround.
“We take pride in that,” Miles added. “If [opponents] are going to take away certain things, we’ve got to move the ball.”
The Raptors averaged 24.3 assists during the regular season. Golden State led the way with 29.3.
Casey said he wasn’t sure if Fred VanVleet, who missed Game 1 with a bruised shoulder, will play tomorrow when the Raptors host Washington in Game 2.
“He’s much better, he got some shots up today,” he noted. “We’ll see, but he’s still day-to-day.”
The series moves to Washington for Game 3 on Friday and then Game 4 on Sunday.
Elsewhere in the NBA last night, Houston beat Minnesota 104-101, Boston downed Milwaukee 113-107, Indiana upended Cleveland 98-80, and Oklahoma City bounced Utah 116-108 to all lead their respective first-round series 1-0.