Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers

How Raptors' second unit changed course of season — and why it matters against Cavs

pascal-siakam-delon-wright-jakob-poeltl-043018-ftr
Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright celebrate during the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs (Getty Images)

The Raptors' bench solidified itself as one of the NBA's best second units throughout the regular season, so it should come as no surprise that the reserves helped propel the No. 1 seed in the East past the Wizards in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

After a number of postseason shortcomings, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey revamped his approach and strategy ahead of the 2017-18 season. His changes paid dividends as Toronto entered the playoffs riding the momentum of a historic season. The team won a franchise-record 59 games and earned the first No. 1 seed in the franchise's 23-year history.

Signing veteran sharpshooter C.J. Miles during the 2017 free-agency period added another dynamic to the Raptors' second unit. The acquisition allowed Casey to extend his rotation to play his reserves for increased minutes in comparison to previous years.

Raptors' bench production since 2015

Season MPG PPG Record Playoffs
2015-16 92.6 29.9 56-26 No. 2 seed, lost East finals
2016-17 92.8 31.2 51-31 No. 3 seed, lost East semifinals
2017-18 105.6 41.8 59-23 No. 1 seed - East semifinals vs. Cavs

At 41.8 points per game, Toronto boasted the fourth-highest scoring bench in the NBA. Its bench's efficiency rating of 51.4 was the best in the league among second units.

With a starting lineup led by the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and an improved bench, the Raptors had composed the most complete team in franchise history. Still, many questioned if they could shake their playoff misfortunes.

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It didn't take long for the reserves to make their presence felt in the Raptors' first-round series. In a 114-106 Game 1 win, Miles (12 points, four 3-pointers) and Delon Wright (18 points) combined to score 30 of the team's 42 bench points. Wright, a third-year guard out of Utah, scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter.

Miles and Wright are two of the six reserves that have allowed Casey to extend his rotation to 11 players. Over the course of the regular season, six reserves played at least 15 minutes per game. In the Raptors' first-round victory over the Wizards, four reserves played 16 minutes per game or more. Toronto won the series 4-2; its bench averaged 39.3 points per game in the four wins and 27.0 points per game in its two losses.

Here's a deeper look into how each member of the Raptors' "Bench Mob" has made an impact throughout the year.

C.J. Miles, SG/SF

2017-18 regular season: 10.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 36.1 3PT%

2018 first round: 9.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 38.7 3PT%

Miles joined the Raptors after shooting a career-best 41.3 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17 with the Pacers, adding 3-point shooting to a roster that desperately needed it. Toronto went from 21st in the NBA in made 3-pointers in 2016-17 (8.8 per game) to fourth in 2017-18 (11.8 per game).

The 13-year veteran shot at a 36.1 percent clip on 6.5 3-point attempts per game this season, hitting at least three shots from beyond the arc in 26 games. Miles delivered a signature playoff performance in Game 2 of the first round, finishing with 18 points (4-of-6 3-point shooting) in the Raptors' 11-point win over Washington.

Delon Wright, PG

2017-18 regular season: 8.0 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.9 rpg

2018 first round: 10.7 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.3 spg

The 25-year-old turned the corner in his development in his third year. Prior to the 2017-18 season, Wright averaged just 12.5 minutes in 54 career appearances, spending much of his time with the Raptors' G-League affiliate.

This past season, Wright was a double-figure scorer in 26 of his 69 appearances and emerged as the third-leading scorer off the bench. He has taken his play to another level in the playoffs, scoring 18 points in two of the Raptors' first-round wins over the Wizards (Games 1 and 5). In both 18-point performances, Wright scored 11 in the fourth quarter.

He finished the series averaging 12.8 points per game in the Raptors' four wins and just 6.5 points in the two losses.

Pascal Siakam, PF

2017-18 regular season: 7.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 50.8 FG%

2018 first round: 6.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 56 FG%

In his second year out of New Mexico, Siakam appeared in all but one of the Raptors' regular season games. The 6-9 power forward had 24 games of double-figure scoring and dished out at least four assists on 17 occasions.

Siakam finished with playoff career-highs of 11 points and eight rebounds in Toronto's Game 6 close out win over Washington in the first round. His transition layup with 3:49 remaining in the game gave the Raptors an eight-point advantage and was assisted by none other than Fred VanVleet.

Jakob Poeltl, C

2017-18 regular season: 6.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 65.9 FG%

2018 first round: 6.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 53.6 FG%

Poeltl is another second-year big who saw an increased role in the 2017-18 season. In 82 games, he recorded at least two blocks on 30 occasions and posted 20 double-figure scoring games. The 7-0 center also recorded four double-doubles, including a 12-point, 12-rebound effort in Toronto's 34-point win over the Cavaliers on Jan. 11.

After a slow start to the 2018 playoffs, Poeltl posted strong numbers in Games 5 and 6 of the first round. In the Raptors' 102-92 Game 6 win, the center finished with seven points and seven rebounds (three offensive) in just over 17 minutes of action.

Fred VanVleet, PG

2017-18 regular season: 8.6 ppg, 3.2 apg, 41.4 3PT%

In his second year, VanVleet led the Raptors' second unit with 35 games scoring in double figures. The reserve point guard led the team by shooting 41.4 percent from beyond the arc and recorded at least four assists in 31 different contests.

A shoulder injury caused VanVleet to miss the majority of the first round, but he made his presence felt in Game 6. The second-year man out of Wichita St. was plus-12 in the box score in just under 19 minutes of action, finishing with five points, four rebounds and four assists.

Norman Powell, SG

2017-18 regular season: 5.5 ppg, 18 starts

Though his role was limited in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, the third-year guard out of UCLA was an important piece for the Raptors throughout the season. In 70 games, he had 16 double-figure scoring efforts, and the Raptors were 13-3 in those games.

Powell's 18 starts were the most among Toronto's reserves; the team was 13-5 in those games.

The Raptors' first-round victory over the Wizards has earned them a postseason date with LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the third consecutive year.

Toronto's playoff matchups with Cleveland have been less than ideal for Casey's squad. The Cavs won the 2016 Eastern Conference finals in six games and swept the Raptors in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, but this year feels different.

As the No. 1 seed, the Raptors will have home-court advantage over the Cavaliers for the first time. Although Cleveland won the season series 2-1, it enters the second round exhausted from a seven-game struggle with the Pacers.

Toronto's depth is its biggest strength, and in the first round, it proved to be one of the Cavs' biggest weaknesses. After defeating Indiana, James was asked about the impending matchup with the Raptors and wasted no time acknowledging their second unit.

"They're a great basketball team. Kudos to Dwane Casey," James said. "They've got like 10 to 12 guys that can come in and produce every single night.

"We know the head of the snake is DeRozan and Lowry, but those guys off the bench come in with the same attitude and the same confidence as the starters."

The stage is set for the second round, and Toronto will look to continue its historic season by earning its first-ever postseason series victory over James and the Cavaliers. The second unit could prove to be the difference.

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