A change in the starting unit and a tweak to the bench rotation resulted in a change of fortunes for the Raptors, whose big-picture outlook remains very much up in the air.
The move to insert Gary Trent Jr. into the starting group made sense on many levels, beginning with his ability to knock down shots and space the floor at a time when he has been making shots.
Dennis Schroder came off the bench and played one of his best games as a Raptor in Toronto’s convincing win over a woeful Washington Wizards team Wednesday night, a result that snapped an odious three-game losing streak.
The Raptors entered the night having lost five in a row on the road, while tipping off a stretch of nine of 10 away from Toronto.
One win against a very bad team isn’t going to inspire much confidence, but it was a step in the right direction when the Raptors have been going sideways.
The six heaves Schroder attempted matched his season low. He reached double digits in assists for the first time in seven games.
On top of that, the 28 minutes and 26 seconds he played were the lowest for Schroder since a blowout loss in Orlando on Nov. 21. He did end up playing more minutes than Trent Jr. (26 minutes and 22 seconds).
More than anything, he stabilized the second unit, while allowing Scottie Barnes to handle the ball more.
“It was a change we were looking for some time,” rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic said following the win, which was produced despite a typically poor start. “We decided that it was a good opportunity to put Scottie Barnes more as a ball handler and also we wanted to have Dennis to help with the second unit.”
It worked, but keep in mind the Raptors were playing the Wizards on the back end of a home back-to-back.
When Washington visited Toronto, the Wizards jumped out to a 20-point lead before the inevitable loss would be posted. And there was air of inevitability Wednesday night.
Once the Raptors found their footing and defensive intensity, it turned into a complete mismatch. In winning 132-102, the Raptors produced their largest margin of victory this season.
Shots were dropping, the ball was moving, stops being made in a total team effort as three players reach the 20-point scoring mark.
Five players recorded at least three assists as the Raptors combined for 43, led by Pascal Siakam’s game-high 11 dimes.
Precious Achiuwa didn’t see the floor for the entire first half, but when he entered the game in the third quarter he showed why he can emerge as a defensive presence. When he plays the centre position instead of Jakob Poeltl, the Raptors aren’t as susceptible on the perimeter because Achiuwa is more athletic and is more than capable of switching on smaller ball handlers.
For only the second time this season and first since the Raptors visited Chicago back in late October, Malachi Flynn played fewer than five minutes in the win over the Wizards. Granted, steps have been made by Flynn under Rajakovic and moments of encouraging play have been produced, but Flynn is best used in a limited role.
When he’s able to make three-point shots, perhaps only then does he deserve more playing time. He did turn the ball over twice in Washington.
Moving forward, the most meaningful change will be engineered by the Raptors’ front office and not the head coach.
Tweaking a starting unit is standard business in the NBA when teams need some kind of refresh.
Using starters with a second unit in different rotations is hardly revolutionary.
When you look at the Raptors, the team has three legitimate starting pieces in Barnes, Siakam and O.G. Anunoby. The only player under contract beyond this season is Barnes.
Trent Jr. is serviceable as a bench player.
Poeltl, while he does provide rim protection, can’t be on the floor when opponents go small.
Toronto’s next opponent is Boston, a team that made a bold move this off-season by trading away the club’s heart and soul player in Marcus Smart.
The Celtics, who were in the NBA final two years ago when they lost to Golden State and then lost at home to Miami in Game 7 last spring in the East final, needed a front-court scoring presence. The team went out and acquired Kristaps Porzingis.
The C’s then added Jrue Holiday, an NBA champion with Milwaukee.
Entering Thursday’s tip against visiting Detroit, the Celtics remain unbeaten at home and are among the NBA’s elite teams. Jaylen Brown (back) was ruled out for the Pistons game, allowing Brown to be available Friday night when the C’s play host to the Raptors.
Against a very good team in Philadelphia, the Raptors lost all three matchups.
Against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets, the Raptors lost.
Boston has beaten the Raptors twice this season.
The win in Washington represented a sigh of relief, an opportunity to feel good about oneself given the recent slate of misfortune.
Cosmetic changes to the lineup simply won’t cut it when deeper change is required.
Rajakovic’s retooling worked, but the biggest work that lies ahead rests with Masai Ujiri and his lieutenants.