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Tyronn Lue Is Running Circles Around Dwane Casey

Everything changed for the Raptors this season, but for the third straight postseason they’ve been driven into a familiar crisis. It could be a coaching problem.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the third straight year, Dwane Casey has been pushed out of his comfort zone. The Raptors head coach is typically one of the most conservative in the NBA: He trusts his players and schemes and doesn’t like to adjust his rotation in the playoffs. He’s had no choice but to change on the fly in their second-round series against the Cavs, and the results have been disastrous. Casey was outmaneuvered by Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue in a 128-110 loss in Game 2 on Thursday, putting his team in a hole it may not recover from. Lue has the best player in the world, but his ability to dictate matchups over the course of a series has given his team a crucial advantage.

Casey doesn’t have many easy choices in this series. LeBron James is one of the most unguardable players in NBA history, and the need to put a player with the size and speed to at least match up with him on the floor limits the Raptors head coach’s options. Toronto is at its best with smaller and more skilled players around Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but players like C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet have no chance of defending LeBron. The lineup Casey used in the fourth quarter of their pivotal Game 5 win over Washington, with Wright at the 3 and Miles at the 4, was dead on arrival against Cleveland.

Lue forced Casey’s hand in the fourth quarter of Game 1 by going to a bigger lineup he hasn’t used much this season, with LeBron at the 3 next to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. There was nowhere for Casey to hide his smaller perimeter players on defense. Love has been up-and-down in the playoffs, but he’s still more than capable of destroying most 6-foot-6 defenders in the post, while Thompson is one of the best rebounders in the NBA. Toronto gave up a 12-6 run in less than five minutes, forcing Casey to put his starting lineup back in, and the Raptors offense disintegrated down the stretch.

The problem Casey faces is that his bigger starting lineup, with OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas in the frontcourt, doesn’t provide much shooting and playmaking around his two All-Stars. Valanciunas and Ibaka, for as diligently as they have worked on those aspects of their game, still aren’t comfortable making quick decisions against aggressive defenders on the perimeter, while Anunoby is strictly a 3-and-D player at this stage of his career. Without guys like Wright and Miles to facilitate ball movement around them, it’s easy for Lowry and DeRozan to revert to playing isolation basketball, the style of play Toronto has been trying to move away from this season.

Casey had to find a balance between offense and defense in Game 2. He needed a lineup that could match up with Cleveland’s size while still spacing the floor and moving the ball. Managing a rotation in the playoffs is more art than science. There’s not a lot of data to go on. The sample sizes are so small that a few unlucky bounces of the ball can skew the numbers. A coach has to be able to evaluate the process more than the results, and identify which units are creating good shots on one end and forcing bad ones on the other. A lot of guesswork is required, and making the wrong adjustment can leave a team in an even worse situation than if it had done nothing at all.

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards -  Game Four Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Casey guessed wrong in Game 2.

After Cleveland went on an 8-0 run at the start of the second half, Toronto went progressively smaller over the course of the third quarter, bringing in Miles for Ibaka, and then VanVleet and Pascal Siakam for Valanciunas and Anunoby. The Raptors wound up with a super-small-ball lineup with Siakam at the 5. The problem is that Siakam needed to stay on LeBron, which left Miles on Love, exactly the matchup that had given Toronto trouble in Game 1. The Cavs, recognizing the mismatch, immediately got the ball inside to Love, who was able to power through Miles as if he weren’t even there. When the Raptors sent double-teams, Love picked them apart and found the open shooters. The Cavs won the third quarter by 13 points and the game was effectively over.

In Game 2, there was no answer for Love, who finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds, and two assists on 11-of-21 shooting. Valanciunas, a traditional center, guards Love when both teams have their starting lineups in the game, and he’s not comfortable staying with a spot-up shooter at the 3-point line. Either he plays too far off and Love gets open 3s, or he presses up on him and gives up easy back cuts to the rim. When Casey went to his smaller bench lineups with Miles on Love, Cleveland inverted its offense and went to him on the block. The Cavs had an answer for every adjustment Toronto tried to make.

The only stone left unturned is putting more medium-sized defenders on Love, particularly Ibaka and Siakam. Ibaka has been terrible in the series, averaging 5.5 points a game on 23.1 percent shooting, but part of the issue is that he’s had no one to match up with. He provides little value as a power forward against Cleveland on either end of the floor. Because the Cavs start Love at the 5 and LeBron at the 4, Ibaka’s primary assignment on defense is J.R. Smith, a 3-point shooter who rarely ventures into the paint, but he doesn’t have the offensive game to punish Smith on defense.

Cleveland is a tough matchup for Toronto, which is one reason the Cavs have won eight consecutive playoff games against the Raptors over the past three seasons. However, the bigger issue these series have revealed is that Casey has little feel for how to manipulate matchups and anticipate problems. He’s a reactive coach who comes into the series trying to stick with lineups he’s used all season, and then starts scrambling wildly when he’s forced to adjust. There are still interesting lineups he has yet to use against the Cavs, but he’s put his team at a massive psychological disadvantage by waiting to try them until it’s down 2-0 and headed to Cleveland for two must-win away games.

One interesting counter he should have tried while the games were in Toronto is playing Anunoby and Siakam together. The two young forwards have been splitting the defensive assignment on LeBron, but Anunoby, a more natural perimeter defender, has been more effective in that role than Siakam, a hybrid big man. Siakam, at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, has the physical tools to bang with Love in the post and guard him at the 3-point line, and he’s more of a playmaker than either Ibaka or Valanciunas. That lineup is the best of both worlds: It has players who could defend the Cavs stars while keeping the necessary playmaking and shooting on the floor around Lowry and DeRozan.

The easiest way to create minutes for those two to play together would be to insert Siakam into the starting lineup for Valanciunas. There would be a cascade effect down the lineup. Ibaka would guard Love instead of Smith, and he’d provide 3-point shooting at the center position, creating more openings for Toronto’s guards. Valanciunas could attack Cleveland’s smaller second unit, which would also take away minutes from Jakob Poeltl, who has the worst playoff net rating (minus-9.1) of any player in the Raptors rotation. If Lue went to his supersized frontcourt of Thompson, Love, and LeBron, Casey could turn to his new starting lineup of Ibaka, Siakam, and Anunoby. All three guys would have someone to guard, and the Raptors would have two shooters (Ibaka and Anunoby) and a playmaker (Siakam) around Lowry and DeRozan.

While it’s always easier to second-guess a coach after the games have happened, none of these issues were hard to anticipate. I wrote about playing Anunoby and Siakam together before the series even started, and the possible advantages of that lineup were clear all the way back in December. To be sure, there may be a reason Casey hasn’t wanted to play his young forwards together, and it’s impossible to know all of the factors that influence his decision from the outside. A coach as accomplished as Casey should get the benefit of the doubt, except he has a long history of reacting slowly in a playoff series and waiting until problems snowball before doing anything.

Valanciunas and Ibaka struggled to play together in the playoffs last season. Casey benched Valanciunas and moved Ibaka to the 5 after they fell behind in their first-round series against Milwaukee. He’s also been reluctant to keep his best perimeter defender on LeBron as much as possible. Anunoby is averaging only 26.8 minutes a game in this series, just like in 2017, when P.J. Tucker averaged 26.6 minutes a game against Cleveland, and in 2016, when James Johnson averaged 13.6 minutes a game. There were extenuating factors with Johnson, an undisciplined player who has bounced around the league and never earned Casey’s trust, but the job of a coach is to get the most out of the players he has. Erik Spoelstra has reached Johnson in Miami in a way Casey never could.

It’s not that Casey is a bad coach. He may win Coach of the Year for the way he handled his team in the regular season, developing a bunch of young players and changing the team’s style of play while still leading it to the no. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The problem is that his faith in his players and ability to keep an even keel over an 82-game season can become his undoing in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. Coaching in the regular season and the playoffs requires vastly different skill sets, and there aren’t many who can excel at both.

Lue, in many ways, is the inverse of Casey. He doesn’t have a system or a coherent set of principles to fall back on, and his teams can look undisciplined and unprepared in the regular season. He just falls back on LeBron, and then shuffles players around him until he finds something that works. However, in the playoffs, when flexibility is at a premium, his lack of consistency can become an advantage. Lue can quickly change his team’s identity and adjust to a matchup in a particular series. In the 2015 Finals, when he was the lead assistant to David Blatt, an undermanned Cavs team slowed the pace to a crawl in unlikely victories in games 2 and 3 behind a supersized frontcourt of Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. When Lue was the head coach in the 2016 Finals, he morphed his team into a replica of the Warriors and beat them at their own game.

Lue probably couldn’t have done as good a job as Casey at guiding Toronto through the regular season. Players without LeBron’s transcendent talent need more structured roles to succeed. Young players who have flourished under Casey, like Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet, Poeltl, and Wright, may have floundered under a coach who constantly tinkered with their roles, giving them little to do on offense beyond getting out of LeBron’s way. Even a veteran like Jae Crowder struggled in his brief stint under Lue before finding new life after he was traded to Utah. He made some pointed comments after his debut with his new team about the benefit of playing within a structure and a system.

Coaching is all about context. Casey has been in Toronto since 2011, and he has done an excellent job of developing young players and creating a winning culture. However, at a certain point in a team’s progression, the players become the leaders in the locker room and they need a tactician who can press the right buttons in a playoff series. There may not be any good answers for the Raptors against the Cavs, but that makes a coach who can think several moves ahead and create matchup advantages even more important. Casey has spent the past three seasons walking into every punch that Lue has thrown. Before Toronto thinks about blowing this team up, it might want to consider changing its coach first.