Talking to reporters in mid-July during restart training inside the NBA bubble, Raptors forward Norman Powell stressed the importance of the second unit pushing the starters at each and every practice—of coming at them with everything and never letting up. “Every day you’re out here trying to prove something. Every day you’re trying to show why you belong,” he explained. “When we’re winning and beating them in drills and getting them frustrated, getting them mad at the coaches for calls that are not being made or whatever it is, I think it’s a confidence boost for us.”
The boost worked—and the confidence is evident. Throughout the last month and a half of championship seeding games and Eastern Conference playoffs inside of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the Raptors bench has played better than anyone other than head coach Nick Nurse himself could have imagined, helping the reigning champions clinch one victory after another on the road to a second title. From game-winning buzzer-beaters to record-breaking scoring streaks, these guys have proven themselves to be so much more than a mere reserve squad. They’re indispensable. And they only seem to be getting better.
Some of the most dazzling flashes of the bench’s brilliance came toward the end of the seeding period. As the Raptors took on the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks in the second week of August, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, and Powell combined for a remarkable 68 points, with Terence Davis taking ten and Paul Watson another four. It was Stanley Johnson and Watson, meanwhile, who lead the Raptors to victory again later that week, alongside Malcolm Miller and Dewan Hernandez, with Davis, Powell, and Thomas again dropping buckets. With the playoffs looming, Nick Nurse wanted his starting lineup well rested, and many of them sat those last seeding games out. With the floor there and opportunity knocking, the second unit made the most of it, and in game after game showed up.
Of course, these were seeding games with little to no impact on the playoff standings and no serious pressure to win regardless. After Thomas and Boucher’s impressive performance against the Bucks, reporters hounded Nick Nurse with questions about the deep bench excellence and his great fortune in having such gifted seventh and eighth players. “What advantage does that give you heading into the postseason?” one journalist asked. Nurse was unambiguous. “We had a couple of guys play really well tonight in a game that was absolutely meaningless against a team that wasn’t playing very hard against us,” he said flatly. “So I don’t want to get too carried away.”
It’s true that stellar work on the court during regular-season play doesn’t necessarily translate to a winning playoff performance—just ask Paul George. But if there was lingering doubt that the depth of the Raptors bench would be an asset in the playoffs, it was dispelled as soon as they started the series. Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry took charge through the early match-ups and dominated the court, as you’d expect of the team’s star pair, with VanVleet emerging on night one with a 30-point game. They couldn’t have cleaned up 134-110, though, without the fine supporting work of Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and especially Serge Ibaka, who combined for 39 and helped control the course of the game.
Ibaka is frequently sensational, and he was a deciding factor in the series sweep: his 20 points last Wednesday night were a stunning coup, and it’s no surprise Nurse has been putting him on the court for upwards of 30 minutes a game. The surprise star, however, has been San Diego-born Norman Powell, the small forward and Osmow’s shawarma ambassador who has suddenly seemed to come alive playing against the Nets. In game two, he landed basket after basket after basket, walking away with an astonishing 24 points in 30 minutes and helping secure the hard-fought 104-99 win. Guys like Thomas, Miller, and Johnson have been critical in key moments, coming in for a few minutes a time and landing the occasional (and often crucial) two-pointer. Ibaka and Powell are another story. They’ve been so dominant, and so skilled, that they’ve done as much or more than most starters.
It all came to a resounding crescendo on Sunday night, as the Raptors achieved the first series sweep in franchise history, defeating Brooklyn 150-122. Most spectacularly, 100 of those points came from the bench. One hundred points: a whopping 29 from Norman Powell. 27 from Serge Ibaka. 14 and 12 from Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, respectively. Boucher, Watson, Johnson, and Hollis-Jefferson each pitched in a few of their own. It wasn’t simply incredible. It was historic: the most points the Raptors have ever scored in a playoff game, and the most points scored off the bench in NBA history—beating the 86 playoff points scored by the Mavericks bench in 2011 and the 94 scored by the Warriors bench in regular season play in 1971. This was not a meaningless game, and the Nets were trying very hard to beat them. It was a truly great achievement.
And that is certainly heartening as the Raptors prepare to meet the Celtics. Most teams rely on the bench to alleviate pressure from the starting lineup: their job, at the most basic, is to hold things together as best as they’re able while the better players recuperate their energy and catch their breath here and there. But the Raptors don’t have the kind of team that falls apart the moment one or two starters have to head off the court for a breather. As they’ve made abundantly clear, they’ve got guys who can score and guys who can defend all the way down the bench—and with Lowry now confirmed to be out with a sprained ankle, that ability to draw deep is going to be more important than ever. An injury like that could destroy a team’s championship chances. With these Raptors, there’s no reason to fear.