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 Saturday's 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 said. “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, on 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 play - off a long pass from Nogueira - was part of Toronto's game-turning 10-0 fourth-quarter run.
Using Nogueira down the stretch of a big game might have been a head-scratcher to outsiders. But Casey had zero revelations about the athletic, long-armed seven-footer.
“No, not at all, just because you're looking for productivity,” Casey said Sunday. “The reason he's in there is someone else isn't getting the job done or he's giving us something the other guys don't give us. It's easy to put Lucas in, just because of the confidence we have in him.”
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,” Casey said. “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. And that's what you have going into this part of the season with young players . . . They're being baptized into playoff basketball.”
Miles, a 13-year NBA veteran who was acquired from Indiana last summer, said he's had a “great relationship” with Nogueira since Day 1.
“He has all the talent in the world, he just gets down on himself a lot. It's about keeping him energetic, keeping him wanting to be here, keeping him engaged. We just talk everyday. I remind him that we're going to need him. Every day we walked into the gym, I said it to him 'We're going to need you.'
“He might not have played in six games, and then truth be told, in the next game he has to play 15 minutes. And he changed the game in the fourth quarter. It happened in the first game of the playoffs. It's no secret that we need everybody on the team.”
The Raptors 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,” Miles said. “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. 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. 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 Tuesday when the Raptors host Washington in Game 2.
“He's much better, he got some shots up today, we'll see, but he's still day-to-day,” Casey said.
The series moves to Washington for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.