The Toronto Raptors Need to Start P.J. Tucker

The Raptors are desperately searching for a way to hang with the Cavs, and inserting Tucker into the starting five gives them their best chance.

The Toronto Raptors are in deep trouble in their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They dropped the first two games of the series in embarrassing fashion and have now lost five straight postseason games in Cleveland with an average margin of defeat of 24.2 points per contest, dating back to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

The series shifts back to Toronto tonight (where the Raptors were able to take two games from the Cavs last year), but no one is expecting this series to get close. Our algorithms, however, still give the Raps a 24.27% chance of winning this thing. For that to happen, the Raptors can’t afford to go down big in the first half of the first quarter again in tonight’s Game 3 matchup.

Toronto has used two different starting lineups over the first two games of this series and neither has done anything to hinder that early Cleveland onslaught.

Game 1’s lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas got outscored 19-12 in the first 6.3 minutes, while Game 2’s adjustment of Lowry, DeRozan, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson, and Ibaka went down 19-9 in the first 6.1.

In both cases, the games started to feel out of hand only moments after they had begun, and it’s doubtful that the Raptors can afford to let that happen again tonight and expect to pull this series to 2-1. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey might have to make another adjustment tonight, since the status quo just isn’t good enough when you get keep getting blown out so badly.

As far as the numbers are concerned, that adjustment should be putting P.J. Tucker in the starting lineup.

Trying to Slow LeBron

When Tucker was acquired at the deadline, it was obvious that it was done with LeBron James in mind. Tucker is known for his pesky defense on the wing, and the Raptors learned the hard way in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals that if you don’t find a way to at least make things difficult for LeBron, you don’t stand a chance.

So far in this series, LeBron has been a man possessed. Through two games, he’s averaging 37.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.5 blocks per contest, while shooting a blistering 62.2% from the field and 54.5% from long range (on 5.5 attempts per game).

No matter which wing defender has been in the game, LeBron has still managed to get his.

LeBron vs.MINPTS/36REB/36AST/36FG%3P%

That said, he’s had the hardest time shooting when Tucker has been on the floor, as compared to how smoldering hot he has been when Carroll or Powell have been on.

Making It Work

But it’s not just as simple as tossing Tucker into the starting lineup, as Toronto’s frontcourt has been in flux this entire playoffs (with each of the Raptors’ two series to date featuring two different starting frontcourts). You have to find the right combination of players (outside of the given backcourt of All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan), so that means making decisions about guys like Valanciunas and Carroll, as well (if we assume that midseason acquisition Ibaka is a must for his range and rim protection).

The lineup data from this postseason doesn’t offer much conclusive evidence, since the sample sizes have been so small and there have been so many blowouts in the Raptors’ eight games played that the numbers are kind of skewed.

If we look at the three-man frontcourt combinations from this season since the All-Star break (since that’s when it took form with the acquisitions of Ibaka and Tucker), however, there is certainly a common theme.

3-Man LineupMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
Carroll, Ibaka, Valanciunas277102.0105.7-3.751.5%50.1%
Powell, Tucker, Patterson15699.9106.6-6.751.3%47.5%
Powell, Patterson, Poeltl10899.4106.9-7.551.6%44.3%
Tucker, Ibaka, Valanciunas98114.7105.39.450.9%55.0%
Powell, Tucker, Poeltl7992.5101.8-9.252.9%41.2%
Powell, Tucker, Ibaka73111.0101.39.754.2%50.9%
Tucker, Patterson, Ibaka7297.990.57.553.5%46.4%
Powell, Ibaka, Valanciunas64104.9116.8-11.859.6%50.0%
Powell, Patterson, Valanciunas53115.2115.4-0.257.3%56.3%
Powell, Patterson, Ibaka5095.4110.4-15.047.1%44.7%

With a minimum of 50 minutes played together since the All-Star break, the only frontcourt combinations that have a positive net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) for the Raptors all contain both Tucker and Ibaka (with either Valanciunas, Powell, or Patterson filling in as the third forward/center).

Choosing that third big might be challenging, but the numbers heavily suggest that the Raptors are simply better when Tucker is on the floor with Ibaka, regardless of who that third guy is. Considering how tough a defender Tucker can be, starting him on LeBron from the jump would be a wise move if the Raptors want to keep things close in the early going.

Let’s see if they make that adjustment tonight or allow themselves to get rolled early by the Cavaliers yet again.