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The Raptors need Jonas Valanciunas but not all the time

The Raptors’ defense is still rounding into form, but how does Jonas Valanciunas fit in now with this team?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s not a hedge, that’s a high wall, what we call it a high wall,” said coach Dwane Casey after the Raptors’ win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was answering a question about what Jonas Valanciunas was trying to do (or not do) in the team’s pick-and-roll defense scheme — and explaining some terminology. “It shouldn’t be [a hedge]. If he did, it’s a mistake... but it should be a high wall.”

Ah yes, the form a fuckin’ wall defensive tactic. Crude as it is as a summary, an NBA team’s defense should function something like a wall — to reduce visibility, mobility, and ability. For the Raptors, it’s proven difficult to implement these concepts with consistency so far this season. The team is currently the second best offensive team in the NBA — a mere 0.4 points behind the Golden State Warriors in offensive rating, if you can believe it. But their defense has them sitting in 16th (a notch ahead of the Cavaliers). After the T-Wolves win, which featured lax defense from the Raptors before a late surge, Casey voiced his concerns. “[W]e can’t live like that and expect to do anything special. We can be a good team, but we can’t be special if we allow things that happened tonight in the first two quarters.”

So what are the Raptors missing? We know Kyle Lowry isn’t to blame — the team lists whenever he sits off. Players like DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph have their utility (and reputation) as smart, versatile defenders. Rookie Pascal Siakam has tons of energy but is still learning, so he gets a pass for now. And we can acknowledge DeMar DeRozan’s limitations because, well, he’s fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 27.8 points per game. That kind of production helps a team win — and can tucker a guy out.

As has been the case for the last couple of years, the Raptors circle back to and around Valanciunas, the literal centre of their team, and the mystery of a big man whose efficient skills on one end of the court are undone by his lack on the other.

Before the T-Wolves game, Sean Woodley and I did an Facebook Live segment that featured an open question; with an over/under line set at 24.5 minutes, how many would Valanciunas play? For the season, Jonas’ minutes have crept just above his career average of 26.3, to 28.1. But in the past seven games, owing partly to injury (Casey insists JV is now fine), blowout scores, or the matchup situation, Valanciunas has crested 26.3 minutes just once: against the T-Wolves. (And you better believe I took that over!)

The almost 29 minutes Valanciunas played in that game came as something of a surprise, given the speed and mobility of the team the Raptors faced. The T-Wolves, stocked with spry big men Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica, pose matchup problems for JV on the defensive end. This is to say nothing of the quickness of the Wolves’ guards, and the pick-and-roll situations they’d undoubtedly put him in. Valanciunas was eventually forced out of the game at the 6:45 mark in the first quarter after picking up his second foul trying to hedge, er, I mean, high wall on Ricky Rubio. It looked like the under bet would have been safe.

The second quarter saw Valanciunas hit his stride though — on the offensive end — with six points, bringing his total to ten for the half. Sure, the T-Wolves had 16 second chance points, and Dieng pump-faked Jonas out of his shoes once for a dunk, but the Raps had managed to tie it up. A third quarter awakening from Towns (who spent most of the night being guarded by Patterson, which should tell you something), and some vicious dunks at JV’s expense, suggested more trouble on the horizon. Until the Raptors came alive in the fourth, outgunned the young Wolves 36-21, and blew the game open. For his part, Jonas finished with a 20-10, on 60 percent shooting with six offensive rebounds. He even recorded a blocked shot. Shrug.

“Every game is the same, you know,” said Valanciunas afterwards, Sphinx-like as always. “There’s ups and downs. Everybody goes through some bad games and some good games, you know. You just gotta play through that stuff.” As an assessment on his specific performance — or the season as a whole — Jonas isn’t exactly wrong.

In Monday night’s Cleveland game, Valanciunas went 1-for-8 from the field. If there was ever a reason to bench the big man, it’s right there in those numbers. Against Boston last night, the story was similar: a meagre seven points (on seven shots and no free throw attempts), to go with ten rebounds. Much like the Cavs game, JV was forced to the bench after getting cooked repeatedly on D, this time by the Celtics’ Al Horford. For Jonas to be an effective member of the Raptors, he has to play big on the offensive end — finishing in the post, hitting jumpers from range, and creating chances on the offensive glass.

When those things aren’t happening, and without Jared Sullinger around, it puts the Raptors in a bind. One solution has been to play Lucas Nogueira — who is now averaging 18.8 minutes per game. Bebe has the mobility to keep up with the play on the perimeter and challenge shots at the rim. (He’s averaging 1.8 blocks per game.) But it’s also clear Casey doesn’t quite trust him — see: the fourth quarter of both the Cavs and Celtics games, as the Raptors went to Patterson at the 5. This brings us to the second solution, which is to just take JV and Bebe out of those situations and lean on Patterson’s smarts and quickness — coupled with Carroll — to be able to deal with most lineups.

Against the Celtics, this second tactic worked (even with Carroll sitting out). The Raptors went super small with Patterson, DeRozan, Norman Powell, Lowry and Joseph and were able to stave off a late Boston rally. Against the Cavs, who are able to run out a “small” lineup featuring Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and LeBron James, the Raptors just couldn’t compete. Ideally in that situation, Toronto would love to bank on Jonas being able to lay waste to a relatively smaller front court. It just hasn’t quite happened consistently this season — with only a couple of huge JV games on record, and the memory of last year’s postseason rampage still playing in our heads.

In this way, Valanciunas remains something of an enigma for the Raptors. He’s a highly efficient and skilled player on offense, except when he’s not. And it’s clear he’s either too slow or not quite aware enough to ever be a strong player on defense. The Raptors need him, but the also play better in spurts without him. If Jonas is perturbed about any of this, about his minutes, or his seesaw play, or his mistakes, he doesn’t show it.

“I was just playing my game,” Valanciunas said after the T-Wolves game. “I wasn’t worried who was guarding me. I was just trying to do... trying to set good screens, play harder, rebound the ball. That’s all I do.”

And when Jonas tried to hedge on defense — an apparent mistake: “There is mistakes on everybody. Offense, defense... you do mistakes.” Hard to argue with that.