As the Raptors continue to pile up the victories and cement themselves as the Eastern Conference's second best team, it's getting easier to envision an extended playoff run in Toronto for the first time in ages. As much as recent playoff failures may influence how fans view the outlook of this year's edition of the team, the Raptors are building their case with each and every win that they're a more formidable playoff out than they have been in years past.
That doesn't mean we can't hyper-analyze all of the ways in which Toronto may be exposed come playoff time. A few weeks back, we looked at the Boston Celtics' Jae Crowder, a phenomenal wing defender with an improving offensive touch, as one foe who could derail the Raptors hopes of making a franchise-best run.
Since that article went live on January 27th, the Raptors have gone 8-3, pushing their record to 20 games above .500. It's gotten harder to poke holes in the team's playoff odds, despite a quiet trade deadline and the reliance on DeMarre Carroll coming back close to full health in order to inject a boost of talent into the roster.
Still, there are things, like Crowder, that we can fret about. We've learned over the last two years that the playoffs are not to be taken lightly. With that in mind, let's dive into something else that will make the playoffs a scary place for the Raptors: stretchy big men.
Why Stretchy Big Men Should Scare You
The trepidation surrounding stretch bigs against the Raptors in the playoffs starts and ends with Luis Scola.
It was really cool when Scola was knocking down threes and playing passable defense early in the season as a mainstay in the starting lineup. No one expected him to be a real contributor, let alone a meaningful one. But the Scola regression is now in full force. His three point shooting has tumbled over the last month, and he's having issues converting at close range. His shot chart over the last 15 games is troubling:
More concerning, though, has been the emergence of Scola as a complete liability on the defensive end. Not only is he physically incapable of shutting down most power forwards when they go to work in the post, but the Raptors three point defense absolutely collapses when he's on the floor.
With Scola on the court, the Raptors surrender a 40.2 opponent percentage on threes, by far the worst among Raptors regulars per NBA.com/stats. When Scola sits, the Raptors give up just 34.2 percent on long distance shots; second lowest among regulars when they sit.
Scola simply can't stay with his man when he decides to drift out to the three-point line. Look at this play from Wednesday night against the Wolves, in which Scola loses Karl-Anthony Towns early on before spending the duration of the possession playing Dance Dance Revolution in under the basket.
Scola's ugliness on the defensive end is compounded by the fact that he is paired with Jonas Valanciunas in the starting lineup. That pairing has been a problem to open games for most of the season. On Wednesday night, Dwane Casey finally got fed up with the duo, yanking them both early in the third quarter (Scola didn't see the floor again), and pointing out their struggles after the game:
He and JV both had a rough night with the speed and quickness (of the Wolves). They were -14. There's going to be games they're going to be valuable to us and games where they're going to have issues. Patrick (Patterson) and Bismack (Biyombo) came in and did an excellent job for us.
Scola and Valanciunas together ranks dead last among the Raptors 23 two-man combos with 500+ minutes together with a -4.4 NET Rating; they sit third worst among those lineups with a 106.9 DEF Rating.
We've seen shooting big men penalize the Raptors for their shaky personnel multiple times this year. Kevin Love has gone 7-for-13 from distance in two games against the Raptors; Nikola Jokic did a ton of damage operating from the elbows as he put up 27, 14 and 4 during the Raptors loss on February 1st in Denver; Kelly Olynyk has had a nice game or two; and remember the first game against Phoenix this season in which Mirza Teletovic and John Leuer demolished the Raptors from beyond the arc?
Toronto hasn't had constant issues dealing with stretchy big men, but it is an issue that has surfaced from time to time this year in match-ups where Valanciunas, and more notably Scola, are clearly at a disadvantage. Unfortunately for the Raptors, a lot of their potential playoff opponents possess the kind of weaponry that can exploit Toronto's plodding front line.
How scared should you be?
Fear Level: 2 Blown Rotations out of 5
The Scola-Valanciunas pairing is likely going to stay together in the starting five for the foreseeable future. Casey is dedicated to continuity with his line-ups, and at 38-18 with 17 wins in the last 20, the Raptors have proven they're good enough to overcome the the stretches in which the starting front court struggles.
That said, come playoff time, points become more precious, and the ones allowed by the starting lineup could really come back to haunt the Raptors late in games - more so than they do on random nights in February. If Casey is slow to adjust in a playoff game or series, it could be the difference between a prolonged playoff drive or another quick exit.
Thankfully, as Casey alluded to in his above quote, the Raptors have pieces that can better lock down big men who like to hang out away from the basket. Patrick Patterson has been a defensive stud this season, and the team's opponent three point percentage is five percentage points better when he hits the court. Biyombo is far more mobile than Valanciunas as well.
Essentially, the level of concern you have with opposing shooting big men in the playoffs should be determined by your confidence in Casey to adjust on the fly if Scola and Valanciunas are struggling to prevent their checks from shooting threes. If Wednesday night's quick hook was an indicator of how short of a leash the starting front court will have in a playoff series, the Raptors should be just fine.
Chances a Stretchy Big Man scares you in the playoffs?
It seems pretty likely. Most of the teams in the Eastern Conference have one or two big guys who can stroke it from long or mid range. Cleveland has Love and Channing Frye, Boston has Olynyk, Atlanta has Paul Millsap and Al Horford, Chicago has Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol, Charlotte has Marvin Williams and Washington has Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris. A smart man would put their money on the Raptors meeting at least one of those teams in the playoffs.
At least in Patterson, Biyombo and Carroll, the Raptors should have the options on hand to counter the bombing bigs they come across in April and beyond.
Just stay out of the way, Luis.
How much do stretchy big men scare you come playoff time?