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NBA Playoffs 2017: The Raptors are making ISO-Ball cool again

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It hasn’t always been pretty, but why does that matter?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee’s hyper-aggressive defensive scheme is a problem. The image is ingrained in the minds of Raptors fans by now: a Raptors big man comes up to set a high screen for one of DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, the Bucks spring a trap containing 28 feet of wingspan, and the Toronto offense reverts to the fetal position.

Jason Kidd’s swarming defense has ripped the heart out of the Raptors offense. In the regular season, Toronto’s offense subsisted on its star guards making headway as pick-and-roll ball handlers. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, about a quarter of all Raptors possessions unfolded with a guard finding a shot out of a screen-and-roll action. Lowry’s pull-up threes, DeRozan’s floaters from 12-feet — more often than not these staple buckets start with a high screen from a Raptors big.

This explains the Raptors’ uncommonly low assist rate. Toronto’s pick-and-roll setup isn’t of the “spread” variety that now dominates the NBA. Rather, it’s designed to get Lowry and DeRozan into space with a head of steam; shoot first, pass if necessary is the ethos.

It works too. Toronto’s creators finished the regular season tied with Portland’s as the most efficient scorers in the pick-an-roll. And while 0.95 points per possession is comparatively low next to other play types, the threat Lowry and DeRozan pose coming around a high screen bleeds into the rest of the offense. For example, the Raptors finished the year with the fifth-most efficient group of roll men in the NBA, notching 1.12 points per possession on plays where the guards flipped it to a rim-running big; Lowry and DeRozan’s gravitational pulls have a lot to do with that.

Against the Bucks’ trapping though, the simple elegance that lifted the Raptors to a top-five offense has been tattered and muddied.

Through four games, the Raptors have remained dependent on bread and butter. Pick and rolls that finish in the hands of a guard have accounted for 22.3% of Toronto’s playbook — the second highest frequency in the league after James Harden’s Rockets.

Those possessions haven’t been the source of points they were in the regular season. Thanks to the the Bucks’ frenzied pick-and-roll defense, Raptor ball-handlers are managing just 0.79 points per possession in the series. Milwaukee’s length also cuts off the supply line to the lane. It’s hard to find a rolling big man through a wall of outstretched arms. As a result, Toronto’s rollers are converting at a similarly poor 0.78 PPP clip.

This sequence from the hairy moments of the fourth quarter on Saturday illustrates just how scarce space has been for Toronto’s All Stars when the pick-and-roll is the play call of choice.

Games 1 and three 3 in particular featured countless instances like that one — video proof of Toronto’s offense being cut off at the source. Toronto needed a pivot in its game plan in Game 4. Dwane Casey delivered.

“Adjustment” becomes the most overused word in the NBA lexicon come playoff time. Trope-y as it might be, coaches are judged on their abilities to make tweaks during or between post-season games. Fortunately for Raptors fans, Casey made a few in Game 4 that helped juice extra precious points out of his team’s offense.

The Raptors have often been maligned as an isolation-dependent team. It’s a misconception that is probably borne out of the team’s low assist rate and sometimes simplistic late game offense. In reality, only 8.5 percent of Raptors plays in the regular season fell under the ISO umbrella, per NBA.com. That was the sixth-highest figure in the league, but outside of Charlotte at the low end and Cleveland at the top, every team in the league sat in the five to 10 percent range. Toronto has relied even less on ISO-ball in the playoffs so far — just seven percent of time, 13th among playoff teams.

Throughout the series, there’s been an argument that leaning on more isolation would actually be a good thing for Toronto’s attack. Most notably: Toronto’s guards are really good at it. Over 82 games, the Raptors posted the league’s second-best mark in ISO situations, notching 0.98 PPP — a mark that has jumped to 1.11 PPP in the playoffs per NBA.com. When you then factor in Milwaukee’s preferred defensive style, it makes perfect sense to prioritize one-on-one play over pick-and-roll sets. If you can create a shot without inviting a second Bucks defender to the party with a screen, why not go solo?

Game 4’s plan of attack was more fixated on setting up one-on-one situations for Lowry and DeRozan to exploit, free of the complicating arms of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker and friends.

One of the key adjustments hearkened back to the regular season; games against Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics come to mind. Instead of having their big men come high to set screens designed to spring Lowry or DeRozan free, the Raptors often had their guards screen for each other in order to force the Bucks to switch into uncomfortable match-ups. Thomas still likely has visions in his head of DeRozan post-ups when the Raptors deployed this tactic against him throughout the season.

You can see in this clip how Jonas Valanciunas catches himself before heading up to screen for DeRozan, clearing the way for Powell to set the screen in his place. The result: Malcolm Brogdon, over-matched.

Powell, DeRozan and Lowry screened for one another at various points throughout the game in order to set up one-on-one situations they could thrive in. With no hulking big men like Valanciunas involved, the Raptors were able to neutralize the trapping threat.

More intricate sets worked to similar effect in Game 4 as well. Here, a series of off-ball cuts and screens creates a heads up showdown between Lowry and Greg Monroe in the corner. Want to guess how it turned out?

This wasn’t the insanity-driven, pick-and-roll upon hopeless pick-and-roll strategy Toronto relied upon in Games 1 through 3. They didn’t completely abandon the basis of their offense, but a healthy amount of individual play helped vary the attack, and take advantage of what is arguably Lowry and DeRozan’s best strength outside of scoring with the help of a high pick.

DeRozan’s late dagger over Tony Snell was a prime example of what he excels at most. We’ve seen this simple-yet-effective move thousands of times from him over the years.

Had another Bucks defender been brought into the fold with a screening action, there’s a good chance DeRozan might not have found the space to get his shot off.

We live in an age of offensive sophistication that prioritizes beauty as much as actual results. “Hero-ball” is stigmatized. If you’re not darting the ball around and hoisting uncontested looks, how good can you actually be?

Based on its personnel, Toronto can only sporadically achieve the ball-moving, total-shooting apex that the most highly regarded teams have made standard practice. When the playoffs come around, the Raptors might simply be incapable of churning out a pretty product. Lowry and DeRozan’s greatest strengths are prone to aggressive defenses, and the alternatives to the high pick-and-roll, like an uptick in isolation, are inherently inefficient plays that draw ire from those watching. If the desired end goal is reached, though, why does it matter how attractive the process was? Paired with the kind of defense the Raptors have played since their two deadline trades, a grimy, scrapping, mismatch-hunting offensive approach can be enough for Toronto advance.

When it comes to this team, maybe an 87-76 win built on tough defense and individual play is what beauty looks like.