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It’s past time for the Raptors to change their strategy in the clutch

The Raptors’ late-game offense isn’t working. Usually it doesn’t matter, but is it time to fix the problem before it crops up in the playoffs?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Man, the Raptors are good. They’re good at beating the tar out of opponents’ first units, running out five starters with a collective +7.5 Net Rating, good for third in the league. They’re good at pounding opponents’ benches into oblivion with a bench that features a +5.9 Net Rating of its own, also third-best. The have a rock-solid ten-man rotation, with an eleventh and twelfth man who are more than capable of stepping up when called upon. The Raptors are a top-five offensive team and a top-five defensive team and they’re a team positioned to make a deep run in the playoffs.

But sometimes the Raptors suck. They don’t suck like the Raptors of old, teams that were worlds behind the best teams in the league and just happy to occasionally get obliterated in the playoffs. No, they suck because when the going gets toughest — when the hill gets steepest — they tighten up and run the same old last-ditch isolation play. You know the play I’m talking about. Five, ten, twenty seconds left in the fourth quarter, Raps stuck a possession. The ball-handler sends the ball to DeMar DeRozan. DeMar kills some clock, then drives and pulls up for a semi-contested jumper that rims out at the end of the clock.

This isn’t a fatal flaw. The Raptors are good enough this year that most of the time it doesn’t matter if DeRozan makes his last shot — most of the time the Raptors are already leading by the time the final minutes come around. But when they aren’t, the script seems to repeat itself.

Here’s the last play against Boston in November:

Here’s the last seconds of regulation vs. Brooklyn in the game where Kyle Lowry fell on his rear in overtime:

And here’s the final play against Utah last Friday:

Overall, it’s great that the Raptors, in addition to having the fourth-highest win percentage in the NBA, are in the position to capture as many of their losses as they have been. That’s a hallmark of a very good team. A team that wins most of the time, and stays close even when they don’t, is a dangerous team. And hitting a shot in the last minute of the fourth quarter is by definition difficult — not only is the pressure on, but the defense is as locked in and engaged as ever.

There’s a simple solution to this issue: when the defense shows their scheme, DeRozan can give up the ball to a secondary scorer. It may not be entirely effective, but just by moving the ball to a secondary threat, the Raptors can change the opportunities available to them. C.J. Miles has an effective FG% of .524. Delon Wright has an effective FG% of .528. Fred VanVleet leads the team in 3-point shooting percentage. These are legitimate NBA threats. The goal of the Raptors’ offense this year has been to allow secondary shooters to take their shots, and it’s all oriented towards avoiding the exact type of playoff struggles we saw last year when secondary scorers like DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson had to pass up open jumpers simply because they weren’t falling. The reason why the young Raptors bench has performed as well as they have this year is partly because of defense and energy — but it’s also because they’ve found a way to score the ball at a reasonably effective rate.

You know what they say about the definition of insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Raptors’ definition of insanity is expecting DeMar DeRozan to hit contested shots in crunch time to win games in the balance. On the season as a whole, DeRozan averages 0.90 points per possession on isos. That’s not terrible, but it’s not good, and running a play type with an expectation of less than one point at the point in the game when you’re most in need of points seems counter-intuitive and counterproductive. Given current late-game personnel, running a set play with a cutter seems like an obvious solution (see Tuesday’s game against Minnesota for how that worked out.) Teams score more on cuts than isolations in general. But a good defense can guard against that, so the Raptors need something else in their bag of tricks as well.

There may be a more reliable option for one-on-one scoring, but he’s usually riding the pine in crunch time. Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 1.13 PPP on 95 post-ups this year. That’s the best mark in the league for anyone with anywhere near that many post-up opportunities (among players ahead of him, only Mike Scott of the Wizards is close with 54 post-ups). Can you imagine a late-game offense running through Jonas while DeRozan sits on the bench? It might seem strange, but it might make more sense than what we’re currently seeing.

Really, the most important thing is that the Raptors vary their late-game looks. Being predictable in sports is not good. The defense in a given situation has to be ready to defend any play, but the more predictable an opponent’s action is, the more the defense can hedge one way or another. When a team is trailing by 14 points in the 4th quarter of an NFL game, the defense can blitz the QB, specifically because they know that the offense doesn’t have time to run. When a baseball pitcher comes to bat with nobody out and the tying run on second, everyone in the ballpark knows he’s going to bunt, and the third basemen can start running towards home before the pitcher even starts his windup — and potentially make the play at second. When a poker player sits on his hands all day, folding everything, then suddenly shoves his whole stack in pre-flop, everyone at the table damn well knows that he’s got aces. And suddenly, those aces lose most of their power, because everyone knows that they might as well fold.

All this is not to say that C.J. Miles or Delon Wright should be given the full reins of the late-game offense, or that DeRozan needs to sit. Defenses step up in crunch time, and secondary scorers might miss their shots just as easily as DeRozan. Jonas will probably struggle with double-teams in the post if the Raptors try to make him their end-of-game option. But running the ball through all five players on the floor — simply probing for an opening — puts the defense on its heels. By running some action through Delon or VanVleet or Miles (or even a big), the offense gets a chance to attack the weaker defenders on the floor and potentially leave DeRozan or Kyle Lowry more open for a shot. (Again: see Tuesday’s win against the Timberwolves for how exactly this can work.) It forces scrambling, adjustments, and opens up the opportunity for a blown assignment. Right now opposition defenses need to hedge against the pass, but they can really focus on loading up against DeRozan, and the result is usually a predictable semi-contested jumper against the opponents’ best defender.

Per NBA Miner, DeRozan’s late/clutch field goal percentage is tied with Bradley Beal for worst in the league among players with 12 or more such attempts. Both Beal and DeRozan are 5-of-20 in that spot, for a 25% FG% which is… not good. Further down the list, Lowry checks in at just 2-of-11, which is similarly awful. That means that the Raptors’ two All-Stars have combined to go 7-of-31 in clutch situations, for a horrendous 22.5% from the floor. No one else on the team has more than three attempts in such situations. (C.J. Miles is 2-of-3 in those attempts, which means he’d have to hit only one of his next eight to surpass Lowry.) The key here isn’t really the percentages, though — it’s the shot distribution. Just three attempts for any non-star player simply isn’t enough. In the last minute of close games, DeRozan is 160th in True Shooting %, while Lowry is 196th. While those numbers include some low usage players with only a handful of late game touches, ranking in the low 100s in a league with less than 450 players is hardly anything to write home about.

These numbers don’t prove that DeRozan or Lowry are un-clutch or chokers, as a lot of people like to say when dismissing the Raptors’ chances in the playoffs. But they do illustrate how hard it is to score in the NBA against a set defense that knows exactly what type of action to expect. Right now the Raptors are relying on DeRozan’s superlative scoring ability winning out, and that’s not a good gamble to take on the regular.

Watching DeRozan at the end of games is reminiscent of playing pickup to 11 on the playground with the best player on your team. Together, the team has no problem making it to 10 points, but then that player decides that he simply has to score that game-winning bucket. Everyone on your team knows it, and pretty soon everyone on the other team knows it too. They start doubling and tripling him. And either you lose, or it takes him six or seven times down the court to hit that final shot, because he just will not look for the open man. Is it selfish? Sure. But that’s not really the point. The guy has faith in himself, and that’s admirable. But at the end of the day, it’s not smart. And in the playoffs, the Raptors will need to play smart.