Some games, you just want to forget the minute they ended, because watching them was so painful you don’t want to think about those two hours ever again. Usually it’s a loss! But sometimes, like last night, it’s a win. Let’s break down the pain:
Excellent Final Play Call for the Game Winner
I guess the first 47 minutes and 57 seconds of the game all led to this, so it’s not all bad:
This is a great play call. That video starts abruptly, but Danny Green starts the inbounds play at half court, heads to the far side, then quickly cuts back towards the ball. Serge Ibaka sets a screen, freeing Green for a curl; Ibaka also immediately pivots to screen for Kawhi Leonard, whose man, Aaron Gordon, has already drifted towards Green — but just a little too late.
Also note how open Leonard is there. Yes, Gordon’s already sagged off, but if Kyle Lowry hadn’t passed it to Green, Gordon likely would have run into Ibaka’s screen, and Kawhi would have been open from the top.
Now, Lowry’s pass to Green is actually a little bit away from where Green would ideally want it — it’s to his left hand, where it should be more in front of him — but Green recovers nicely, squares, rises and calmly drains it. And Raptors fans everywhere sighed in relief.
Hopefully this quiets the “Nick Nurse can’t draw up plays” crowd for a little while. (One good play is not enough to judge his play-calling a success, just like the two iso-plays last week were not enough to judge it a failure.)
Me, I was just so glad the whole thing was over, I immediately blocked the previous play from my mind. What? Did Danny Green do something bad? I have no recollection.
What Happened to the Defense in the Second Half!?
The Raptors played what might have been their finest defensive half of the season in the first, holding Orlando to 37 points on 13-of-39 shooting. That’s good! It wasn’t just Magic misses, either; the Raptors were closing out shooters effectively and actively protecting the paint, with three blocks and several more shot contests.
But that all fell apart in the third quarter. After giving up 37 in the whole first half, they gave up 17 points in the first 4.5 minutes of the third, and 38 (!) in the frame. And again, this wasn’t just a matter of Orlando making a few buckets; they were suddenly wide open from distance, finding cracks in the interior D, and beating the Raptors in transition. Most concerting of all, it looked like every screen they set completely took the Raptors defenders out of the play.
In the fourth, the Magic continued getting good looks... but here, finally, simply started missing, starting the quarter 1-for-14, including 12 straight misses. Of course, between the third and fourth quarters, the Raptors decided to slather their hands in Crisco, and turned the ball over six times in the first four minutes, and eight in the frame.
All told, the two teams combined to score nine points through the first seven minutes of the quarter.
This is what I mean when I say this thing was painful.
The Offense Wasn’t Much Better
Excellent final play aside, the Raptors are still running a lot of isolation plays for Leonard, or at least, getting him the ball and then clearing out so he can go to work. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — he’s a superstar and capable of scoring on just about anyone — but at times it almost feels like the other four Raptors are playing a different game, together, and Kawhi just shows up every once in a while to do his own thing. Like when I was a kid and all the neighbourhood boys would play with our Transformers, and then that one kid would show up with his G.I. Joes. Yeah, they’re all cool toys, and we’re all essentially playing together, but this dude is kinda doing his own thing, you know?
The other area for concern for me is that, by playing this way, it generally makes it feels like Leonard has to work a lot harder to get his shots. Sure, he generally makes it look easy, but iso-ball requires an extra level of energy to get a good shot; working together with your teammates with action, ball movement and screens usually balances the workload out a little bit.
Nurse has said they haven’t installed all of the offense yet, and that things will continue to improve, but that excuse is only valid for so long. We’re more than one-fifth of the way through the season, after all.
Ibaka-Valanciunas Throwback Minutes FTW
The matchup against Nikola Vucevic is a tough one; he’s wide and strong, can step out and shoot, and is a very good passer. He’s not ideal for either Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas to match up with. But Ibaka handled it pretty well in the first half; on offense, he consistently got good position, either just posting up or finding the seams on pick-and-rolls (and Lowry, naturally, did a great job getting the ball to him out of those actions). Defensively, he kept Vooch from going off from three-point range (0-for-3).
Now, rebounding-wise, Vucevic was having a field day, hauling in 18 on the night; this prompted Nick Nurse to finally break the Ibaka-Valanciunas emergency glass for a few plays. In those three minutes, Ibaka and Valanciunas combined for five rebounds, to Vucevic’s one. Hooray!
Vucevic managed to grab four more after JV subbed out. Not hooray! Still, it’s nice to see that pairing again, and to see it that it does indeed work to shore up the rebounding, an area in which the Raptors have struggled.
Back to Ibaka briefly; late in the fourth, it was a Lowry-Ibaka pick and roll with 45 seconds to go that broke an 89-89 tie — Lowry dribbling across the top of the key, Ibaka setting a solid screen, Lowry turning the corner and then calmly dropping it to Ibaka for the “pop.” 17-foot J, money. Again, not every late play call for the Raptors is iso-ball.
Did something happen in between that bucket and the Danny Green game-winner? It must have, because the it was 91-91 when Green hit his shot. Too bad I can’t remember.
All right, Someone Gotta Explain the Zo Brown Minutes to Me
I know the Raptors are down three wing players, but I’m not quite sure I get why Lorenzo Brown played 19 minutes, including seven minutes in the fourth quarter of a tie ball game.
It’s not like Brown was terrible; he ended up a +3 on the evening, and chipped in eight points with no turnovers. Also, by playing with Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright for almost 13 minutes, Brown didn’t have to be a primary ball handler, a role that — even though he’s a point guard — he doesn’t seem suited for, as he’s far too slow and tentative with his decision making (and generally, a turnover machine).
But that only makes me wonder — if you’re playing Brown off the ball, wouldn’t you rather play Malachi Richardson, who is a better shooter, and bigger, in that role? Richardson was a DNP-CD.
I can only assume the Raptors are playing the long game here, getting Brown some reps now so that they can be more confident of his ability to contribute during the dog days of the season, or should they need him as point guard injury insurance (knock on wood).
Speaking of getting reps, that’s three of the last four games in which the Raptors have played real crunch-time minutes. This time they came away with a win. There’s a lot to clean up, but these reps will only help as the season goes on.