With 2:10 remaining in the first quarter of Toronto’s 108-105, streak-busting win over the Rockets, Jakob Poeltl found himself switched on to Chris Paul in space near the top of the arc.
“I’m trying to get him off the three,” Poeltl explained when asked about his thought process when guarding the future Hall-of-Famer in isolation. “I’m trying to take his right hand away, so like make him drive to the left, and then hopefully make him take a contested two somewhere, a mid-range shot, make it as tough as possible, don’t bail him out.”
Behold, a vision realized.
That Poeltl stop, in perfect rhythm with his desired intentions, was emblematic of how the play of the Raptors bigs helped earn Toronto one of its biggest regular season wins, quite literally ever.
Houston’s attack is about deadly simplicity. They hunt switches ferociously, and task their two superstar guards with exploiting favourable match-ups. When deviating away from isolation sets, it’s usually in the interest of running a pick-and-roll so simple yet so brain-bending that opposing defenders tend to wind up in the fetal position.
“It’s actually really simple for the bigs,” said Poeltl of the way in which the Raptors game planned for the Rockets. “The hardest part is trying to read if he’s (Harden) trying to go up for the layup or if he’s trying to throw the lob for a guy like [Clint] Capela. That’s the tough part right there, trying to read which way he’s going … Other than that it’s really just sitting back and trying to make a read.
“They’re a good pick and roll team, it’s obviously a problem when James Harden comes off the screen and has the option to throw a lob to an athletic guy like Capela. It’s tough to guard it but really, from our game plan point of view, it’s not very complicated.”
Houston makes those reads Poeltl alluded to nearly impossible to make with consistent accuracy. Harden and Paul force the defense to compromise with every decision. Big men, even without the burden of blitzing or hedging built into the defensive approach, bear the brunt of the stress the Rockets impose.
Oftentimes the switches they’re exploiting — like the one outlined above — are against cumbersome talls who need perfect footwork to even have a prayer. In pick-and-roll scenarios, bigs can get stranded on an island. Shifting and helping wings lead to kick outs and threes. Clint Capela looms as an ever-present lob threat. Paul has his floaters, Harden that damned left hand.
Toronto’s coaching staff appeared to make a conscious decision on Friday night: let Houston jaunt freely to the rim, trust the bigs to defend without help from the perimeter, and dupe the Rockets into a shot chart they’re uncomfortable with.
And dammit, it fucking worked... for a half at least.
Half of Houston’s field goal attempts this season have come from outside the arc. Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have taken the whole “threes are worth more than twos” thing to its extreme. It’s yielded the second-most efficient offense in the league, and one of the most potent attacks of all time, all without elaborate principles or a breakneck pace.
On Friday, the Raptors made the lane too appetizing for Houston to pass up. Jonas Valanciunas and Poeltl were essentially tasked with hanging back and trying their darnedest to not soil themselves on every possession. With every other Raptor rigidly sticking to the Houston shooters dotted about the floor, how could Harden and Paul not take their chances one-on-one at the basket?
Pick and roll defense, strong side corner man stays home, Harden's guy face-guards him, and when Paul goes middle, instead of going to help down, Lowry actually takes steps over back to corner. pic.twitter.com/me9QtxEB7X— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 10, 2018
Of the Rockets’ 81 field goal tries on the night, just 27 came from outside — the second fewest threes they’ve launched in a game this season, and nowhere near their typical 50/50 twos-to-threes split. Toronto played the role of a toddler’s negotiating parents — reverse-psyching the Rockets into eating an apple when what they really wanted was ice cream.
This plan was contingent on Toronto’s centres holding up enough, whether guarding pick-and-rolls or ISOs, to make the parade to the hoop worth allowing.
In the first half, it was no contest. Houston took 22 shots inside five feet in the opening two quarters per NBA.com, connecting on just 12 — nearly nine percentage points below their season-long 63.6 percent clip from in close. Kyle Lowry bombed a pile of threes and DeMar DeRozan picked up 14 points of his own in the first half, but the central reason for the Raptors’ 15-point edge through 24 was Valanciunas and Poeltl’s defense while under heavy fire.
Houston had won 17-straight coming into the game for a reason. They’re really freaking good, and have the on-hand talent to turn a negative into a positive with 15 minutes of locker room rumination. As the second half opened, Harden persisted with his drives, testing the resolve of Toronto’s centres.
“Obviously James gets 40 and he’s like 15 for 22 or something,” said Mike D’Antoni after the game. “So they are going to give up layups and that’s what we took most of the game.”
Houston rediscovered that which makes them horrifying in the second half. As Harden’s lefty finishes racked up, Toronto’s help became more creeping, and the triple cannon started firing again. Casey was impressed, however, by the team’s resolve as Houston starting Houstoning.
“The guys stuck with the game plan, they trusted what we were doing, stuck with it,” said Casey post-game. “Our big thing tonight was mental toughness because this team is going to score, they’re a great scoring team, one of the best I’ve seen in my many years in the NBA, and you know, you take away one thing and they figure out another way.”
That other way Casey mentioned turned out to simply be ridiculous shot making by the time crunch time rolled around. Harden’s three to tie it over Fred VanVleet with about 2:15 remaining was some truly ludicrous nonsense that no defense is containing. Same goes for Eric Gordon’s three from 2014-15 Lou Williams depth in the closing seconds. Those were, however, Houston’s only buckets in the final four minutes. After relenting in the third quarter, Casey left Valanciunas in to close. And with one final spot-on diagnosis of a Rockets pick-and-roll, JV vindicated his coach’s trust.
With a 120.9 Offensive Rating and a 71.6 True Shooting percentage in the second half, Rockets fans can find solace in knowing that their team probably would have won if the game were 50 minutes long.
Toronto owes its 48th win to a masterful first half defensive showing. That Dwane Casey’s big-trusting scheme was barely enough to scrape out one win might be disconcerting for those dreaming of a Raptors/Rockets NBA Finals. But in games between two teams so closely matched on the stats page, even the slightest mathematical advantage can swing a result. On Friday night, the Raptors’ big men proved they’re capable of supplying that edge.