The Toronto Raptors flipped the switch late once again, turning a second-half double-digit deficit against the Brooklyn Nets into an eventual 116-112 victory. It’s a win, but is that kind of play sustainable?
That Sinking Feeling
The Raptors have won 19 of their past 23 games, are going to set the franchise record for wins and will likely go into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the conference (magic number to clinch top spot = 6). And yet, their play has left a lot to be desired over the past week. I know it’s a small sample size, and I’m sure the team’s history is playing into my angst, but the lack of urgency is disconcerting.
Over the past five games opponents are averaging 116 points, while the Raptors themselves are only averaging 117, far off their stellar margin of victory for most of the year, which hovered around 8. They trailed by double-digits in all of them except the Cleveland game (which they actually led by double digits before LeBron James LeBron’ed all over the place).
I said it the other day, I’m not a fan of teams that think they can flip the switch because usually, when you need it most, the switch starts going on the fritz, you know?
The Defense is the Story
Those 116 points the Raptors are giving up over the last five have come, not surprisingly, on excellent shooting nights from opponents. Only Orlando shot worse than 48% against Toronto in that stretch.
The main culprit seems to be the pick-and-roll defense. Far too often, the Raptors perimeter players are dying on screens, leaving their big men facing a guard or wing with a ton of space to operate. Both Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl have played better than expected in these situations overall on the year, but they’ve looked exposed the past few games; they need the guards to slow the opponents down a little more.
Otherwise, it’s a wing 1-on-1 against a centre, which is trouble, and if and when help comes, that means a 3-point shooter is open somewhere. Which means, and the eye test certainly backs this up, lots of shots at the hoop and lots of open threes. The two things you don’t want to give up.
So How About Those Lineups?
In an effort to wake up his sleepy crew, Dwane Casey brought his bench in super-early in the third quarter last night. Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and, yes, Lucas Nogueira came in with 8:15 to go in the quarter, leaving Kyle Lowry as the only starter.
That unit let the then 11-point lead grow to 14. Not great, Bob!
A little Lowry spurt (3-pointer, layup, two foul shots) brought the Raptors to within 9 when DeMar DeRozan replaced him with 1:20 to go in the quarter; that led to an odd DeRozan-Siakam-Wright-VanVleet-Ibaka lineup to start the fourth, a group that had played all of 13 minutes together before last night.
Then Lowry came back with 10 minutes to go. At that point I wrote “rotations are f--ked” in my notes... but, hey, it worked. The Raptors whittled the lead down, finally got over the hump thanks to some aggressive Lowry drives, and when VanVleet drained a three over our old friend DeMarre Carroll you knew this one was over.
Taking Advantage of Their Strengths
I really liked how much the Raptors attacked at various points in this game—mainly early and late. Valanciunas and Ibaka were getting into the paint in the first, and Lowry and DeRozan were doing it in the fourth.
But sometimes I worry that the “culture reset” has the team loving the 3-ball a little too much.
The Nets are a small team; Kenny Atkinson likes to stretch defenses by playing five shooters, including Dante Cunningham at center. The Raptors have the personnel to counter that: Fast (well, crafty is maybe the better word) guards who can get to the rim, and big men who can post up (JV) and roll (Poeltl, Bebe).
The Raptors should have been attacking the hoop all game, punishing the Nets and making Atkinson adjust his lineups to counter. But I think they settled for too many threes in the middle periods. The fourth quarter was the only period the Raptors won, and they only shot three 3-pointers in that frame. DeRozan in particular was aggressive when he came back in; in the final 13 minutes he took 10 shots and 8 of them were in the paint.
Are More Bebe Minutes Coming?
I think it might be worth getting Nogueira some more minutes over the next few weeks. With JV and Poeltl playing so well, I foresee opposing playoff teams going smaller and quicker to negate the Raptors big-man advantage—and those teams will be more talented than this Nets team. The Bucks, for instance, will likely surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters.
And I think Bebe might be a good option in those situations. Not a 22-minutes a night option or anything! It’s not like he’s a stellar perimeter/PnR defender either, but he’s quicker on his feet than JV and Jak and with his length, he’s excellent at recovering.
He’s still mistake-prone, obviously, but, that’s why I think it’s worth getting him a little more time over the last nine games, to let him find a bit of a groove.
We did get some good news yesterday; with the win, the Raptors have officially clinched a top-two seed, and home-court advantage over LeBron and the Cavaliers. Now let’s see if they can start cleaning up the pick-and-roll D against the Clippers on Sunday.