Toronto hosts the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday evening at 6:00 EST at the ACC — a building that the Raptors have defended well, to the tune of 30-6, for the season. The Raptors are coming off a Friday victory over the continually hapless Brooklyn Nets who, for as scrappy as they are, couldn’t hold onto what would’ve been a key win.
The Clippers meanwhile touch-down in Toronto having lost four of their last five games after spending most of 2018 in the race for the final playoff spot. It appears now that LAC is most likely out of contention even if they haven’t been technically eliminated.
Despite their lottery-bound status, the Clippers roster suggests they should have been worse than they turned out (currently 38-34). Which means Doc Rivers really discovered a thread of commonality between the entire rag-tag group of G-League regulars. His band of brothers, led by former Raptors Sixth Man Lou Williams, is able to compete with anyone in the league (proven by their win over the Warriors a few months back).
Toronto will have to make an effort to implement any sort of defensive changes with grace, as Williams — who has 12 years of experience under his belt — can fill the bucket up in a hurry. In fact, it’s been players like Williams (quick, athletic types) who have been burning the Raptors the worst lately.
Luckily for the home team, Kyle Lowry has been akin to the Human Torch in March, especially over his last five games. If the Raptors want a chance to win (assuming all else stays the same), they will need another KLOE performance on Sunday.
Where to Watch:
TSN 1/3/4 6:00 pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Los Angeles — Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan
Toronto — C.J. Miles (Day-to-day), Malachi Richardson (Day-to-day)
LA Clippers — Patrick Beverley (Out), Danilo Gallinari (Out), Avery Bradley (Out)
Three Games, One Result
Over the last five contests, the Raptors' defensive efforts have been found lacking. In these five games, three were against very-obviously-tanking teams in Orlando, Brooklyn and Dallas. The Raptors displayed the same attitude: disinterest.
The three games were about as cookie-cutter as you could ask for: the team was being outplayed and technically losing through three quarters of play; before proceeding to wake-up and win the game. Now, as fans, we shouldn’t complain about a win. A win’s a win’s a win, so on and so forth. But, it does expose some worrying trends that are worth discussing.
Let me know if you agree with me here, but I believe it to be one of three things: a case of late-season lack of focus; a certain player’s natural laziness catching on with other players (notice how differently our system runs when just two players are not in it); and lastly, their just extremely bored having already locked up the first seed, so they’ve decided to collectively play games while playing the game.
Whatever the answer, they’ve not suddenly stopped caring about winning, so that’s not capital issue here. Instead, I’m not sure they know how close they are to the flames they play with. Continuing to approach winning unconventionally for a long enough period of time could result in adjusting some very important habits established by coach Casey over the course of the season.
I’m not saying to be worried, but I’m suggesting you keep an eye out for what might be the reason they’re choosing to play with bad teams like this — not for the sake of the bad team, but for the sake of our winning ways.
Stop the Easy Buckets
Defensive woes starts and ends with giving up easy buckets. Over their last five games, Toronto has given up 115.4 points per game, allowing teams to shoot 51.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.
Teams are having no trouble getting past the perimeter and into the teeth of the defense where, surprisingly, the Raptor bigs have been less than effective in recent weeks. Over his last five, Serge Ibaka owns a -6.0 average net rating, while Jonas Valanciunas sits a little better with a -1.6 net rating. In fact, the only positive net rating of the four regular bigs is Pascal Siakam with a +7.6 over his last five (Jakob Poeltl was a -6.2 in the same time.)
Whatever is in the water, the bigs need to stop drinking for a few days. Not only can fans literally see the difference in their play, the numbers more than back up the claim.
But, the more alarming number is the amount of turnovers the Raptors have created in the five-game frame: at just 11.4 turnovers per night, Raptor opponents are getting a lot more possessions per game than the Raptors defense is used to.
The Raptors currently force the ninth most turnovers per game at 14.8, a habit which helps them create their own easy buckets on the fast break, but also takes away that many possessions from the opposing team. Three or four stolen possessions add up, and if they’re made baskets, even better.
However, for some reason the bench guards haven’t been pressuring the passing lanes like we’re used to. Of course, we missed Fred VanVleet’s intensity for two of our most recent games, but even Delon Wright (for as great as he’s been on offense) and Norman Powell have really been lacking defensive pressure this week. Wright failed to log a single steal in 41 combined minutes versus the Cavaliers and the Nets, while Powell played just 15 minutes total over the two games.
When the defense is churning at its highest efficiency, those two are jumping passing lanes to start a fast-break at every opportunity. In order to get back to that, they’ll need their elite instincts on display every night.
Bench Unit Defense
Toronto’s bench is under-performing, that is. While perhaps not offensively — four of the five regulars off the bench are averaging at least 10.0 points per game over their last five games — but one player in particular is hamstringing the entire group.
Jakob Poeltl has had some ineffective games this month, but none more so than Friday in Brooklyn, where he went -9 in just seven minutes, missing a shot and plenty of assignments. For the month of March, his rating isn’t so bad, meaning it’s been about the last week or ten days that his effectiveness has vanished.
Over his last five, he’s managed to accrue a negative rating of -31 over his last five — which explains a lot in the way of the missing defense from the second unit. Most of the time, our guards will cede the opposing player a lane to drive, knowing they have Poeltl in the paint ready to pick him up.
The Raptors last five contests against Dallas, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Cleveland and Brooklyn have all featured a bench player who managed at least nine points against Toronto’s bench. Of course, nine was the lowest total — the average leading bench scorer put up 12.8 points per game, including Orlando’s Shelvin Mack with 17. The three highest point totals (18 from J.J. Barea—Dallas, 17 from Mack—Orlando, and 10 from J.R. Smith—Cleveland) were all guards.
Poeltl’s impact can normally be felt on the perimeter, where guards such as Wright, Lowry and VanVleet can gain superior position defending the ball, while knowing Poeltl is waiting to help in the post. While the results haven’t been entirely bad, pushing the opposing player into Poeltl has recently resulted in made baskets — lots of them. It’s an uncharacteristic stretch of bad games for the young guy, but keeping his youth in mind helps one to not get worked up over it.
Getting burned consistently isn’t an issue when your offense is just as blistering hot as the defense is bad. But expect Casey to attempt to put the fire out in these next nine regular season games. The Raptors can ill-afford to begin another post-season in a funk.