Are we really doing this again?
That’s the reaction from a lot of Raptors fans. Are we really losing Game 1 again?
But that’s not what I’m talking about. After the Raptors 104-101 loss to the Magic in Game 1, I have other reasons for asking this question. Let’s get into the analysis.
Is Nick Nurse Really Doing This Again?
So, does anyone remember early in the season, when the Raptors were running way too much offense through Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby? Even when playing with a star on the court, those guys would be given playmaking opportunities and it would usually end badly. That, along with playing those all bench units (where by necessity those guys were running the offense), led to a lot more close games than seemed necessary at the time, and a handful of losses.
At the time, it was concerning, but the sense was at least you could understand the idea: if in the playoffs those guys are forced to create some offense because the main stars are being blitzed, they’ll be ready. Surely they won’t be running any offense in the playoffs.
Once again, for long stretches, stretches that included one or two of the stars on the court, these role players were stuck creating offense. And it went... poorly.
Player | MP | On-court ORTG
Powell, 83.8 ORTG
VanVleet, 83.9 ORTG
Ibaka, 88.4 ORTG
(ORTG: Offensive Rating, a measure of offensive efficiency in points per 100 possessions - essentially points per game, adjusted for pace and possession count.)
The bench was bad. And this is even acknowledging that the Raptors didn’t really run the bad all-bench units, or even very much of the one star lineups that have struggled all season. Toronto put the right guys out there for the most part (not completely), they just used them the wrong way when they were out there.
Stars-On-Court | MP | ORTG
Lowry and Siakam without Leonard: 10 MP, 82 ORTG
Leonard and Siakam without Lowry: 6 MP, 67 ORTG
Siakam without Lowry or Leonard: 5 MP, 91 ORTG
Leonard without Lowry and Siakam: 3 MP, 70 ORTG
Lowry and Leonard without Siakam: 2 MP, 75 ORTG
Lowry without Leonard and Siakam: 0 MP
These are all exceedingly small samples. But look at the aggregate (there is no overlap here, these are all discrete samples): 26 minutes of the game played with an offensive rating way below an acceptable number.
We’ve seen success with these sorts of lineups over the past couple months of the season, e.g. when they were running the bench offense through the stars. Toronto has to absolutely get back to that, or this will be a problem going forward.
Is Lowry Really Doing This Again?
This is the narrative many fans are running with after the game. The Raptors lost a close game and Lowry missed all seven shots he took (plus his three free throws). As a result, Lowry ended the game having scored zero points. Low hanging fruit, and all that.
But the Lowry narrative has always been fundamentally flawed. Over his time with the Raptors, he has often put up poor shooting numbers in the playoffs, and some fans see that and assume he is hurting the team — even to the extent that they think someone else should start or play in his place.
Take a look through these two lists, and see if you see a problem.
Season | Lowry Playoff TS%
(TS%: True Shooting Percentage, a version of FG% that adjusts for the value of free throws and three point shots.)
For reference, Lowry’s regular season TS% over this time span is 57.2%.
Now, look at this.
Season | Lowry’s Playoff On-court RTG | Lowry’s Playoff Off-court RTG
2013-14: -0.2, -9.6
2014-15: -10.3, -21.5
2015-16: +1.0, -23.4
2016-17: -2.3, -10.6
2017-18: -2.1, -14.4
2018-19: +15.5, -49.5
(RTG: Net Rating, a pace and possession count adjusted point differential per 100 possessions. Calculated as ORTG - DRTG.)
The Raptors have had their share of playoff struggles, and they have never been that impressive even with Lowry on the court. But my goodness look at those performances without Lowry. Year after year, every year, no matter whether Lowry is playing with the bench, with the starters, whether the starters are a good unit or a bad one in the regular season — no matter what, the Raptors absolutely collapse without Lowry.
And that’s true regardless of how well Lowry shoots. He’s had a couple terrible shooting years in the playoffs (the Wizards sweep and Toronto’s ECF run stand out here). And yet, even in those years where Lowry couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, look at what happened when he sat down. And keep in mind the Raptors had elite bench units both years. Didn’t matter in the playoffs: Lowry sits, it all goes down the toilet.
So was it surprising to me that fans thought Lowry was a reason for the loss? No. In fact, he was a reason for the loss. He hits a couple of those shots he missed and the team likely wins the game no problem.
But Lowry’s shooting being the leading narrative for this game is just plain wrong. The Raptors won the minutes Lowry played by 11 points. They lost the 14 minutes he sat by 14 points. As shown above, that means they were on pace to lose the game by nearly 50 points. The reality of Game 1 is if Lowry could play all 48 minutes and not lose his effectiveness (yes, even including continuing to miss all his shots), this is a comfortable win for Toronto.
But you’ll still see people ask for Fred VanVleet to get Lowry’s minutes. VanVleet shot 5-of-9 from the field, 3-of-6 from long range, scored 14 points in 26 minutes... and was a team-worst by far -16.
This is where the average response I get is that of course VanVleet had a bad plus-minus, he was in all those struggling bench units up above, with all that misuse of role players I was talking about. If the units can’t score, of course VanVleet will struggle to post good plus-minus numbers even with his shooting.
Except those units up there, with VanVleet in Lowry’s place? They broke even. That’s right, in all the minutes VanVleet played with the bench units when Lowry was resting, his plus-minus was... zero. Meaning, wait, where did the -16 come from?
Remember that brilliant idea above about starting VanVleet in Lowry’s place? That’s yet another look that was decent in the regular season. And just like in years past, it’s a lineup that doesn’t hold up in the playoffs (so far).
VanVleet played five minutes with the starters in Lowry’s place. They were completely shelled on both ends in that time, playing to that full -16 plus-minus in just those five minutes.
Now, that doesn’t mean VanVleet can’t play some of those minutes in general. But the lesson here should be that when someone tells you Lowry was why the Raptors lost, basically no matter what superficial evidence they have, they are almost certainly wrong. The Raptors are, always have been, and will seemingly always be, better with Lowry than without him.
Yes, even when he misses every shot.
Something New from Toronto
One last little tidbit. One of the assumptions with the shrinking playoff rotation was that the Raptors would lean on their stars for more minutes. Well...
Minutes Played - MPG
Siakam: 42 MP
Lowry: 34 MP
Leonard: 33 MP
Gasol: 32 MP
No idea what happened there. That’s too many minutes for Pascal, and way too few for the other guys. Nick Nurse needs to make absolutely sure it doesn’t happen again. But it’s a little far down on the list of issues. Though considering how disastrous the non-Lowry minutes were, those 34 minutes seem awfully low. Let’s see how it shakes out in Game 2.
All stats per NBA.com