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Are the Raptors vulnerable to choking in the playoffs (again)?

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We know the past narrative of the Raptors in the playoffs. But how exactly do teams end up choking in the post-season — and how worried should Toronto be?

HQ Rountable: Final thoughts on the Toronto Raptors regular season and the upcoming NBA Playoffs, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

When a pattern forms you’re gonna try to rationalize it’s existence. For about half a decade now that Toronto Raptors have been trapped in a pattern that, at this point, is almost central to the franchise’s identity. They’re good, even great, in the regular season, and then, all of a sudden, they’re bad in the playoffs. So, how has basketball fandom, as a collective, tried to rationalize this pattern? Well, they’ve seemingly come up with three core reasons the that the Raptors struggle in the playoffs:

  1. Organizational curse: The Raptors are cursed as a franchise; destined to struggle in the playoffs.
  2. Mental fragility under increased pressure: Raptors players can’t handle the pressure of playoff games and their play slips as a result.
  3. Mental fragility as a result of the aforementioned organizational curse: Raptors players know that the organization is cursed, and thus they get disheartened prior to even stepping on the court in the playoffs.

I can’t actually write at length about any of the above, obviously. I’m not a witch or a psychic, so I can’t prove or disprove any of it. And that’s the exact reason that the above has sustained as the public’s perception for what’s ailed the Raptors: It can’t be subjected to any scrutiny. The “proof” that it’s true is that the Raptors keep losing, and it can’t be disproven. (Also, for what it’s worth, I’d guess that number three was actually a fairly significant problem for the Raptors.)

Another benefit of the above is that these reasonings almost entirely sidestep the “Ship of Theseus” problem; for those of you who’s philosophy is rusty, that’s the one where you replace every part of a boat and then ask if it’s still the same boat. The Raptors have seen almost their entire roster turn over since their playoff struggles began, but the playoff problems are, according to the above, an organizational problem. The Raptors could replace every part of their roster, but as long as they keep losing in the playoffs then their organization is still cursed and their players are still mentally fragile because their organization is cursed.

The only way to not be subject to this tiresome, pointless, cyclical discussion every time you want to talk about the Raptors’ playoff chances is for the Raptors to actually win in the playoffs. After all, like I said the “proof” that the above is true is that the Raptors keep losing. If they win it won’t sustain as the public’s perception.

So, is there not much point in discussing the Raptors’ playoff chances until they start winning? Honestly, yeah, pretty much. Any discussions you have with Raptors fans will likely sidestep any legitimate playoff concerns, because of their tribalistic desire to see the Raptors win. Any discussions with rival fans will likely devolve into organizational curse bullshit, because of their tribalistic desire to piss you off. Better not to go there.

I want to go there anyways though, so here’s what we can do. We can take a look at what makes playoff basketball different from regular season basketball. We can take a look at what types of players and teams would tend to struggle under these different circumstances. And then, if we’re very diplomatic about it, we can see whether or not any of what we find applies to the Raptors.

What Makes Playoff Basketball Different?

The way I see it, there are three main, unobjectionable, differences between the challenge a team faces in the regular season and the challenge they face in the playoffs:

  1. Your opponents are, on average, way better at basketball: The bad teams are eliminated and the rotations are shortened, so the opposing players are, on average, going to be significantly better than they were in the regular season.
  2. The importance of every individual game rises significantly: In the regular season individual games barely matter. With the Raptors, for example, if the current standings persist, you could flip the results of six individual games from wins to losses without having any impact on their playoff chances. Meanwhile, you could overturn the result of any playoff series by flipping the outcomes of only four individual games. In the regular season, what matters is the long term, the ability to win with consistency. In the playoffs what matters is winning the game you’re playing in.
  3. You play the same team over and over again: In the regular season the most you will play any given opponent is four times. Meanwhile, the fewest times you can play any given playoff opponent is four times. In the regular season you’re tested on your ability to beat the field; in the playoffs you’re tested on your ability to beat one team.

I want to focus on differences two and three for now, because they motivate teams in similar ways. Both lead to teams being more willing to “sell out” to win any particular game. By “selling out” I mean a team deviating substantially from their regular season principles or tendencies in order to win the game or series they’re playing in.

Strategy-wise, what works against one team might not work against most teams. In the regular season, when individual games don’t matter and the goal is just beating the field, you’re going to consistently do what beats the most teams. In the playoffs you’re going to do whatever beats the one team you’re matched up against, regardless of whether it would beat the field. After all, if you don’t beat that one team, then you won’t get to play anyone else. The game in front of you is all that matters.

So, if we’re looking for playoff weak-points, we’re looking for players and teams who would cause opponents to deviate from a generalist strategies designed to beat the field, changing over to a narrow, focused strategy designed to beat that one player or team. These players and teams are, naturally, going to be extreme and unusual; they shouldn’t be hard to spot. They do something differently from most players and teams in the regular season, and they get away with it then, but come playoff time the opposing team zeroes in on these discrepancies as a weaknesses that they can attack.

I can think of a couple such types of teams and players, the first being…

Egregiously Bad Individual Defenders:

“Can’t play Kanter” is probably the defining moment for this trend. Two years ago, in game one of the first round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, then Thunder centre Enes Kanter surrendered an alley-oop dunk to his Rockets’ counterpart, Clint Capela. On the bench following the play, Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan turned to his assistant and appeared to say “Can’t play Kanter.” Kanter was promptly removed from the game at the next timeout, and saw his minutes slashed for the rest of the series.

Defenders like Kanter, slow-footed centres who lack good positioning and awareness, are often among the first playoff casualties because teams don’t have to make large adjustments to exploit them. The most frequently used halfcourt play in basketball is the pick-and-roll, and the most frequently used pick-and-roll involves the centre defending the primary action. If you want to exploit a bad defensive centre you can just run what you were already running, but in larger doses.

“Can’t play Kanter” doesn’t really apply to the Raptors or anyone they’ll have to face prior to the NBA finals, however. It’s generally pretty rare for a bad defensive centre to be a core part of a playoff team, because as hinted at above, even in the regular season they’re frequently forced to defend actions they’re bad at defending. There’s nowhere for them to hide, they’ll unavoidably tank their teams defense, making it difficult for them to be part of a good team. Bad perimeter defenders are more easily hidden, so they’re much more common on playoff rosters.

To attack a bad perimeter defender you have to significantly re-route your offense. These perimeter defenders, generally speaking, get hidden on low-usage floor spacers, players uninvolved with the main action in all of the team’s most common sets. It takes an especially terrible perimeter defender to make running your offense through your worst offensive player worthwhile, and so, for the most part, teams stick to their gameplans in the regular season. They’ll simply run their normal offense, their focus is on building familiarity with the sets that will allow to beat the field, not the ones that will let them beat one guy.

In the playoffs two things change. First, the worst offensive perimeter player on the other team gets better, and more versatile. Playoff teams might not necessarily have five quality ballhandlers in every lineup, but it becomes more likely that their fifth guy will be able to, for example, create their own shot via off-ball movement. Second, teams become more willing to abandon their schemes to attack any perceived defensive vulnerabilities, as building familiarity with their playbook simply isn’t that important anymore.

The Raptors actually recently provided us with an example of the kinds of plays a team might use to take advantage of an especially poor perimeter defender. In a recent matchup against the Orlando Magic the Raptors were attempting to feed the hot hand of Danny Green, who typically functions as the Raptors’ 5th option. This was made all the easier by the fact that the Magic were attempting to hide various different poor defenders on Green throughout the game; primarily D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier.

Green isn’t a pick-and-roll or isolation player, but the Raptors ran him off screens for three-point catch-and-shoots, had him drive off of ball-swings, and gave him occasional post-ups, all of which lead to him scoring a season-high 29 points. Fifth starters who are skilled enough to be successful in such a wide variety of plays are rare among fringe and non-playoff teams, but fairly common among contenders. The top teams in Eastern Conference have players like J.J. Redick, Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart and Wesley Matthews as their respective fifth guys; each of them could attack a defensive weakpoint just as easily as Green did in above video.

The Raptors have, in years past, occasionally fallen victim to this kind of headhunting in the playoffs. Serge Ibaka is a capable interior defender, but his poor perimeter defense was often attacked whenever he found himself cross-matched onto a good shooter. The most recent example came against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s semi finals, when Ibaka was forced to guard Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith prior to being removed from the Raptors’ starting five. Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan wasn’t often made into a target, but his defensive slips were still amplified as the Raptors advanced through the playoffs. With each passing round the shooters he occasionally left open became progressively more threatening.

Fortunately, this year, I think we can say with relative confidence that the Raptors don’t have any glaring defensive vulnerabilities heading into the playoffs. Though their team defense has been similar to past regular seasons, with their various personnel changes they are almost inarguably better defensively on a player-by-player basis. The Raptors should also be more capable of attacking any especially poor defenders they encounter this year, as the aforementioned Green is a far more versatile offensive threat than guys like OG Anunoby, P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll.

So, on this front, the Raptors seem roughly on par with most contenders. They don’t have any particularly notable defensive weak points, and, should they encounter a particularly poor defensive player on an opposing team, they appear primed to take advantage of them. That should be a significant step up from past years, where they were worse off on both fronts. Now, let’s move onto our next type of playoff liability:

Off-Ball Perimeter Players Who Aren’t Efficient Shooters:

It might be better to describe this player by what they allow the opposing team to do, which is to play a defensive “free safety”. The free safety ignores their nominal defensive assignment, pre-emptively helping on every drive, showing a second body to every single ballhandler and keeping them out of the paint. This means that inevitably one of a few things will happen:

  1. The offensive team turns the ball over.
  2. The offensive team forces up a heavily contested shot against a double team.
  3. The ball swings to the open man.

Off-ball perimeter players who can’t shoot make this strategy effective by turning option 3 into a win for the defense. If the open man can’t shoot then there are effectively no good outcomes for the offense, every possession theoretically results in either a bad shot or a turnover.

Of course, most players who space out to perimeter are efficient catch-and-shoot threats from the perimeter, and as such teams will rarely ever use a free safety in the regular season. Even when they encounter a player against which a free safety would be effective in the regular season, they tend to focus on executing their defensive scheme and building defensive habits. They will willingly help off of a poor shooter, but they will not do so pre-emptively, and when the ball swings to a poor shooter they are likely to at least provide a token closeout. As such, in the regular season, a team might be able to reap most of the benefits of playing a typical “four-out” offense despite only having three effective shooters on the floor.

The most prominent example of this phenomenon would, honestly, likely be the Raptors of the past several years. The Raptors regularly deployed lineups with only three effective shooters, but they still ran their offense as though they were playing four-out. They would space DeMar DeRozan out to the perimeter whenever he didn’t have the ball, despite his lack of effectiveness on three-point catch-and-shoots. In addition to the better spacing this provided throughout the regular season, DeRozan used the token closeouts that teams would show him to create driving opportunities for himself, and as such rarely had to actually shoot a catch-and-shoot three. This frequently vanished in the playoffs, when savvy teams would often totally ignore DeRozan when he spaced the floor. Last year’s Cavaliers’ series was the most egregious example of this. DeRozan was dared to shoot by the Cavaliers throughout the series, missing all of his three-point shots in Games 1 and 2, before passing up any open three-point shots in Games 3 and 4.

Cavaliers’ defender J.R. Smith pre-emptively helps off of DeMar DeRozan, on a play that would eventually result in a missed DeRozan 3-point shot.

So, now that DeRozan is gone, have the Raptors solved all of their problems on this front? Not necessarily, as sophomore OG Anunoby has seen a slip in his shooting numbers that may cause teams to treat him the same way as they did DeRozan. That Anunoby shot as well as he did in his rookie year was something of a minor miracle. A very low-volume shooter in college, and one with poor free throw shooting numbers to boot, Anunoby was supposed to enter the league as a non-shooter. Instead, he got hot at the beginning of the year, shooting 42% from distance through the end of December, forcing teams to treat him as a threat from deep throughout the rest of the year.

However, Anunoby has been consistently poor from behind the arc in his second season, shooting just 33% from distance, despite the fact that most of his attempts are wide open. This wouldn’t be a huge concern if Anunoby had a significant track record as a shooter, but, with his poor free throw and college numbers, playoff opponents are not likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. This would be especially true of the Raptors’ overmatched first-round opponents, who should be willing to take risks to give themselves potential advantages.

If Anunoby can get hot from deep this will become a non-issue. If he fails to hit his threes in the Raptors’ first-round series, however, then his playing time should likely be slashed from that point forward. In games against stronger competition, where every possession matters, the Raptors simply won’t have the leeway to let Anunoby shoot his way out of a slump.

The good news, relatively to past years, is that the Raptors can afford to slash the minutes of a player like Anunoby, who is a role player coming off the bench. Previously, with DeRozan, the Raptors had to try to make it work however they could, as DeRozan was the centrepiece of their offense. Which, conveniently, bring us to our next kind of struggle playoff player:

Polarized Ballhandlers:

One thing you never want to say about your offensive centrepiece going into the playoffs: “He’s really good at X, so it doesn’t matter that he’s bad at Y.”

In the regular season almost every high-usage ballhandler is treated roughly the same way. If there’s a screen then the on-ball defender is expected to fight over it, while the big is likely going to drop back to the paint. If the ballhandler gets in the paint then someone will provide help. If a ballhandler is isolated on you then you defend them like they could go either way.

There are exceptions to these rules: No one is ever going to fight over a screen against Ben Simmons, regardless of the time of year. Much the same is true of Pascal Siakam, or even of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Certain ballhandlers are so polarized in their tendencies that they get the playoff treatment in the regular season.

But some ballhandlers are polarized in terms of strengths, not tendencies. Most frequently, they are either bad, but willing shooters, and excellent finishers, or they are the opposite: poor finishers and excellent shooters. In both cases, come playoff time, the defending team will give them an incentive to prioritize their area of weakness over their strengths. Against an elite shooter the defending team might ride their shooting hand at the cost of giving them a driving lane, as the Bucks recently did against James Harden. Against poor shooters they’ll duck under screens and give them space in single coverage, eliminating drives at the expense of surrendering open shots, as the Cavaliers did against DeRozan last year.

Defenses may also adjust depending on a ballhandler’s propensity for passing. A ballhandler who is slow to make reads might see pre-emptive help come playoff time, with defenses coming out to trap them on pick-and-rolls. Conversely, a ballhandler with a tendency to over-pass may see opponents commit to staying home against them, relying on their ability to stop them in single coverage, and rarely ever providing help.

The current Raptors have a couple points of minor concern on this front. Their lead handler, Kawhi Leonard, already occasionally sees traps in the regular season, and it’s possible teams ramp these up in the post-season. Leonard has always landed a notch below his elite wing peers as a facilitator: he’s a good passer, but also a relatively infrequent one. Leonard has seemed to become more effective against these traps as the season has worn on and the chemistry between him and his teammates has improved. Once Leonard gets the ball out of a trap, the Raptors should be in a good position to capitalize, with a wealth of good passers capable of finding the open man in the following 4-on-3.

Still, it’s something to keep an eye on, especially if traps prove effective at stopping Leonard early-on in the post-season.

The Raptors secondary ballhandlers, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, are the inverse of Leonard in that they both tend to over-pass. Teams may choose to overplay them to pass in the post-season, staying home even when they get to a threatening spot on the floor. This seems more concerning in the case of Gasol, who’s self-creation has drastically slipped from his prime years. Gasol has been extremely effective off the catch as a member of the Raptors, with a 58% effective field goal percentage on shots taken without a dribble. However, the moment he puts the ball on the floor his effectiveness tanks, as a member of the Raptors he’s managed an effective field goal percentage of just 38% on shots where he takes more than one dribble. On plays where Gasol tries to leverage the threat of him scoring to open up his teammates, such as in post-up and short-roll situations teams may find success staying home and allowing him to try to score in single coverage.

Unless he has a mismatch, Gasol’s post-ups should probably be cut out of the Raptors’ offense nearly entirely, given their wealth of other shot-creation options. Gasol ranks in the bottom third of the league as a post-scorer, and among players averaging three or more post-ups per game only Kevin Love is less efficient scoring the ball. As of right now he continues to draw help on post-ups, enabling him to find his more efficient teammates by passing out of the post. However, come playoff time, after teams have crunched the numbers and watched the tape in preparation for the Raptors, they’ll probably drill their perimeter defenders to stay home when Gasol posts-up.

Meanwhile, when he rolls to the basket Gasol may have to be more aggressive in hunting for his own shot, rather than leveraging the threat of a roll to ping-pong a pass out to the perimeter. Gasol’s scoring efficiency while popping and rolling increased dramatically following his move Toronto, due in large part to the better spacing around him and better facilitators looking for him. The plays that playoff defenses might look to capitalize on, however, are the non-committal rolls on which he finds himself in the midrange, floating in-between a pop and a roll. Right now, most teams will have their corner defenders step into the lane to cut Gasol off on these plays, and he will frequently sling a pass to the corner without even looking at the basket.

Come playoff time, however, teams may stay home on plays like this and challenge him to put the ball on floor to score for himself.

Gasol’s playmaking can still be of use, however, even if the Raptors cut down on the aforementioned types of plays. When the Raptors deploy Gasol at the elbows they are relying not on the threat of Gasol scoring, but on screening, optionality, and quick off-ball movement to get players open. It’s Gasol’s elite ability to deliver on-time, on-target passes which makes him far more effective in these sets than the average big man. And of course, in transition and scramble scenarios it always helps to have a big with elite passing ability and vision.

A team that overplays Lowry to pass, on the other hand, may not find it a particularly impactful strategy. Unlike Gasol, Lowry has been relatively successful seeking his own shot off the dribble, as he has a 47% effective field goal percentage on shots preceded by one or more dribbles. That number already falls right in line with the Raptors’ usual half-court efficiency (per Cleaning the Glass the Raptors average 0.96 points per half-court possession) and that’s without even accounting for the fact that overplaying Lowry to pass should cause his scoring efficiency to rise, as his volume of open shots increases. Staying home against Lowry would certainly force the Raptors to make an adjustment, but once the adjustment is made then they should be similarly effective.

The good news relative to past years is, again, that these concerns are more peripheral, they relate mostly to the Raptors’ secondary ballhandlers, whereas previously the biggest defensive adjustments would have been directed towards their lead handler. If teams adjust to, say, Gasol, then the Raptors can rely on their wealth of other weapons to initiate while using Gasol as a finisher on the back-end of the offense.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about what kinds of players tend to struggle in the playoffs, I want to talk more broadly about what kinds of teams tend to slip-up in the playoffs.

Gimmicky Teams:

A few years ago, the Toronto Raptors decided that they could find success by essentially reducing their half-court offense to nothing but pick-and-roll and isolation plays. These were the plays that the Raptors’ best players, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were most effective in, so, to an extent, it made sense. It maximized the impact of Lowry and DeRozan, while any less skilled offensive players were limited to easy, wide open catch-and-shoots. In a more diverse offense they might have been called upon to play-make or take more difficult shots, but now they could simply focus on their strengths.

And it worked, year after year, the Raptors managed an elite offense in the regular season while making use of this strategy. It worked every year, until it didn’t.

Come the post-season, teams would begin trapping the Raptors’ pick-and-rolls every time they attempted to run one. And, every year, their offense collapsed against these traps. Players not named Lowry or DeRozan were ineffective making plays on the back end of traps: they weren’t used to the responsibility, as they were rarely put in playmaking situations during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Raptors didn’t have the playbook to abandon the Lowry/DeRozan run pick-and-roll. It was the crux of their entire offense, going away from it would mean entering totally uncharted waters.

Trapping is a gimmicky defense. It doesn’t work against most teams because it creates a 4-on-3, which is usually an enormous disadvantage for the defense. As such, it is infrequently seen in the regular season. In this case, however, a gimmicky defense proved the perfect solution to a gimmicky offense. The Raptors were only good at one thing, and so teams were willing to go to any lengths to stop them from doing that one thing, even if it meant conceding a 4-on-3. In the end, the Raptors’ lack of familiarity and versatility proved a bigger factor than an occasional numbers advantage.

In this case, a gimmick simply means forgoing one or more aspects of the game to instead prioritize a different one. Cutting out certain shots or plays if your team struggles with them can be an effective strategy in the regular season, but come playoff time teams will try to force you to take those shots or run those plays no matter the cost. At that point you either force your usual offense through a defense designed to counter-act it, or you enter unfamiliar territory, running plays you aren’t practiced on and taking shots you aren’t used to.

With their offensive overhaul, last year’s Raptors became less predictable and gimmicky, but still imploded when the Cavaliers attacked the crux of their offense in DeMar DeRozan. This year, the team has both a more versatile, harder to attack star in Kawhi Leonard. Should teams nonetheless prioritize shutting down Leonard, this year’s Raptors have more high-level playmakers up-and-down their roster, given the substantial step forward taken by Pascal Siakam and the addition of Gasol.

I know it’s become something of a tired refrain, but things really should be different this year. The Raptors have less players vulnerable to being individually targeted by opposing teams, and they have more viable options if any of their key players do end up getting shut down.

With that being said, there’s only one way to know for sure whether I’m right. We’ll find out in a few weeks.

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Any stats are per stats.NBA.com unless otherwise indicated and are current as of April 8th, 2019