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3 Lessons: On pesky zones, Pascal’s momentum syndrome, and the Jack/Leo imbalance

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Though the Toronto Raptors continue to trend up, a matchup with the Miami Heat presented some problems. 3 Lessons examines that game as well as other takeaways from the past week.

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors

Leave it to the Miami Heat, looking like they were freshly rolled in cotton candy ice cream, to, once again, ruin a good thing for the Toronto Raptors. Last season, the Heat ended a seven-game win streak for the team in an overtime game. They also ruined the good vibes that the team had after going into 2020 with a dominant win over the Cleveland Cavaliers by holding Toronto to 76 (!) points in a loss in a game that *checks notes* did not occur in 1993. This season, we finally had a little to be excited about, with a three-game win streak punctuated by a quality win over the Dallas Mavericks. Due to the Heat’s uncanny ability to throw a wet blanket on Toronto, however, we are back to existential crisis mode.

That said, we learned far more than the fact that the Heat are Hansel to Toronto’s Derek Zoolander, and we will dig into those lessons now. We start with that seemingly uncrackable (it really shouldn’t be!) zone defense.

1) The Raptors’ inactivity is a detriment against the zone

It is ironic how much the Toronto Raptors struggle against a zone defense, as they were at the forefront of the zone revolution in the NBA. It is like if the 2008 Miami Dolphins were to have no answer for the Wildcat offense when deployed by their opponents. Nonetheless, struggle they do, particularly against their fellow modern zone forebearer, the Miami Heat. The zone killed the Raptors in the fourth quarter against the Heat, as they struggled to generate good looks. When they did, they rarely seemed to fall.

Oftentimes, analysts prescribe grit and effort to struggling defenses as offenses rely more on smarts and talent. In the case of the Raptors facing a zone, a little grit would go a long way.

The worst possessions the Raptors had against the zone occurred when the Raptors more or less kept their feet planted, hoping a window would magically open up as they hummed the ball around the perimeter or through the man in the middle. Predictably, that approach tended not to bear fruit.

With such stagnant offense, the defenders in the zone are forced to think less. They know who they’re responsible for and can keep everything in check.

Watch now what happens with some canny off-ball cuts.

The zone collapses enough for some great looks in the corners, although the Raptors missed those ones. With that off-ball movement, the defenders don’t just have to react to the ball, they have to decide how far they’re willing to let the cutter run free before they have to abandon their positioning in their zone. That hint of space created from confusing the zone gives more than enough room for a quality shooter to let it fly.

They have to cut hard, though, whether or not the the ball comes their way. Otherwise, the defense will not treat them as a threat. That is where the grit comes in. To effectively beat the zone, there can be no breaks for the off-ball players, who may typically use the time to gear up for another defensive possession. No, all five guys have to grind — cutting and staying ready for an open look — so that teams will be dissuaded from throwing the damn zone at Toronto.

Of course, there is always the other option, as outlined by JD Quirante.

2) Pascal is over reliant on positive momentum

A quality that defines the best players in the NBA is their ability to flip a bad start into a winning performance. Nobody has it going every night, but the true killers are just as much of a threat late in the game whether they had started the game 1-15 or 12-15. Hell, Steph Curry proved exactly that, as he was 1-15 against the Raptors just 12 days ago before he drilled a pivotal three in the fourth quarter that helped the Warriors to a 106-105 win.

Pascal Siakam just has not yet shown a gift for short term memory loss. In fact, the first quarter can give a significant glimpse into the type of game Pascal is going to have the rest of the way. If he struggles in the first, he tends to play significantly less aggressively the rest of the game.

Take the games that he played against the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets, and Miami Heat as an example. In the first quarter of those games, he averaged 26% shooting on five attempts, and missed all seven of his three-point shots across those games. In those games, he averaged just over eight more attempts the rest of the way.

Against the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns, however, that flips. He averaged 54% shooting on in the first quarters of those games, and even sunk two of his three shots from deep. Following the more productive first quarters, Pascal Siakam averaged 15.5 more attempt for the rest of the game, seven-and-a-half more than he did in those poorer showings.

Yes, it is human nature for confidence to build off early success, but star players in the NBA cannot fall prey to that mentality. They are in the position they are in because they are unnatural, in the best sense of the term, and that needs to reflect in their mindset.

Right now, Pascal’s approach is that of an amateur Texas hold’em player. If he rakes in a couple early pots, then his game opens up and he can really win big. Lose a few hands, however, and he folds up, wary of losing even more, content to just bleed out the blinds as the game slips away.

He did buck this trend against the Dallas Mavericks, as he shook off a 1-7 first quarter to make a positive impact in the second half. His next game, unfortunately, was more in line with the rest of the season. It may partially be a result of his injured groin.

Whatever the case, the Raptors need a consistently aggressive Pascal Siakam to reach their ceiling. Pascal overcoming any early struggles and finding a way to contribute across four quarters will aid in achieving that goal.

3) Jack Armstrong is on a run

The Toronto Raptors colour commentating situation is a unique one, as Jack Armstrong and Leo Rautins platoon like Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas did with the starting centre position back at the start of the 2019-2020 season. This is a result of TSN and SportsNet’s split coverage of Raptors games, as Jack takes the TSN games, and Leo the SportsNet ones.

What is particularly strange is the disparity in performance by the Raptors with one commentator as opposed to the other. The team is 4-1 with Jack on the call, and a paltry 1-8 when Leo’s breaking it down. On one hand, this is completely meaningless, and the team’s performance has nothing to do with the commentator. On the other… is it meaningless?

Hear me out. Do you think these guys want to be admonished for not “playing the city game”? Of course not. Knowing that Jack is on the call, prepared to call the team out for soft basketball is enough of a nudge to get the guys into the paint. These guys are also social media guys. They know how much a highlight can be enhanced on Twitter or Instagram by an energetic “Get that garbage outta here!” Maybe even hearing that Jack is on the call is inspiration enough to have a little pregame green tea. If Jack is to be believed, having a green tea in the evening is the equivalent to shot-gunning a Monster Energy and inhaling a few rounds of smelling salts.

These things are only minor, but the Raptors margin of defeat has been quite small multiple times! This theory may make pseudo-science look like astrophysics, but sometimes a minor push is all a team needs. Sometimes, you’ve committed to writing three lessons every week and have a hard time thinking of a quality third one that hasn’t already been said so you resort to this kind of thing.

That said, Jack is on the call tonight. 5-1 here we come.

See you next week for another round of 3 lessons!