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What “Clutch Time” might look like for the Raptors this season

As we head into a new era of Toronto Raptors basketball, let’s examine who Darko Rajakovic may rely on when it comes down to “Clutch Time.”

Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/Getty Images

In what is perhaps one of the most infamous moments in Raptors history, Marc Gasol inbounds the ball to Kawhi Leonard with a mere 4.2 seconds left on the clock. We all know what happens next. Kawhi goes baseline at full speed, turns, and lets off “The Shot” that bounces around before rolling in. The Raptors advance to the conference finals. They beat the Bucks, then the Warriors. Championship. But over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of turnover with the team, which now lacks the consistency of great plays from guys like Kawhi and even Derozan during their run with the franchise. Fans are frustrated, and rightfully so. It feels like winnable games have ended in any one of the following ways: sloppy turnovers, missed shots, and isolation possessions that end up rolling off the rim to be rebounded and held by the opposing team.

It’s easy to point blame at outgoing guys like Nick Nurse or Fred VanVleet, or maybe even Pascal Siakam, but perhaps the real issue was with the offence as a whole. Both VanVleet and Siakam struggled in what is referred to as clutch time: the last 5 minutes of games where teams are within 5 points of one another. According to the NBA’s advanced statistics Pascal shot 36% from the field and 10% from 3, and Fred was 29.9% from the field and 25% from 3 in the clutch. Not exactly what you need from your two best guys, but Fred has already moved on to other pastures and maybe rather than dwelling on the past, perhaps we should instead consider the future.

Incoming rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic has made it pretty clear that he prefers constructing an offensive system that yields beautiful basketball: lots of ball movement, open shots, and plays that require participation from everyone. Of course, until we’ve seen it in action we won’t really know for sure what he’s going to do, but based on some of the more successful plays from last year, we might be able to make some predictions.

Clock down, tie game, who should be making plays?

As far as ball handlers, I think we’ll see most of the action run through some combination of Scottie, Pascal, or Schröder at some point in the possession, but while they can facilitate I don’t think it’s always on them to score. In fact, for the three scenarios I’ve mentioned here, I think that they are actually better as the starting point of the play than the actual bucket-getter since each of them will create a fair amount of “gravity”. Their presence draws the body of their defender, and often the help defence as well, which will open up all kinds of possibilities.

Option 1: PNR with Poeltl

If the last couple years have taught us anything, it is that having a true center in the lineup is vital. When the Raptors acquired Poeltl before the trade deadline there was an immediate improvement in pick-and-roll plays. On PNRs that utilize Poeltl, he managed at least 1 point about 60% of the time, whether by scoring or through free-throws. For reference, this is about as effective as PNR with Joel Embiid, although he runs about twice as many per game as Poeltl.

While we only have a small sample size during the 26 games he had with Toronto, it did prove to be effective, so I’d like to see two-man action between him and the Scottie/Pascal/Dennis. Poeltl sets a pick, and once the ball-handler has cleared it, he can roll to the basket and keep his head up. More often than not, this will put points on the board for Toronto.

Pascal and Poeltl had a great connection in this play against the Jazz:

Example below:

Option 2: Gary Trent Jr.

This one might not be as much of a popular option with some fans, but I don’t think last year was an accurate representation of what Trent Jr. is capable of. At times throughout the season it felt like he didn’t have Nurse’s trust. I remember watching a game where the Raps were down late, and Trent Jr. made a huge three. We needed one more, and the Raps took a timeout to draw up a play. I’m expecting to see the same action, but instead they route the ball to Fred who bricks a 3 as the clock expires. So why didn’t they give the ball back to the hot hand?

In fairness to the skeptics, Trent Jr. shot just under 30% on pull-up 3s, so this isn’t the play I would recommend. Instead, have Trent Jr. move off-ball to set up a catch and shoot 3, which he made 40.5% of last season. If Schröder and Dick prove to be good shooting options as well, there may be even more space and less defensive pressure on him as well. There’s also been a lot of talk of how hard Trent Jr. has been working in the offseason and hopefully with the coaching shift and renewed confidence he’ll be able to thrive.

A great example of this play is the Raps’ game against OKC where in a fast-break situation Pascal draws defenders into the paint before kicking out to a wide-open Trent Jr. who drains the 3:

Option 3: High-Low with OG

For this play, I’d like to see Scottie or one of the other ball handlers with possession in the high post. OG cuts baseline, and with the added pressure the help defense will either have to shift off Scottie and onto OG, providing him the option to pop the ball up and in. If the defence fails to see the OG cut, then Scottie can pass the ball up for him to finish strongly at the rim. We’ve seen this action a few times last season as well, and besides being beautiful basketball, it also was pretty effective from an eye-test.

Poeltl and OG pulled this off a few times last season:

While I would like to see all of these play out, it will be a waiting game to see how Darko Rajakovic runs his offence. I think the key here is variety. Darko seems to prioritize offensive versatility, so I suspect that we will see a lot of different actions late in the game. No more reliance on giving the ball to one guy and hoping that he can cook.

It’s a new age of offence for the Raptors, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.