I saw the Raptors live for the first time this season against Washington and came away with confirmation of what I had generally observed on television: this team can make the playoffs and be fun while doing it.  I’ll focus on one area of the game where if the Raptors improve, they can be a dangerous proposition for a defense, and that’s double-teaming.

For the first time in a long while, the Raptors have multiple legitimate double-team threats on the roster in DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay.  Gay has always attracted a second defender on account of his height and reach advantage at his position, and ability to rise over defenders so that’s no real surprise.  Even when struggling from the field, the defense tends to respect him more than the average Raptors fan does.  DeRozan attracting second defenders is a testament to his improvement this season as a scorer.  Note that I didn’t say ‘player’ but a ‘scorer’ because as a basketball player overall, he is some ways off.

Gay and DeRozan (and to a lesser extent, Lowry) are attracting double-teams consistently but it hasn’t materialized into great offense and it’s not due to lack of personnel.  Steve Novak, Kyle Lowry and the improving Terrence Ross provide decent perimeter punch, and interior players like Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are excellent at cutting to the rim, so there isn’t a shortage of outlets for DeRozan and Gay when they are pressed.

Simply put, the Raptors haven’t been able to consistently convert double-teaming of their two best players into overall team improvement.  There are three different reactions to being double-teamed that I’ve noticed of the players:

Break the double on their own for a scoring opportunity

Fair to say that this has been the default reaction which is obviously not good.  A guy like DeRozan is still in his infancy when it comes to negotiating double-teams and different coverages in the NBA.  It’s second nature to him as a scorer to look upon a second defender as a challenge, and try to score through it using a mid-range jumper, a split, or some other maneuver.  This was happening in the Washington game as well as Webster or Wall were helping out Beal.

DeRozan’s handles, although somewhat improved, still remain an obstacle when trying to break doubles on their own because when he tries to pull-back on defenders for a drive, the move becomes slow and thus predictable.  Sometimes he’ll pull-back and find the baseline for a drive, but it usually results in an undesirable sequence of basketball.

Gay, on the other hand, I expect to do better at this stage in his career.  We’ve all seen the assist numbers and they are appalling.  Watching him drive the lane and attract the weak-side help defender only to hoist leaners is frustrating.  In my section at the ACC there were at least five different groups facetiously yelling “shoot Rudy shoot, you gotta shoot shoot shoot” every time he touched the ball.

When they score in these situations successfully, everything looks fantastic and its a highlight reel item, but the overall detrimental effect of this sort of play harms offensive continuity and promotes static play.

Panic and give the defense what it wants

This is basically what happens when you hang on the ball too long and it’s gotten to the point where you have to get rid of it or else risk a turnover.  Even when DeRozan and Gay try to get out of these situations by passing it ends up being a turnover (like a backcourt violation or pick-off in a passing lane).  Kyle Lowry, as well as he’s played of late, is a good example of someone who tends to be trapped a little too easily up the court.

In general, what not to do in these situations is summed up in this little piece:

When faced with double or triple teams, the natural instinct of many basketball players is to immediately protect the ball at all costs. Some begin a literal retreat, slipping backward into a corner or toward a sideline. Some pick up their dribble outright and look to keep the ball out of arm’s reach of imposing defenders. Worse yet, some do both, putting themselves in a horrible situation and giving the defense just what it wants.

I find that Gay gets into these situations more than DeRozan, and early in the season when the offense was a complete shambles, this type of turnover was being compounded by the fact that there was no movement.  Whenever a guy is trapped, the responsibility falls on the rest of his teammates to present themselves as release points and that wasn’t happening.  Mercifully, the Raptors have improved in such situations and Ross, Novak,and Lowry have been better at presenting themselves as options for guys trapped on the wing or baseline.

Invite the double, make the play

This is the nirvana of players who get double-teamed because they’ve gotten to the point where they want the extra defender to come at them.  This is what you want DeRozan to evolve into – someone who is confident enough to invite the double, read the defense, and then have enough skill to get the ball to where it needs to go.  This is where coaching lays the framework within which to operate effectively.

We saw some elements of this against Philadelphia and Washington where the beneficiaries were Novak, Ross, and even some of the big men.  Situations where there was enough off-the-ball movement that the defense had to stretch to cover rather than concentrate on a particular area.  I posted some GIFs from the Philly game which illustrated some of these situations and they were present against Washington as well.

Role of coaching

The NBA has always been a “matchup league” where on any given night, the individual matchups tend to dictate the way a team operates.  The Raptors have two players in DeRozan and Gay that can potentially dictate on how the other team plays, but this is where coaching and instruction is critical.  If the view that DeRozan and Gay are the pivots of the offense is adopted, there requires considerable improvement on the part of Dwane Casey to ensure that the rest of the team is suited to this structure of play.

For starters, the Raptors remain very easy to double-team without fear of retribution.  The wing-iso has been easy to double because there isn’t a consistent cutter down the middle that can make the opposition big pay for coming over.  Tyler Hansbrough has been better of late but I find that Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson tend to drift over to the weak side, which is essentially making them non-factors and easy to rotate to.  If Casey can construct sequences which result in shot attempts for bigs on wing double-teams, it would help out the the Raptors offense and increase those ghastly assist numbers (dead last in league).

Currently, 24% of the Raptors shots are threes (15th in league) and they make 34% of them (25th in league).  I’m comfortable with the 24%, I’m not so sure about the 34% because I feel the wrong guys are taking those threes.  Novak is a career 43% shooter, Lowry is shooting 38% this season and Ross is at 39% – those are some excellent options that aren’t being used enough, and it’s because the pathway that leads to these players getting shots isn’t there.  In total, they’re taking 42% of the Raptors threes.  How Dwane Casey can get his three-point shooters more open looks by using the offensive threats he has at his disposal is going to be something to monitor.

The best way to handle a double is to anticipate or invite it and react before the double fully materializes.  LeBron James is ridiculously awesome at this as he’s constantly driving at multiple defenders to create disruption, and making pin-point passes before the defense fully collapses.  I don’t expect DeRozan or Gay to operate at that level, but there needs to be individual improvement from both players regarding how and where they attract doubles.  How much coaching can play a part in this remains to be seen.

Finally, a word on Kyle Lowry.  He has been one of my favorite Raptors as I have a thing for PGs  (long-time readers may recall my love for T.J Ford).  Lowry has learned to harness himself, be less erratic and more responsible, and is truly a team player.  The myth that he’s a “shoot first” point guard is one that is wildly exaggerated.  He may not average 10 assists a game but he is a solid NBA player that can be useful to any team because he has multiple strengths including defense, three-point shooting, and ball-handling,

He does have a bit of an issue when it comes to being hedged beyond the three-point line.  Every time the defense traps him, as was the case against Washington, he is pushed too far out and is unable to release the ball so that the team can take advantage of the disproportion everywhere else on the court.  Lowry does tend to pick up the dribble prematurely and it’s partially because there aren’t enough designed options to get him out of trouble in those situation.  You might make a case that it’s up to the point guard to negotiate those situations (e.g., Tony Parker, Stephen Curry), but I’d argue that on a team like the Raptors, this is where coaching needs to kick in.  The Raptors need to be able to respond to these situations, for example  by a big coming out and relieving pressure, another big flashing in the post to receive the ball and wing-cutters that pose threats.  I’m brainstorming here, but you get the idea – we can’t let Kyle Lowry waste away precious seconds when he’s trapped.  There needs to be a plan that takes a negative situation (Lowry being trapped) into a positive outcome (advantage in numbers elsewhere on the court) and it’s on Dwane Casey to come up with it.

So yeah, that’s what I was thinking while watching the Washington game.