Even with a full-strength squad there were no expectations of winning this game, so watching a depleted Raptors unit get smoked at home is par for the course. The excellent first quarter that the home team delivered felt good, and I was at the ACC to feel the relief and joy in the crowd as they witnessed what ball movement, pick ‘n roll play, and assists looked like. They watched in amazement as one Raptors player drove the lane, and get this, passed the ball to an open teammate! They sat there in shock and horror, with mouth agape, as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas rolled to the rim and received a pass which they converted.
It was brilliant stuff and it felt like the shackles had been lifted and a new team had been formed. That’s when sober reality kicked in and you knew that the 14-point lead had as much chance of lasting as Dwane Casey returning next year: nil. You realized that the immovable and unfazed Spurs didn’t even bat an eye at this meekest of deficits. You realized that the Raptors were being fueled by the adrenalin of change, whereas the Spurs’ engine had yet to be ignited.
[Did you read Reaction: Raptors 103 vs Spurs 116 – Dec. 10/13]
Before we do a post-mortem let’s talk about what we saw that was new with this team in the absence of Rudy Gay. The first thing you realize is that the ball does not get stuck. I know that’s a cliche of sorts but it holds true here. The Raptors were switching their offense on every possession, sometimes it was Lowry running a PnR with Johnson, sometimes DeRozan with Valanciunas, sometimes Valanciunas in the post, and what you saw as the result of this was ball-movement. Having multiple points of attack increases reduces the predictability of the offense, forcing the defense to cover wider ground. Once you sprinkle this with crisp ball movement, the defense is bound to be on its heels, as San Antonio was in the early going.
Here’s a look at the first quarter box score for the Raptors.
Lots of touches for Valanciunas resulting in him scoring, heavy focus on Amir Johnson in both pop and roll situations, and Terrence Ross becoming the benefactor due to so much focus inside. The Raptors had nine assists in the first quarter, which is a season high (I don’t even have to look that up, I just know it’s a season-high). Of course, they ended up with only nine for the rest of the game but let’s leave that aside for now. The point here is that the Raptors, for one quarter at least, played the type of game that we expected them to play all season – win or lose.
Then things changed.
The Spurs let the Raptors have their fun and made a couple adjustments: they started sagging on the screens and taking the “roll” pathways away from the Raptors bigs. This resulted in the ball being swung back out to the perimeter or held by a big man at the top of the key. The Raptors, not having much of a game-plan, swung it and tried to attack via DeRozan who had moderate success, but more importantly, it was an offense that the Spurs felt comfortable defending.
Once the Raptors bench, headlined on this night by Dwight Buycks, Steve Novak, and Austin Daye, came into the game, it quickly became clear that the Raptors had no chance in this game against a Spurs offense that has enough dribble-penetration, outside shooting, lateral movement, and ridiculous interior screening to score almost at will. From the Raptors perspective, the game deteriorated into something close to unwatchable as guys like Jeff Ayres, Patty Mills, and Aron Baynes administered a rather humiliating punishment, all via the assembly-line San Antonio offense.
You won’t find too many Raptors games that aren’t also hilarious and this one didn’t disappoint as Austin Daye and Steve Novak played extended minutes in a smaller lineup where they were the PF/C. We’ll get to Valanciunas in a bit, don’t worry, but let me just close the books on these two.
There is no point in playing Steve Novak unless you are being very prescriptive in the sets being run, sets that are designed to move whoever Novak’s defender is away from Novak. Steve Novak cannot do anything else on the basketball court. When not on offense and being catered to, he may as well be an usher in the stands. Why Casey feels that he can afford to have Novak out there wandering like a chicken with its head cut off is a question that needs to be asked. If Lowry is entering a battle with Tony Parker on the strong-side of the court, the Spurs will easily contend with that by having a big drop down, or have the strong-side corner defender help out (if needed). There is zero chance that the weak-side defender will leave Novak long enough (he has no reason to) for Lowry to find him. It just isn’t going to happen.
So Dwane Casey, please, give some thought to Steve Novak. He actually has a skill we can use but it’ll involve some thinking on your part, maybe a play. How does a baseline double-screen with DeRozan operating in a pick ‘n roll with Amir sound? No? How about simply a misdirection and a down-screen? No? Well, why don’t you come up with something yourself then.
That’s Novak, and now onto Austin Daye. I feel like I’m witnessing his funeral out there. The guy has zero skill, no skill whatsoever. Maybe he can shoot, maybe he can’t. Maybe he can be a serviceable three-point shooter, maybe he should be working at Footlocker, who really knows? All I know, and I can confirm this, is that the guy does not break a sweat. He could be playing for 35 minutes (not like that will ever happen in the NBA) and look like he woke up from beauty sleep. I guess it was unavoidable for Daye to get playing time given the player shortage, but man, it is quite depressing to see our beloved Raptors trot out a lineup of Buycks, Daye, Novak, Ross,and Fields to reverse a home deficit. I call that my “tank lineup”, I’ll get to that in a bit, but first to Valanciunas.
After the hot start, our Lithuanian giant got taken aback by the aggressiveness of which the Spurs big men were hitting the glass. He was visibly frustrated at the swiftness at which the Spurs offense moves and how quickly opportunities materialize after their guards and forward make interior passes. He got scored in some one-on-one situations, got moved on the boards, and went through a second-quarter spell where things weren’t going right for him. Unfortunately for him, nothing was quite done to reestablish him in the game, not via the post and not via the two-man game. I’ll spell this out one more time this season. The Raptors need an interior post-up presence to balance their offense and whether they like it or not, Valanciunas is that man. Keep feeding him the ball and figure out how you can play around him, just like you do with DeRozan.
His game has obvious flaws: he takes too long to make his move, his shoulder and head fakes are weak, his jumper doesn’t scare anyone (even though he nailed one on Timmy), and he doesn’t yet have a go-to move that you can somewhat depend on (nice jumphook last night, though). However, they’re all works in progress and there’s no reason to think that if given the time and ball, he’ll improve. Just like Terrence Ross needs game time to settle in, find his rhythm, not need to look over his shoulder, the same is true for Valanciunas. What is player development if not nurturing the talent that a player shows in glimpses?
Forget everything else and focus on this now. San Antonio has taken charge of the game, the Raptors bench and starters have stunk it up after shooting 63% in the first quarter, and the Spurs are up 19 with 8:15 left in the game. Dwane Casey pulls DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, thus conceding the game. Valanciunas is already on the bench and the Raptors are in a tank-lineup of Daye, Buycks, Ross, Novak, and Fields. The ACC crowd is heading out and more t-shirts are being given away begging them to stay. Things are progressing as expected in this rout till 2:44, when in a 16-point game, Dwane Casey trots out Jonas Valanciunas to replace Landry Fields.
What. In. The. World?
Does he want Valanciunas to get some exercise? Does he think he’s going to start the comeback? Is he trying to get him injured so the tank is official? It boggled my mind as I sat there and saw the look on Valanciunas’ face when his number was called. He was not happy. He picked up an offensive foul after a pass was zipped to him, which after sitting on the bench for 20 minutes in a blowout isn’t something you expect. He was probably icing his knees and getting ready for a shower before this madness transpired.
Now, since we’re on the talk of weird substitutions, let’s address tanking.
I’ve been in denial here, I’ve believed that the Raptors were trying to win this year and I supported the cause. In any debate in the comments on this site, I’ve tried to shoot down the tank but I’ve now accepted it, or a variant of it. I believe that somehow Ujiri will land a pick in the draft, whether it be via the tank or trade route. Here’s how it’s going to play out: the Raptors will be shipping off Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry, two of the more tradable guys, and retaining the services of Dwane Casey till the end of the year because, frankly, he is simply perfect as the tank commander. If I were him I’d resign before things get ugly, but he’s too absorbed by the head coaching position to see through that. The Raptors will politely decline to renew his contract come the summer, and get a head coach that is of Masai Ujiri’s picking. Perhaps George Karl, perhaps Jeff Van Gundy, perhaps Stan Van Gundy, perhaps Jonas’ dad. I don’t know. This appears to be a full-on reset, as even the players acquired in the Gay deal have enough value, which will be added onto, to be shipped at the deadline.
As I sat there watching Casey and Popovich stand on opposing ends of the baseline, it dawned on me that this might be the biggest coaching mismatch ever. Here we have a perennial NBA champion going up against a guy who makes hockey line-changes in the second quarter. While I was wondering that I saw Tony Parker go the other way on a Diaw screen, put Lowry on his hip and score on an easy leaner as the help defender hesitated to leave Green open in the corner. A simple play. On the next possession, I saw Lowry go one-on-one trying to get back at Parker, end up in a turnover and on to the next play. This is where a coach like Popovic would call timeout, inform his PG that this isn’t a personal battle and one shouldn’t make it such. In Casey’s case though, play continued.
I also played special attention to the out-of-timeout success rate by the Raptors and I can confirm that every instance I monitored failed. Some of them ended up in offensive fouls and most didn’t result in more than two guys touching the ball. If Casey chooses to hand DeRozan the ball a the wing or top of the key, he also has to make an effort to construct an outlet for him, because otherwise DeRozan will simply drive the ball and try to score, or if he finds himself in trouble, dribble it out for a reset using up clock. There needs to be some passing options – and I’m not even talking about assists – that allow DeRozan or another penetrator like Lowry to pass out without breaking rhythm of the play. Currently, when the Raptors pass out of a drive it either ends up in a low-percentage jumper or some wild sequences where players end up crossing paths and getting in each other’s way as they try to figure out just what to do now that the original drive-play has gone away.
I’m not sure what DeRozan’s fate is going to be. Last night you saw him score against some excellent defense in Kawhi Leonard and to a lesser extent, Danny Green. At the same time you saw both those guys easily take advantage of him on defense and DeRozan taper off as the game got older. How Green pass-faked him out with his hips at one point was downright embarrassing. At the same time, Ujiri has to see that the offense is a shambles and that there are zero in-game adjustments being made to cater to the team’s limited strengths. DeRozan’s excellent mid-range game is hardly utilized off the ball, I don’t think the Raptors have run a Princeton-cut all year which would put DeRozan’s athleticism against the opposing team’s bigs. My feeling is that Ujiri has to value DeRozan and believe that he is a player that’s part of the solution, not the problem, and hence keep him.
While I’m at this I’d like to give my thoughts on the D.J Augustin cut. Really, you could’ve thrown darts and decided which of Stone, Buycks, or Augustin to cut loose. My guess it came down to the money they make and Augustin led that category. Stone’s sole strength appears to be to dribble the ball up the court without turning it over, and the dribble penetration and defense that you may have hoped Buycks would bring aren’t anywhere to be seen. They’re basically on the team because the NBA has a minimum roster size requirement.
Before I end this, I have to comment on how enjoyable it is to watch the Spurs play. This was a Raptors Republic Group Night and although it was a blowout, I’m glad I picked this game to go because it is mighty impressive how the Spurs have found roles for Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and other no-names.
Final word goes to the ACC fans who ERUPTED in a 16-point game with 33 seconds left when the Raptors scored a 100 points thinking they had gotten free pizza, not knowing that the home team must win as well. I felt embarrassed as even the Spurs bench wondered what the celebration was about.