The following table should make you pretty frustrated as a Toronto Raptors fan.

Season Raptors O Nets D Series
P&R Handler .81 (12th) .82 (20th) 0.62
Handler Per Game 19.6 14.7 13.3
P&R Dive .99 (16th) 1.06 (25th) 1.31
Dive Per Game 7.1 6.3 7.3

What that table shows is the efficacy of the Raptors’ pick-and-roll this season, compared to the defensive numbers for the Brooklyn Nets and the numbers so far in this series. What it also shows is that the Raptors have, rather inexplicably, failed to leverage a significant advantage when it comes to utilizing their big men in the pick-and-roll game.

Quick Pick-and-Roll Basics
For those unfamiliar, the basis of most Raptors offensive sets is the pick-and-roll, whereby a big (it doesn’t have to be a big, but the Raptors play it this way almost exclusively) sets a screen for the ball-handler. (They use a lot of “Horns” to initiate, too, but we’re going to focus on the PNR.) The defense then has an array of options to deal with the screen, depending on the team’s preferred method of defense and the skills of the offensive players involved. It’s a smart action to begin sets because not only does it get two offensive players involved but, depending on the defensive coverage, can get the defense out of sorts quickly or open up seams for easy buckets.

Doug Eberhardt of SB Nation did an excellent piece on April 18 breaking down the variety of different ways teams can attack the pick-and-roll. There are plenty, but I’ll highlight the primary looks, from which most other variations are altered. I’ll also assume the screener is a big – again, that doesn’t have to be the case (see: the Nets offense) but the Raptors play it this way.

Ice: The defense forces the ball-handler away from the screen before he can use it, angling his body to direct the ball-handler toward the sideline rather than the middle of the floor. Most teams would probably like to do this but it’s not always possible, as the initial action has to be far enough from the center of the floor to be effective.

Hedge: The defending big jumps out at the handler to slow down his drive around the screen, the original defender goes under the screen, and then the defenders quickly switch back if they can. This is more aggressive than a basic switch, which doesn’t work as well in a small-big action since it creates mismatches unless you have Joakim Noah as your center.

Show/Blitz: The defending big basically leaves his man to help on the handler (think how you’d want to handle Steph Curry, for example, giving him zero daylight) until the original defender can recover. This means the screener is going to be pretty open beneath the screen (especially if his departure from it is well timed, and it puts a lot of pressure on help defense and smart rotations behind the initial defenders. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly how the Nets try to guard the pick-and-roll when Kevin Garnett is on the floor. It’s also how the Raptors prefer to play things.

As Eberhardt put it, blitz is “the aggressive cousin of ‘show.’” Basically, the handler gets double-teamed, and the other three defenders take on a great deal of responsibility underneath. It’s risky, but it can be effective against ball-handlers with below-average handles, vision or instincts. Think Miami Heat, here.

Zone: It’s not technically moving into a zone defense, but the screener’s man “drops” to roughly the free throw line to prevent a drive or dive to the rim. Think Roy Hibbert, and why he’s been rendered ineffective against the Hawks so far, since he’s pulled out of the paint and kept away from these actions. The risk with this is pull-up jumpers, but many defenses will accept those mid-to-long twos to prevent shots at the rim or penetration leading to corner threes. This, by the way, is how the Raptors generally defend when Jonas Valanciunas’ man is used as the screener.

The Raptors Advantage
As the table off the top shows, the Raptors ranked 12th in league offense when using the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll and 16th when using the dive man. Those aren’t elite numbers by any means but it’s important to remember that a) the offense changed dramatically after 18 games, which was more than a fifth of the schedule, and b) these numbers are the aggregate, not accounting for particular defenses. The Nets, meanwhile, struggled in both situations on defense, though the same caveats obviously apply.

When the teams squared off in late January – we’ll ignore the pre-trade game and the Drake Night game where the Nets were thin-staffed – the Raptors scored 1.46 points per play on 13 pick-and-rolls with the screener finishing. That is insane. On March 10, they used that option just three times, largely because the ball-handlers were getting 1.7 points per play.

(Note: SynergySports’ play classifications are far from perfect, but they’re a nice guide. For this series, their numbers are also pretty close to what my own game tracking shows.)

Anyway, two games isn’t really much of a sample. However, with the Raptors averaging just 101 points per 100 possessions so far in this series, well below their 105.8 season average (107.2 post-trade), the pick-and-roll has still been providing excellent results when the screener is involved.

Raptors/Game P-1 P-2 P-3 P-4 Average
P&R Handle # 15 19 8 11 13.3
P&R Handle PPP 0.47 1 0.5 0.27 0.62
P&R Dive # 5 9 7 8 7.3
P&R Dive PPP 1.2 1.56 1.29 1.13 1.31

The Raptors are averaging just 0.9 points per play in this series, according to SynergySports (that’s not the same as points per possession cited above), but they’ve averaged 1.31 when involving the screener.

Yet they’ve done so just 7.3 times per game and never more than nine times in a single game (tiny sample note: they’ve totalled 12 of these plays in two losses and 17 in two wins). This is why the opening table should frustrate you – the Raptors have a big advantage on these plays but haven’t used them enoguh.

Why the Advantage?
The Raptors gain an advantage on these plays in several ways. First, Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez are both dynamos in the pick-and-roll, as they’re heady ball-handlers, strong passers and threats to shoot or drive. That’s important.

Amir Johnson also happens to be one of the league’s premier screen-setters and finishers. You can’t measure screen-setting, but consider this: Johnson ranked fifth among qualified players in field goal percentage this season with a 56.2 percent mark. He’s at 57.3 percent for his career, sixth in the NBA since he entered the league in 2005-06. This season, he shot 71.2 percent at the rim. Elite screens, unparalleled finishing and at least a cursory ability to hit the free-throw jumper make Johnson a premier pick-and-roll weapon (he’s also great at defending it).

Jonas Valanciunas, meanwhile, ranked 15th in the league this year with a 53.1 field goal percentage, a mark that jumped to 66.8 percent on shots at the rim. The issue with Valanciunas, as with in any set, is his turnover problem – he turned the ball over on 15.4 percent of all plays this season and has 15 miscues through four games in the series. However, that rate actually drops to just 7.2 percent when he’s the dive man, helping him rank 23rd in the league in points per play as the screener. There remain issues in using him this way, because he is still a sub-par screen-setter (he tends to slip his screens too early and often telegraphs his next move) and is basically incapable of stopping or passing when on the move, meaning passes his way have to be timed well. Still, he remains dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Nets have struggled to defend in this way for most of the year. Garnett is still an excellent defender, but the fact that the Nets choose to show so often leaves seams in the paint that the Raptors have been able to exploit.

And once you get past Garnett in the Nets frontcourt rotation, as Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game put it in a conversation Monday, “anything is possible” (read: Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee are liabilities).

Why the Underuse?
One primary reason the Raptors haven’t run a ton of pick-and-rolls in this series is that it isn’t the preferred method of attack for DeMar DeRozan and he’s been using a Rudy Gay-like 32.2 percent of the team’s possessions. He’s been solid – not quite as good as he was in the regular season, but the degree of difficulty has gone up – but the team may be forcing his touches a bit too often. In Game 2, for example, he was the primary option on eight of the team’s first 10 possessions to start the second half. While he’s improved as a playmaker, his decision making can still be poor.

From there, I would guess that a combination of occasional foul trouble for the bigs, concern about Valanciunas’ turnovers, and the general pattern of forgetting Johnson exists are to blame.

And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Raptors should exclusively run pick-and-rolls – DeRozan needs his touches, too, and the offense can’t become one-dimensional – but the Raptors have a major advantage here in this series, one they’re not really leveraging. Again, they basically haven’t altered the number of plays in which they use the screener despite playing against a below-average team defending them, and despite Valanciunas and Johnson both being exactly 19-of-29 (65.5 percent) from the floor.

Changing the offensive mix even a little bit could yield major dividends in Game 5 and is probably the best offensive adjustment the Raptors have at their disposal right now (save for “get a witch doctor to remove the curse on Terrence Ross”).

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  • matthew nelson

    I think JV is rolling too deep when the ball-handler is doubled…the weak side defender only has to show a bit to make the pass look risky…if he stays higher, he can catch and back down pierce.

    • Azih

      Isn’t that the situation where he’s most liable to turn it over though?

      • matthew nelson

        He doesn’t have to force it…

        • armchairqb14

          Yeah, he gets the ball high with a 4 on 3. He could just take an elbow jumper right away, find an open man, or pull it back out and reset. Driving is risky, so cut it out in that situation.

          • matthew nelson

            Yep. Establishes us inside the 3pt line…work from there. Brooklyn’s hedges push us out too far in my opinion.

  • Ted

    Unfortunately Casey’s gonna continue to ignore Jonas, Amir and 2Pat and have Derozan jack up 20+shots again.

    Joe Johnson and DWill arent gonna struggle again like they did in Game 4. Gonna be disappointing when we lose the series to the Nets knowing that we could’ve exploited their weaknesses yet we didn’t

    • Abused Raptors Fan

      While JJ and DWill aren’t likely to struggle as much as they had in game 4, it’s also unlikely that they shoot lights out as they have in previous games. At the same time, the raptors D deserves a bit of credit for their defensive adjustments, especially on JJ with their double teams. So, while the Raptors shouldn’t expect to hold them to the same shooting percentages as game 4 for the rest of the series, they should feel more secure in their ability to slow those 2 down and make things a little harder.

  • webfeat

    “While he’s improved as a playmaker, his decision making can still be poor.”

    DD rarely passes to the screener. It’s like he thinks the screener is an obstacle that he can move around in order to get open. It’s ridiculous how open JV gets and doesn’t get the ball when he’s screening for DD.

    Imho, GV has been the best at P&Rs, even better than Lowry. The dude has a very good sense of timing and allowing for a soft bounce to reach the hands to the screener. Lowry’s passes can often have a bit too much oomph, and the screener has to fumble a bit and loses momentum.

    • armchairqb14

      GV is amazing on P&R. He has holes in his game but in passing in general, and running P&R in particular, he is well above the NBA average.

  • golden

    This is a pet peeve. We have 2 of the best pick and roll bigs in the NBA and we were, in fact, one of the better pick & roll teams under Smitch and even Jay Triano. Even last year under Casey with Calderon running the point, Amir and Ed Davis were getting easy buckets. Was it really all Jose? I though GV was supposed to be great at the PnR?

  • golden

    Actually, if you watch the poorly executed pick and rolls, one thing jumps out. The Nets are not even trying to defend Ross anymore. So, the Raps should bring him back above the 3-pt line and have Derozan in the corner (assuming Lowry is the ball-handler and JV is rolling). Lowry can cut to the middle and reverse the ball back to Ross as JV is rolling, and he has a clear entry pass to JV deep in the post. If they continue to leave Ross open, then he’s got a wide-open 3 or a semi-clear driving lane for a short-mid range jumper.

    Again, problem here is that Casey doesn’t trust Ross or JV with the ball, so the Nets know they can overload on Lowry and Derozan with impunity.

    • golden

      Further to this… especially looking at that last GIF where JV is wide open, waving his arms for the pass – you bring Ross back in as an extra screener to pick off Garnett on the JV pick & roll. Ross ‘rolls’ to the 3-pt line and JV rolls to the basket. Derozan reverses to Ross, who makes a quick pass to JV. Ross isn’t doing much (only a touch pass, really), so Casey shouldn’t be too concerned about it, but he probably would have nightmares about a play designed around Ross-to-JV. He really needs to get over his ‘veterans can do no wrong’ vs. ‘young players always make mistakes’ mindset. Casey needs to find a way to get Ross and JV more involved in the offense to put more pressure on the Nets. Right now, we’re playing 4 on 5 on offense, or worse, 2 on 5 (Lowry & DD vs. Nets), and making it harder on ourselves than it should be.

  • Nilanka15

    Great analysis!

  • afrocarter

    That last gif, though. Brutal.

    How hard do you think it is to improve court vision?

  • Just trolling

    I can’t stand these full season stats. Let’s face reality, the nets since January 1st have been a different team once they decided to go small. They are long and aggressive and have a great record since the all star break. Put the last 2 3 games of tanking aside in the regular season and make your stats from that.

    Lastly, I’m tired of people shitting on DD in these forums. He has really stepped up and you know what he is doing the same he did in the regular season. Consistency, you know what you will get from DD. Same as he did in regular season and his misses give our bigs chances for bunnies on the offensive glass. Calculate that into your stats. Maybe if that offensive board conversion gave him an assist and didn’t count towards his shooting percentage there would be different numbers here.

    Look at other players numbers lately
    Durant game 3 12-28
    Westbrook 11-28
    Gasol 6-15
    Duncan game 4 6-16
    Parker 5-14
    Nowitzki 7-19
    Ellis 6-20

    looks like a demar line, doesn’t it?
    playoffs…shots are harder to come by…He is doing great.

    so, leave DD alone, I believe he is doing what he is told when he gets the ball. He is not trying to make passes that he knows he can’t on the p&r. When he tried in games 1 and 2 to pass into post (which he cant) he just caused more turn overs. I know this summer DD will go and work on his game and the passing on the p&r will be first on the list. Just enjoy the ride and leave the stats alone for a bit. Save it for the off season and the 4 months of insane crazy analysis you guys will make on every shot.

    Raps will figure this out. Raps in 6 against nets. Raps in 7 over heat. Raps in 6 over Washington.
    Raps Memphis final. Raptors vs. Grizzlies for a pseudo Naismith cap ala toronto Vancouver days circa 2000 for lowest rated NBA finals in history.

    • MrJames

      I stand corrected, THIS is the bet ending ever.

  • MrJames

    Excellent write up and compelling facts however, the entire thing was overshadowed by the most classic ending to an article I have ever read in my life. Fantastic. GO RAPS!!

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