Tie game with less than a minute left. What play do the Toronto Raptors turn to?

Fun fact: The Raptors were a league-best +195 in the fourth quarter last season. That’s 32 points better than the San Antonio Spurs, who ranked a distant second, and 63 better than the lowly third-place Miami Heat. If my memory is correct, the Heat and Spurs didn’t accomplish very much in 2013-14.

Much of that differential speaks to the Raptors’ depth, and Dwane Casey’s unwillingness to concede games. Most teams elect to play their bench units for the start of the fourth quarter in an effort to rest their the starters. The Raptors had the luxury of capitalizing with two starter quality pieces — Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez — and DeMar DeRozan’s superhuman ability to endure strenuous workloads. Put two and two together, and fourth-quarter comebacks were something of a specialty for the Raptors. They had a fair bit of luck on their side.

Oddly enough, despite their overall fourth-quarter dominance, the Raptors were actually quite average offensively in “clutch” (+/- 5 points, less than 5 minutes left) scenarios, ranking just 13th in Net Rating. Depending on how you manipulate the clutch goalposts, the Raptors fared a tad better or a bit worse, but for the most part, the general theme was that the Raptors’ were a pretty average squad late in games.

In particular, the Raptors shot just 35.1 percent from the field with under a minute left in close games. That made me wonder, which clutch plays worked, and which ones didn’t?

Worked: Sidelines inbound to Amir Johnson

For this post, I looked at 97 clutch plays by the Raptors with the designation of clutch meaning with the score within 5 points under a minute left. Feel free to peruse the video yourself by clicking though this link.

The Raptors pet play in the clutch involved an sidelines inbound to Amir Johnson. The inbounder would input the ball, and look to run towards the middle with Johnson facilitating out of the high-post. From there, Johnson had multiple options at his disposal which made the play difficult to defend.

Variation 1: Hand-off, pull-up

The play starts with Terrence Ross setting a down screen on the player (Kemba Walker) defending the inbounder. Lowry inputs the ball to Johnson and uses the down screen from Ross while flashing to the top of the key. Johnson then turns for a hand-off, setting a second down screen in the process. It’s a thing of beauty when run correctly.

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The strength of this play is two-fold. First, Lowry is a fantastic shooter from above the break. Second, the suddenness of the play tends to catch opponents off-guard. Forcing Lowry’s defender to run through two down screens in quick succession creates a lot of drag, which basically ensures that Lowry to be open unless everything is switched. Even if everything is switched, the play still yields a mismatch with Amir’s man on Lowry.

Variation 2: Fake hand-off

Just as with the first play, the ball is inbounded to Amir and the inbounder flashes to the ball, but Amir drives intead of making the handoff, hoping to catch opponents off-guard. This works especially well when the defense anticipates the hand-off, and the big shades towards the inbounder.

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In the clip above, Udonis Haslem defends the play correctly until the last second. He doesn’t cheat towards DeMar and stays with Amir step-for-step. The key to the play is the element of surprise, but of course, a little luck helps too. Given that the Heat struggled on the glass, it was a smart play-call to place the two Raptors bigs in the paint at the time of the shot. Amir misses, but Jonas Valanciunas is positioned on the doorstep, and easily collects a putback.

Variation 3: Blatant fouling

Hey, John Salmons could use all the help he could get. Amir deserves two assists on this play.

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Failed: Isolations for DeRozan

Oddly enough, the Raptors’ best one-on-one scorer was also its worst option in the clutch last season. DeRozan connected on just 33.6 percent of his field-goals, giving way to this Red Wedding-inspired shot-chart. Note that the vast majority of his attempts came from the dreaded mid-range area.

Shotchart_1409172277147Yes, he shot 4-for-29 from the right side of the court

This is not to say that DeRozan isn’t clutch, because the existence of “clutch” altogether is nebulous at best. There’s context to consider. DeRozan was almost always covered by the opposing team’s best defender(s). Even though he largely struggled to score for himself, DeRozan at least soaked up valuable defensive attention of which could have been deployed elsewhere. The results were what they were, but it wasn’t just DeRozan at fault. For example, the playcalls for him weren’t great either.

Variation 1: Basic Isolation

Nothing to see here. DeRozan gets the inbounds and everyone clears out. He then tries to beat his man one-on-one, and it just didn’t work whatsoever.

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There’s so much to critique on this play. First, why isolate DeMar and give him nothing to work with? Why not at give him a screen, and hope for a switch? Okay, bringing Joakim Noah onto DeMar might not actually help all that much as compared to Jimmy Butler, but then at least spread the floor. Note how Salmons, Lowry and Hansbrough are all crowded in the same quadrant of the court, with none of the three posing as actual threats to score. It’s hard to blame DeMar too much for this one.

Variation 2: Giving DeMar the ball in optimal matchups

To be fair to Casey and his coaching staff, the straight isolation sets for DeMar were rare. Take the play below for example. DeRozan receives two screens and ultimately ends up in a battle with Swaggy P, who is a pretty terrible defender. All in all, it’s not a bad playcall.

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This one is on DeRozan. He cuts too close to the ball, which allows Swaggy to catch up to the play after being momentarily slowed by screens. DeMar tries to attack baseline, but Pau Gasol alertly leaves Chuck Hayes to protect the basket. DeMar then resets, but instead of hitting Hayes with the pass when he’s in a bad spot (note that Hayes has Ross wide open with an easy swing pass,) DeMar takes an ill-advised contested shot.

As a whole, DeRozan’s skills may not be best suited for the role he was given. He’s at his best when he’s attacking the basket. He is fantastic at drawing fouls and has the ability to finish at the rim through contact. However, teams often anticipate this and clog the paint, which takes away DeMar’s strength. The consequent leaves players open, but Patterson is the only stretch four on the roster, so defenses aren’t sacrificing very much to guard the rim. Altogether, play-calling can only do so much — they can’t substitute for a player’s skills. DeRozan falls victim to this.

Worked: Lowry in the backcourt

This one was by far my favorite. I only saw two examples of this play, but it’s rather ingenious in its simplicity. The ball is inbounded to Lowry in the backcourt, and he charges head-first to the basket, aided along by a high screen from Johnson. This gets Lowry going one-on-one with Johnson’s defender, whose only option is to back up to the basket with his hands in the air.

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I’m a fan of the play because there are easy outs built in. The primary defender on Lowry in this play is Amir’s man (Paul Millsap), and when Lowry is in full gallop, it’s hard for any big man — even a mobile four like Millsap — to deny penetration. It’s also hard to send help on the play because the Raptors put three-point shooters in the corners (left: Steve Novak, right: DeRozan). Even if Lowry’s layup doesn’t fall, Amir is able to crash the glass with a small (Lowry’s man) vying for the boxout. Plus, with Lowry’s ball-handling ability, he can keep his dribble and reset if the matchup isn’t right. The play is extremely simple, but it’s effective.

  • Max Powers

    Hopefully DeRozan can become a clutch player in those moments. Only reason why I liked Rudy Gay was for those moments since he a repertoire for that. I just know as a Raptors fan when the last shot is on the line or its overtime its hard to find someone to count on. So hopefully that changes this season with Lowry and DeRozan…maybe even toss a little bit of Ross.

    • KuH

      I hear DeRozan has been working on his passing this summer. It would be great to see him get the ball on an inbounds and then pass it on to someone else rather than taking the shot himself.

      • Kate C

        He’s been looking good with team USA, lots of assists. This bodes well for the season.

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  • lewro

    hey will, you’ve always been a solid contributor to this site but i think you are improving. this article is well researched and organized, particularly for the off-season as topics are scarce. keep pushing.

    • DDayLewis


  • golden

    Nice effort, Will. However what is missing here is, for comparion, I’d like to know what the Spurs run in ‘clutch’ situations. There is a perception that the Spurs rarely run ISOs – or at least always run a play to setup the ISO. They do, in fact, have 2 guys (Parker and Manu) who could be quite good at ISOs. Is this reality or myth? I think it would be great to know what the best team-oriented coach in the NBA does when the rubber hits the road.

  • katmore9

    Fantastic article. Really good analysis.

    • DDayLewis

      Thank you. Very kind.

  • webfeatmm

    lol@blatant fouling. Amir’s a pretty sneaky dude!

  • Marshall

    Great read Will. Love the inbounds to Amir/staggered screen play at the top and the Lowry charge at the bottom. Loved the analysis

    • DDayLewis

      Thanks Marshall.

  • Darth Burger

    Agree with the others. This was a great read. That double down screen to trey was killer. Thanks Will.

  • Josejosejose

    Really interesting, thanks for the article

  • I_have_seasons!_@torontofilmdr

    Great read Will!! Thx!
    @golden the spurs run the last example Will mentions in this article religiously with Tony/Manu and Tim. Tims solid mid-range game and the speed of the guards creates the bread and butter. Simple yet extremely tasty and effective.

    If run properly it is virtually impossible to stop. You could tell the other team you are running it and worse case scenario you get a 15-footer from Amir, a floater over a big from Lowry or a semi-contested three in the corner from Ross/Ppatt or Demar. I would take those ‘worst case scenarios’ at the end of any game.

    We will definitely see the Raps run the high pick and roll more often this season.

    If Jonas can establish a mid range game and draw the 5 up top this play will take the raps to another level.

    The key to this play is to run it early in the clock and if not executed correctly to have patience and just friggin run it again. This basic basketball play requires a solid unselfish screen from the big and a tight shoulder to shoulder dribble. The result, bread and butter. Looks and tastes so good.


  • The cold hard truth

    Who are we kidding…Casey Does not have a clutch playbook.

    • DDayLewis

      It’s not a particularly expansive one, but he’s improved in that regard, as exemplified by the post above.

      • The cold hard truth

        Lol…to Che

  • Jeff Sieger

    What is the picture at the top of the article from? I can’t figure out which game that was

    • DDayLewis

      The win over the Mavericks in Dallas. The game went to overtime and Amir was hustling after a loose ball as time expired before everyone mobbed him.