With just over five minutes remaining, the Toronto Raptors were down by one point after making a miraculous fourth quarter comeback. They proceeded to outscore the Charlotte Hornets 13-8, while simultaneously breaking their 5 game losing streak of games that were classified as “clutch” (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes). By examining their offense and defense, it will be illustrated how they made that comeback.
Without the presence of Cody Zeller, the Hornets depended on Frank Kaminsky to play centre for much of this game. While he took advantage of both Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira, the Raptors took advantage of his defensive limitations down the stretch.
This was done by forcing him to defend in space while guarding against the Raptors’ high pick and roll
The first play features the Raptors running Wedge Stagger, but as a result of Delon Wright probing for a moment too long, the advantage gained was neutered. Lowry then proceeded to demand a screen in the middle of the floor, where Kemba Walker was forced to trail over the top to prevent an off-the-dribble three pointer. This was done in concert with Kaminsky showing relatively high in a softer drop above the nail. Knowing that he was attacking a back-pedaling and slow-footed Kaminsky downhill, Lowry flashed an effective hesitation dribble to freeze Kaminsky before snaking into the middle of the floor. After gaining the half step needed, Lowry made an acrobatic finish against the poor rim protector.
On the next high pick and roll, Lowry slowed down a bit after using the screen. Now understanding that he has to recover and position himself in front of Lowry sooner, Walker over committed and became the second Hornets defender to succumb to Lowry’s hesitation dribble. That crafty maneuver opened up the space needed for Lowry to attack Kaminsky one-on-one, forcing him to step away from Jakob Poeltl, leading to the eventual dump off and finish.
The second key element to the Raptors’ success in the fourth quarter was stationing Lowry away from the ball while Delon Wright handled the ball.
The first play in this compilation showcases the Hornets’ aggressive defensive coverage, a reaction to the previous plays where their more conservative “drop” in the pick and roll was ineffective. The Raptors are no strangers to aggressive traps late in games and wisely put Lowry, their best shooter, away from the ball to create on the secondary attack.
As the Hornets aggressively forced the ball out of Wright’s hands, they were forced to send Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as weak side help to “tag” Poeltl’s roll to the rim. Lowry and Joseph proceeded to exchange positions in the weak side corner as the ball was swung away from the trap. This forced Kidd-Gilchrist to aggressively closeout once the ball found its way to Lowry, who drew an And-1 as he attacked the basket.
While the second possession, a SLOB (sideline out of bounds) Zipper Pick and Roll, did not net the Raptors any points, the process and principle were the same, as the Hornets were forced to aggressively close out to Lowry after loading up on the strong side of the floor, leaving him unattended and primed to attack the rim.
An important feature of this strategy is Wright’s awareness and ability to read the floor. Knowing when to force his dribble so he could continue to probe, versus quickly swinging the ball was key for the Raptors utilizing Lowry off-ball.
Once again, Wright’s ability to make incredible reads while driving to the basket were impressive. Making a cross-body pass to the opposite corner for an open three-pointer is John Wall-esque. Understanding when to reject a screen, as he did there once Nicolas Batum leaned too far one way, opened up everything for him as well. He made a series of heady plays down the stretch that should intrigue Raptor fans, regardless of the Raptors’ ability to convert.
While all the previous possessions were crucial for the Raptors to succeed down the stretch, it was ultimately Poeltl’s decision making that cemented the comeback.
The Raptors went back to a straight 1 / 5 pick and roll with Lowry and Poeltl, something that worked wonders earlier. Lowry promptly drew two defenders on the ball and dished it to a properly positioned Poeltl, who had presented himself on the roll. As he made the catch on the short roll, Poeltl was met by Batum’s late tag, which he instinctively identified as he dished it to DeMarre Carroll for an open three pointer. Many plodding big men never reach the point where they can be both an effective screen setter and passer in 4 on 3 situations, but in Poeltl’s young career, he has established that he has the ability to do both.
These 4 on 3 passes after a short roll have become second nature to Nogueira, but Poeltl also has the ability to make the difficult read. The two young bigs have somewhat similar skill sets, as they are both low-usage screen setters that can finish on the roll and dish it once they are pressured. They are also both effective offensive rebounders, but I would lean towards Poeltl’s cerebral analysis of the floor in that aspect. The difference between the two offensively is that Nogueira’s gravity as a roller is much greater than Poeltl’s because of his lob-catching prowess. The other end of the floor is easier to see, as Nogueira’s shot blocking stands out, while Poeltl’s footwork and ability to defend in space is greater.
As noted earlier, the Hornets’ ability to go small and space the floor with Kaminsky at the 5 shaped the game greatly. It’s not a coincidence that the two plodding centre’s that the Raptors used earlier in the game had trouble keeping up with Kaminsky. Luckily, Poeltl’s ability to show high and contain Walker, while also recovering to Kaminsky, changed the game for Toronto.
On this possession, Walker was able to force Poeltl to show just a moment longer than usual, but still was able to impede his progress. Wright compensated for Poeltl by stunting towards Kaminsky, dissuading him from taking the jumper, while also recovering back to his own man to tip away the pass.
Another crucial aspect of Toronto’s defense down the stretch was their willingness to switch assignments in transition when Charlotte pushed the tempo.
For instance, on this possession where Wright was tasked with defending the larger Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets attacked quickly. This forced Poeltl to help and stop the quick duck-in post up attempt. As a result, Carroll was left to defend two perimeter players and unwisely dug down into the paint. Once the ball was swung his way, he had to aggressively close out, creating the opportunity for Marvin Williams to hit a three.
However, It was not cut-and-dry, as The Raptors’ versatility also aided them.
Here, Lowry and Wright switched a simple step up ball screen. Lowry’s low centre of gravity did not allow for Batum to gain an inch of post position. He proceeded to poke the ball away and force a turnover. This was done rather than have Lowry hedge the initial screen and trail Batum on the perimeter, an obviously inferior scenario for Toronto.
The Raptors continued to be hit-and-miss while defending the Hornets in the half-court, but they trended in a positive direction.
Here, the Hornets ran the same set play in back to back possessions. It was a simple staggered screen to free Batum on the catch. This freed Walker up to set a pindown screen for Kaminsky on the weak side of the floor. It’s quite an unusual action, but the shooting prowess of Kaminsky makes it interesting. The result of the inverted nature of the play made Poeltl’s first attempt at defending it poor, as he is not used to negotiating a screen from the perspective of the shooter’s defender.
The next time the Hornets ran the play, Poeltl was more prepared and trailed Kaminsky. However, Poeltl’s ability to learn quickly did not matter, as his fellow Ute alum learned even quicker and deflected the entry pass towards the main action.
The final Hornets possession was insignificant from the perspective that the odds of tying a two-possession game with 10 seconds left are small. Regardless, the Raptors defended the SLOB play well. It was a simple screen-the-screener action that Wright fought through well, forcing a tough Batum heave.
The Raptors did not really have the personnel to play against a spacy Hornets team that gives them trouble on the healthiest of nights. While the ability to come away with a win is nice, the promise showed by the Raptors’ youth is even nicer.
All of these things pale in comparison to Serge Ibaka’s impending arrival.