Corrective Measures Needed

Raptors 100, Cavaliers 102 – Box
Some corrections need to be made ASAP if the Raptors want to continue their forward progress this season, because if this mini-slide continues, we’ll be routed in the playoffs.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow details against Cleveland and leave it at this: Defensively, the Raptors were a write-off in the paint as both Valanciunas and Johnson put up no resistance to their individual checks, or any cutters cruising the paint. Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan were torched to a crisp by Dion Waiters and Luol Deng, making for frustrating viewing as those two are supposed to be part of the “core”, yet can’t put a consistent defensive shift in a game where there’s all to play for. The Raptors were down 21 in the third, were seemingly rescued by Lowry as they took a one-point lead, but lost in the end as Vasquez turned it over on the final play.

Offensively, the team-oriented offense that we all enjoyed in 2014 thus far has disappeared and replaced with sets that seem congested due to lack of side-to-side ball movement, and aimless half-drives that only serve to setup the defense for a good shot-contest. To top it all off, the Raptors have developed a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts and thus playing for behind, which takes a mental toll that requires a Herculean effort to overcome.

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Against Cleveland, a team that had lost four of five coming into this game, and have all but shutdown for the season, the Raptors felt they could afford to come out with a nonchalance about them and get away with it. I suppose you can’t blame them, they escaped playing a single half of basketball against the Pelicans and repeated that against the Hawks, and Cleveland is arguably a much worse team than both Atlanta and New Orleans. Except that this time there wasn’t a stretch of near-perfect basketbal to save the day, and inevitable mistakes such as missed FTs and wasted possessions ended up costing the Raptors a win, and could ultimately cost them home-court advantage.

Given the gravity of the situation (Chicago now in 3rd with the Raptors tied in the loss column), how Dwane Casey couldn’t get the team to show up for the game is concerning. Our big men were in a haze, perplexed at Spencer Hawes and Tristan Thompson’s movement, and caught unawares by Cleveland sending a barrage of guards right down the middle, who all went untouched on their way to the rim. The wings, DeRozan and Ross specifically, were thoroughly outplayed by their counterparts in the scoring, defense and effort categories. It was left for a Kyle Lowry-led resurgence in the third, which was supplemented by a shot-happy Vasquez and, of all people, Steve Novak, to close the game from 21 to eventually a one-point lead.

Take this deplorable defense of the pick ‘n roll where Spencer Hawes, an established shooter, is left wide open. This play has it all: miscommunication, wrong-side screen defense, backs turned to the ball, and best of all, little idea of what the plan is to counter this sort of situation.


Then we have this little peach where Cleveland scores on an inbound play after Tyler Hansbrough is caught between two minds, and nobody informed Valanciunas that he’s supposed to rotate down (Or is he? No idea):


Missed free throws, long jumpers and defensive miscues cost the Raptors the win in a tight affair, which you can almost accept. What is hard to move past is how the Raptors managed to get down 21 to this Cleveland team? I’ve already pointed to our passive big-man play and porous perimeter defense, yet that doesn’t account for what we saw on Tuesday night. There are some fundamental issues with the rotation that result in a very low margin of error, which if an opponent exploits, the Raptors quickly get in trouble.

Jonas Valanciunas, as young and inexperienced as he may be, is being counted on to provide a consistent effort as a starter. And when he doesn’t, the drop-off down to Hayes is catastrophic, especially if it happens early in the game. Valanciunas needs to get back to becoming a contributor even when his offensive usage rate is low, as it can be with Lowry, DeRozan and Ross in the lineup. He has to provide help defense while maintaining defensive rebounding position without picking up fouls. That is ultimately Valanciunas’ responsibility on the team, and I realize it may be a tough ask, but that is what the situation is given our lack of options. His offense has to come from three areas: pick ‘n roll play, offensive rebounds, and dump-offs from guards. Him posting up and the Raptors working off of him are a bonus, because those sets are also ones where we tend to see the worst of Valanciunas, i.e., the needless pump fakes, the turnovers, the wasted seconds off the shot-clock. Where I’m going with this is that Valanciunas needs to have a defense-first approach for the Raptors collective team defense to be strong enough to compete against the likes of Noah, Gortat, .Jefferson, or even Mason Plumlee.

Much like Valanciunas, DeRozan’s defense needs to improve where he can cancel out a player like Luol Deng. In the playoffs, that guy may be Bradley Beal or Joe Johnson, and if those two have games like the one Deng had (and I’m talking impact, not necessarily just points), the Raptors will be swept. If he’s playing poor defense then his offense has to be pristine to make up for it. And when he does neither (like against Cleveland) he becomes a huge liability and can only be counted upon to hit the occasional jumper, which is gut-wrenching to watch.

One of the issues he needs to correct is where he dribbles to after using a screen. Earlier in the year we saw him using a ton of baseline screens to get open near the elbows for jumpers, or duck inside for a short, straight jimmy. Now defenders are brushing against the screens, pushing him out further knowing that he has a tendency to take the longer jumper, or hang on to the ball sizing a pull-up, or even resetting the play by dribbling it all the way back out. The quick passes out of these situations are rare, and part of it is the lack of player movement around him, not to mention the absence of the ever-moving Patrick Patterson.

The Raptors managed to run some very effective pick ‘n rolls against the Cavaliers, but it wasn’t a play that featured enough. For the Raptors to get back to swinging the ball side-to-side, they need to collapse the defense. If DeRozan’s drives aren’t doing that, then they need to look at alternate options of making the defense make difficult decisions, such as collapsing and risking kick-outs. Right now, it’s too easy to defend the Raptors without sending any help, and for a team that relies on ball-movement to be successful, stretching the defense is key which is exactly what the Raptors are not presently doing: stretching the defense and testing its elasticity.

WIth Patterson out, it seems that Greivis Vasquez has taken upon himself to supply the missing offense to mixed results. If Vasquez is the top offensive option off the bench then the Raptors are in trouble. When the Raptors were running off strings of wins, their one character trait was that the bench scoring was evenly distributed across Vasquez, Patterson, Salmons, and to a lesser degree, Hansbrough. We have seen a departure from that trend and in its stead Vasquez has increased his FG attempts by more than two with Patterson out (7.6 with Patterson, 9.7 without), while increasing his usage rate. He’s taken it upon himself to account for Patterson’s absence.
Instead of the bench working cohesively, it’s become the Vasquez show which is, at times, entertaining in the short-term, but detrimental in the long. The Raptors need to exploit the Johnson/Vasquez combination much like the Johnson/Calderon combo. The Raptors, if they plan their rotations accordingly, can yield good results from these two pick ‘n roll specialists.

Throw in Nando de Colo into the mix and you’ve increased the tempo and pace of the second unit. He threw a couple passes behind Valanciunas in tight-quarters last night and even though they resulted in turnovers, the idea was right. If de Colo is able to sync up with the bigs, his sheer movement, keenness to make plays, and defense can add some bite to the second unit.

The Raptors have wasted an opportunity and the loss should serve as a wake-up call of how poor the team has been playing. The cracks of last week were covered well with two improbable wins, so if there’s one positive to come out of this loss, I hope that it’s the team recognizing their wayward ways and applying corrective measures. That starts with fixing the defense, because when the league’s 23rd rank offense, which averages 97.3 points drops 102 on you in a clutch game, it’s time to look around and smell the stench. We got three more games this week, all three need to be had.

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