Four things were abundantly clear at the ACC last night: Damian Lillard is very quick, Robin Lopez isn’t wrong about mascots, LaMarcus Aldridge is very, very good and the Raptors defense is not. As long as LMA and Lillard were running pick and roll together and the Blazers were moving the ball around to the open shooter, the Raptors never had a chance. The Blazers badly exposed the Raptors trapping and switching defense scheme simply isn’t designed to stop a competent modern NBA offense. The Raptors were nothing special on offense, but this game was lost defensively, and there was nothing the Raptor or any of his inexplicably present friends could do about it.
The Blazers are a very well coached team. One of the things that their staff does particularly well is scouting opponents. A part of the Blazers shot-right-out-of-a-cannon start to last season had to do with their staff having individual specific scouting reports and positional breakdowns ready on each player’s ipad for them to watch on the bus, plane or in the hotel room before and after games. This process went even more in-depth, with the staff updating those ipads in-game with video of how each player’s matchup was developing, how they were being guarded and what passes or lanes the opponent was leaving open for them right then and there. This cerebral level of preparedness has enabled the Blazers to adjust to their opponents at an extremely high level over the last 18 months. For all the credit that their scouting team is due, that kind of sophistication and effort is hardly necessary for an NBA playing against this Raptors team by now. The scouting report is simple, and the book has been freely available for months.
The Raptors have been something ranging between exposed on a good night to embarrassed on a bad night by any team that is able to kick the ball out of a simple side pick and roll and quickly work it around to a weakside spot up three-point shooter. The Raptors defense is a dinosaur, designed to aggressively trap big men on the side and ball handlers who are more intent on playing an individual game and quickly run out of room. It’s capable of squeezing 20 turnovers out of a team like Miami who is incorporating new pieces, missing others, doesn’t share the ball well and is looking for individuals to make plays. But it’s the exact kind of defense that offenses like San Antonio, Atlanta, Phoenix(RIP), Houston and Golden State are designed to punish. San Antonio isn’t the only team whose discovered the value of ball movement and three point shooting; that’s kind of the whole theme of the league right now. If your defense has a specific design flaw that gives up gobs and gobs of wide open shots to the type of offense that the entire league is moving towards, you have enormous problems. The Blazers unquivocably exposed this last night. Portland shot 45% as a team from 3 last night, and there was nothing fluky about that. Not because they’re the greatest 3-point shooting team of all time, but because of their 29 attempts from deep, there were maybe 3 that were contested. The Raptors were so out of sorts from switching and then sprinting out to challenge the shooter only for the ball to swing to the next open man that Portland had probably 30 different possessions that resulted in someone taking a spot up jumper without anyone within 6 feet of him. Kudos to the Blazers for knocking down shots and executing the right game-plan.
Offensively, the Raptors fell victim again to a recent trend. They played half of the game looking perfectly fine on the offensive end, while the other half they played clearly affected by how things were going defensively. The Raptors fought back at times, twice cutting the lead down to single digits, only to see it slip right back up to 13 or 15 points. Whenever the Raptors played their game at their pace, the offense was perfectly functional. But too many times it looked like Lowry or DeRozan in particular wanted to force something quick out of frustration or desperation out of what was happening defensively. The Raptors needed to play at their ceiling offensively in order to stay in the game, and as soon as they would in any way get away from what they needed to do, they would lose two more quick possessions, fall back 5 more points and lose more confidence and intensity.
Valanciunas was lost at times guarding the pick and roll and trying to stay in position and aware to challenge shots defensively in this game. That would explain in part his only having played 22 minutes if it weren’t for the fact that the exact same critique applies to every player on the floor for the Raptors. Offensively, Valanciunas was playing great, scoring 7 for 7 at will on Robin Lopez, adding 3 offensive rebounds and being one of the lone Raptor big men interested in defensive rebounding. It’s getting more and more difficult to understand why Valanciunas is sitting on the bench for almost the entirety of the second halves of these games. Where does the team see themselves going in the playoffs if they can’t figure out how to make Valanciunas a functional part of that journey? Does it feel like you’ve heard this before?
Say what you will about the difference in talent between the elite teams in the East versus the elite teams in the West. LaMarcus Aldridge made it clear last night that the Raptors simply don’t have anybody on his level. That’s fair; but the Raptors were equally embarrassed last night by Dorrell Wright and Steve Blake as they were by LMA. That’s the result of coaching, scheme and the intelligent use of talent. The Raptors have the talent to score on anybody, but last night’s game was yet another example of them playing a defense that they don’t have the right personnel to play and isn’t a relevant system anymore even if they did and how it and losing continues to anchor this team mentally and emotionally. Oh, bother.