Kyle Lowry’s wild decision making and Paul Pierce at the four really hurt the Raptors in Game 1.
I came into the piece with the intention of writing about the Raptors’ rebounding woes, which was one of many factors contributed to their lost on Saturday. They conceded 19 offensive rebounds and the problem worsened to comical proportions as the game went on.
But the answer there is simple and not altogether interesting. The Raptors’ bigs are smaller than Washington’s frontline and they don’t have enough rebounding from their wing players to make up for it. Lowry is a strong rebounder for his position but he fouled out (more below). That left a threesome of DeMar DeRozan, Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams to contend for boards while Patrick Patterson (a weak defensive rebounder) and Amir Johnson (physically broken) to clean up the glass. It’s no mystery why Washington feasted. Plus, with the Raptors posing no threat to score in transition, Washington’s wings were free to crash the glass more liberally, as there wasn’t exactly a cost associated with gambling.
You see, some gambles are worth taking. Which brings me to Lowry, who gambled like a mad man on Saturday.
Lowry is a bit of an easy target and I want to note right off the bat that I’m not choosing to pick on him. I love Lowry and I’ve caped up for him many times on this forum. And it’s not even to criticize the general method to Lowry’s madness. He thrives on making the plays you wouldn’t expect. He’s like Vladimir Guerrero in baseball: he’ll chase pitches out of the zone, but more times than not, he’ll get the bat on the ball and hit it a mile deep. It’s the same thing people razz Russell Westbrook for. You have to let Lowry be Lowry.
But Lowry lost his gambles on Saturday and it cost the Raptors a chance at the win.
Let’s start with his first foul of the game. Lowry loves to hang around unsuspecting bigs, hoping for a steal when bigs land after grabbing a rebound. Lowry tries to jump from behind Nene to do this, but the Brazilian veteran is smart and coaxes a deserved foul call on Lowry’s rebound attempt.
The gamble is a bad one because of two things. One, Nene is much bigger and taller. There was almost no way Lowry was going to out-jump Nene for that one. Second, Lowry was out of position. He jumped across Nene’s side, which made it very easy for the officials to spot the collision.
Here’s another instance of Lowry’s gambling. The play opens with Beal crossing up Williams, who falls over. Lowry correctly provides help and pushes Beal to pass, which gives Williams a chance to recover. However, Lowry doesn’t return to his man. Instead, he gets caught ball watching and Drew Gooden spots Ramon Sessions wide open from deep (he hit the shot). Here’s a snapshot of Lowry guarding nobody in no man’s land.
But wait, there’s more. Here’s yet another instance of Lowry gambling for a steal. The play opens with Lou Williams launching what turned out to be an airball. The Wizards rebound and find Wall to spark their deadly transition offense.
Instead of making a diligent effort to get back right when the shot is launched, Lowry instead runs to Wall and tries for a come-from-behind steal. That leaves him out of position as he trails the play. To be fair, he started off in the corner, but he had enough time to get into position had he not purposely sat back in an attempt for the swipe.
The play eventually goes the other way. With Lowry trailing, Patterson tries to pick up Wall, but he plants his feet and Wall easily gets by him. Eventually, Wall’s frantic push leads to Kevin Seraphin open in the lane to drop his incredibly accurate hook shot (no, seriously).
The next one is even more egregious. With Lowry struggling to find his range, he tries to take on a 7-footer in Seraphin on a drive to the basket. Unsurprisingly, no call is awarded and Lowry launches nothing but an insanely difficult shot early in the shot clock with no offensive rebounders in sight.
But Lowry compounds the issue once more by not getting back on defense. He looks for immediate redemption and tries the rebound trick with Seraphin. Instead, it doesn’t work because Seraphin sees him coming and he has two other teammates to pass it to. So the ball pressure from Lowry is entirely useless for Toronto.
Instead, it’s useful for Washington, as they trigger Sessions (Lowry’s man) on a fast break. Instead, Johnson has to pick up Sessions while Lowry switches onto Gooden. However, to make matters worse, Lowry falls asleep and allows an interior pass to Gooden, who is then wide open under the rim.
Finally, there’s this play, which is the most egregious of all. Lowry plays 22 seconds of strong defense as he chases Beal around and denies him any space despite curling around multiple screens. Beal finally gives up and dumps the ball into Nene for post-up. However, Lowry inexplicably decides to not only double Nene (which would have been fine), but tries for a steal, which catches Nene’s arm. Note the shot clock: there were two seconds left. Nene had nowhere to go. Instead, Lowry bails him out.
Again, the point of this piece is not to pick on Lowry. I know you can’t have it both ways with him. But that doesn’t excuse him from poor decision making. It doesn’t. The point is to play the odds, not bet the house on 13. I don’t mind when Lowry tries little sneaky moves that are productive, like this screen for Valanciunas. It was called a foul, but it had a purpose and is rarely called. Plus, his big man doubling trick is something that drew praise from Zach Lowe.
The agony of watching Lowry swing and miss is the opportunity cost of genuinely decent defense, which Lowry is absolutely capable of. Look at his effort on the play below. It’s all perfect. He denies Beal, chases him around two screens, blows up the high-low pass and forces a late jumper by Seraphin. Lowry is absolutely capable of playing good defense.
But sometimes he gambles too much, too needlessly, too recklessly and that’s simply not acceptable from the team leader. It sets a horrible prescient for the team and it makes everyone unsure as to what will happen. It’s easy to follow a game plan, but it’s hard as hell to make up for a rogue maverick because it’s unpredictable.
Paul Pierce at power forward
By now, everyone and their mother knows the Raptors couldn’t handle Paul Pierce at the four. He scored 10 points in a six-minute stretch as the Raptors tried (and failed) to guard with with Tyler Hansbrough or Amir Johnson. It’s the wild card that could swing this series, much like how Pierce’s matchup challenges partially swung last year’s series.
Everyone will focus on the scoring, but Pierce’s shooting helps in so many areas. Here, the action starts up top with a high screen and roll. Beal probes with his dribble, which causes Amir to step up, which opens a passing lane to Gortat. Ordinarily, Hansbrough would help on this action but he stays back for fear of a kickout to Pierce in the corner.
The action eventually turned into two free throws for Gortat after he collects an offensive rebound over DeMar DeRozan, who rotated to help.
Here’s another instance of Pierce’s shooting helping the Wizards’ offense. Pierce and Wall run a high pick-and-pop action. Ordinarily, the Raptors would trap with Amir and Williams, but Wall is too good of a passer and Pierce is too accurate of a shooter.
So Amir slips and rotates back to Pierce, but that leaves Williams to guard Wall, who easily turns the corner since there’s no hard hedge by Amir. The result is an easy layup for Wall as he bullies his way past Williams to the basket.
Finally, Pierce is also just too quick for the Raptors’ bigs to stay with him. Perhaps Patterson can do it, but Amir certainly couldn’t. Here, Johnson rushes to close out on Pierce. Amir stays on the ground initially, but one weak pump fake by Pierce and Johnson is gone.
Instead, Pierce gets to his favorite area: the elbow. He then gets Amir going backwards, before fading away for his patented midrange dagger. The Truth hurts.
Pierce’s reign of terror was eventually stopped by Wittman, who pulled him late in the second and didn’t prioritize the strategy in the second half. That’s a source of hope for Raptors fans: perhaps Wittman failed to realize the benefits of Pierce at the four after accidentally stumbling upon the strategy.
Ultimately, the Wizards’ biggest problem with playing Pierce at the four is their lack of wing depth. They need someone to hold down small forward while Pierce is tearing it up. On Saturday, that someone was Porter. If Porter continues to play well, the Wizards will have more latitude to deploy Pierce.
I can’t write conclusions. This game was painful to watch and even more painful to re-watch for all the GIFs and screencaps.