“We don’t give a shit about it.”
Most thought Masai Ujiri was talking about Paul Pierce’s pre-series comments when he made that rallying cry in Jurassic Park on Saturday but as it turns out, Ujiri was talking about defensive rebounding.
There were a lot of things wrong with the Toronto Raptors performance in Game 1, but their work on their own glass is as good a place as any to start. The team’s steady decline on defense was a topic of discussion late in the year, and as it turns out, a possession doesn’t end until the defense secures the rebound, something the Raptors were wholly incapable of on Saturday. The Washington Wizards grabbed 19 offensive boards – a third of those available to them – an issue that plagued Toronto in several late-season games. The Raptors finished the season grabbing 73.3 percent of opponent misses, 25th in the league and a far cry from their top-10 mark a season ago (75.2 percent). The Wizards aren’t even a particularly adept offensive rebounding unit, grabbing 24.9 percent of their own misses, right in the middle of the pack.
Bleeding offensive rebounds is a bad look for a team purporting to want to figure out their defense and step up for the playoffs. Their woes (WOES) in that area in Game 1 are also a nice avatar for the game overall, where the Raptors played well enough at times (early, late) but had long and frustrating lapses (the entire middle, overtime). Stops, and then rebounds lost. Gaps closed, and then widened again. Nine-tenths of what’s needed to get the job done.
Nene did the most damage on the glass with seven rebounds, but it’s Paul Pierce who, naturally, grabbed headlines with his 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The effectiveness of both players actually speaks to a concerning bit of out-coaching on the part of Randy Wittman, whose last name is a laughably poor descriptor of him as a coach. This guy made better adjustments on the fly than Dwane Casey:
Casey’s initial gameplan wasn’t too objectionable, even if you’re not a big Tyler Hansbrough fan. The Raptors wanted to play tough defense early with the Wizards’ two traditional bigs in the starting lineup, and then get their offense going when reserves began to come in, pushing the pace and exploiting Washington’s perceived lack of depth (they would ultimately play four reserves together for long stretches and survive).
That worked early on, but once Wittman realized that Pierce is a bigger issue for the Raptors at the four than he is at the three, the team’s defense went awry. Patrick Patterson only occasionally got the Pierce assignment, Hansbrough gave a solid effort but isn’t quite good enough, Amir Johnson shouldn’t be asked to come away from the rim (leaving nobody as a rim protector in the process) like that, and the Raptors realized far too late that a better bet would have been a wing on Pierce at the four and Patterson (or Hansbrough) on Otto Porter, who had a really solid game but isn’t going to exploit a one-on-one mismatch like Pierce.
Wizards lineups that had Pierce and a single traditional big were plus-1 in 17 minutes, but that doesn’t do the tinkering justice – Pierce and Kevin Seraphin were a -8 in three minutes as a frontcourt, while Pierce with Nene, Marcin Gortat or as the de facto center went plus-nine in 14 minutes. Seraphin was kind of an odd choice in the rotation over Kris Humphries, who’s a better defender and played pretty well this year, but I’d have to defer to someone from the Wizards camp as to why and how Seraphin got ahead of him in the rotation. So, yeah, hope Pierce gets paired with Seraphin often, because otherwise he was steady killing Toronto.
At least we got this:
This, on the other hand, probably only serves to fuel The Truth. The better option may be to cheer him and confuse him.
It’s really too bad that a player like Pierce didn’t hurt the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, resulting in the team signing a defensive-minded combo-forward who could help in such situations. You know, a “matchup player” who could be deployed for the exact matchup he was hired for, even if he has been somewhat erratic down the stretch of the season. But nope, nobody like that on the Raptors.
Seriously, James Johnson needs to play, like, yesterday. He’s the team’s best defensive option on Pierce and may be the team’s best option on John Wall, too, when Lowry decides to play the gambler rather than a more steady defense, like he did Saturday. More on Lowry in a second, but not even playing Johnson a handful of minutes to try to slow Pierce was inexcusable.
The key reasons not to use Johnson – spacing and rebounding – weren’t good excuses in Game 1, because the Raptors shot 6-of-29 from outside and got bled to death on the glass, anyway. It’s not as if Hansbrough’s a spacing piece, either, and Patterson has been so cold for two months that the Wizards often gambled off of him to snuff out pick-and-rolls on the strong side. Johnson has to play in Game 2, because the Wizards are definitely going to go back to Pierce at the four plenty. It doesn’t hurt that Johnson’s one of the team’s best transition defenders, too, another area where the Raptors were woefully lacking (the Wizards won the fast break points battle 13-6).
It may seem strange to be stressing about the defensive side of the ball after a 93-86 overtime loss that saw the Wizards average 0.97 points per-possession, a respectable mark for a defense. But the Wizards missed a lot of pretty easy looks, and the final score really doesn’t do justice to how well they played. Their offense is by no means pretty, and Wall and Bradley Beal in particular had poor shooting games, but Washington was able to get a lot of the looks they seek out, they just didn’t knock down shots.
That’s a concern moving forward – the Wizards won a game in which their offense wasn’t producing despite myriad second chances – but the same can be said of the Raptors.
Toronto’s key players – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Lou Williams shot a combined 12-of-46 – will play the “they’ll fall next time” card or something of that ilk, and the same shots may very well fall. This offense is based on the preternatural ability of those three players to score (or get fouled) one-on-one or out of very simple action, and at this juncture you kind of have to dance with the one that brought you. The offense isn’t changing much now, even if it would be well-served by a few more passes and a little less dribble-dribble-fire.
The Raptors ranked dead last in the NBA in percentage of field goal attempts set up by a potential assist, something that should surprise exactly nobody. Against a defense as good as Washington’s – and they played very well defensively – that kind of stagnancy, simplicity, and lack of creativity just makes things too easy. Williams is Williams, and that can be really good and really bad (yesterday’s shot selection was mostly the latter). The Wizards have plenty of decent-to-good defenders to throw at DeRozan, who needs to stay in attack mode. And Lowry, well, I’m not sure we’ve seen Lowry play a worse two-way game healthy than we did Saturday. His fouling out was actually the impetus for not only Beal’s breakout moment as a villain in this series, but also for the team’s fourth-quarter comeback.
Because, just as everyone knew would happen, Greivis Vasquez stepped up when it mattered most.
Look, nobody is going to confuse Vasquez for the player he was for long stretches last year. He’s had a mostly terrible season despite finally being healthy, he’s watched his role in the offense decline precipitously thanks to the presence of Williams, he barely sniffs the court in clutch situations, and he’s seemed generally unhappy with his lot in life. There’s a strong argument to make that he’s no longer worth having on the floor in Casey’s pet three-point guard lineup (-5 in 10 minutes), because teams just stick their worst defender on him and the Raptors only use him to spot up. He’s more useful with just one of the other guards, helping spread the floor horizontally with dual pick-and-roll options, but even then he’s struggled to score.
But the beauty of Vasquez is that despite the performance decline and decrease in role, he still thinks he’s peak Kobe Bryant, he still believes he should have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and he maintains the ability to knock down insane pull-up threes, with the gall to shimmy afterward.
The fact that the Raptors clawed back from a 15-point deficit to be in the game enough for Vasquez’s heroics speaks to their strength as a team and the general never-say-die demeanor they’ve put forth the last two years. It also speaks to Washington’s inability to close out games, and I remain confused as to why Wittman opted for Beal-run pick-and-rolls when Wall was being guarded by Williams. It’s nice to know for future games that there’s little reason to count the Raptors out entirely until the final buzzer sounds (or until overtime starts, apparently, and the Raptors forget everything that led to their comeback).
Looking ahead to Game 2, it’s easy to talk yourself into optimism or pessimism. The Raptors played a terrible two-way game and still managed to take Washington to overtime. They’ll play better, probably a lot better, and heading to Washington tied 1-1 is hardly a death knell. While Casey can be a stubborn in-game coach, he’s shown a willingness and an ability to make between-game adjustments, and there’s little choice but to trust the Raptors will be better prepared Tuesday. At the same time, the Wizards missed a ton of good looks, found holes in the Raptors’ overall gameplan, and their best player, like Toronto’s, played below his usual standard. They’d be entirely justified entering Game 2 with a ton of confidence, too.
I’m choosing to take the optimistic side. The start to this series feels painfully similar to last year’s, but the Raptors are a bit more experienced and a bit more talented than they were then. Casey’s been through this process before, and guys like Lowry and DeRozan know how to handle the ebbs and flows of an up-and-down battle. Plus, there’s little choice but to keep yourself psyched up, as a player or a fan.
Game 1 was concerning, and incredibly frustrating, but it’s one game. There’s still plenty of time. Keep the faith.