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Adaptation: Evolve or Die

Playoff series are all about making adjustments. Unlike the regular season, where you have only a handful more than a dozen or so proper practices all season long and too many scattered opponents to focus in on a single target to game-plan your strategy specifically for them, the playoffs allow for a more nuanced approach to your opponent and yourself. Based on what we saw from game 1 and, really, what we’ve seen from the Raptors since Christmas, they would be best served to focus on what they’re doing instead of adjusting for the Wizards.

Dwayne Casey joked before the series started about going 1-on-1 with Randy Wittman. Regardless of how you feel about Casey, there were surely few of you who weren’t confident that Casey could beat Wittman, even if it ended up being more of a checkers match than chess. Game 1 didn’t offer any ringing endorsements from either bench. Casey’s play calling and game management were curious to say the least, while Randy Wittman spent most of a 20 second timeout trying to remember how to use a clipboard. But Wittman did make one adjustment that put the Raptors off their game-plan and proved a problem: he stopped playing two big men together and went long stretches in the second half with Paul Pierce at power forward.

A large part of the Raptors fanbase and the writers who cover them were clamoring for the Wizards in round 1 because of the matchup where they play two bigs. The Wizards rarely played small throughout the season, and often took their jumpshots from a few steps within the 3-point line. This kind of approach greatly mitigated the gaping hole in the Raptors defense: guarding small teams who work the ball around for outside shots. The nicest way to put the attitude regarding Randy Wittman around the league is that he isn’t someone people would be afraid of when considering the factors in a series. But it was foolish of the Raptors and their fans to not think that the Wizards would come in with adjustments! The book on the Raptors is clear, and it’s been out for months now. Teams looked at what the Nets did to the Raptors in the playoffs last year and started emulating that basic strategy early in January, and it often killed the Dinos.

The Raptors run everything through their guards. The first couple of actions in almost all of their offensive sets are designed to free up one of their wings to get the ball in space on the wing. The Raptors pick and rolls use the roll man as a decoy or last option far more often than a finisher. The Raptors would starve on isolation and mediocre jumpshots if not for their heavy diet of free throws. Washington looked at those factors and made simple, smart adjustments to take them away. First, knowing that everything the Raptors wanted to do was through DeRozan, Lowry or Lou Will, they did a good job of trying to deny the dribble handoffs that the Raptors love to initiate those plays with. The Raptors offense is simple, and if you make them spend 5 seconds just bringing the ball up the court and another 8 seconds just trying to get a handoff and screen on the wing that isn’t there, the Raptors will almost always devolve into a bad jump shot with time expiring or a tough isolation set. Smart teams have been doing this for months, and it was silly to think that Washington doesn’t have a scouting department.

The next thing Washington did was play the pick and roll with the knowledge that the ball handler was probably going to be the shooter. The bigs often cheated a half step towards the ball handler and many of the Raptors attempts at the pick and roll ended up looking like a guard trying to push a shot up in a two-man trap. The pick and roll is supposed to get you an open shot, not a double-team. The Raptors predictability here is a serious problem.

Pierce was the story from game 1, but it’s worth noting that Washington did not play a stellar offensive game by any stretch of the imagination. Even with the small lineup, the Wizards didn’t score at a rate that simply forced the Raptors to adjust because they couldn’t keep up. Getting caught up trying to adjust to what the other team is doing can take away from what you want to do. It’s important to try and dictate the matchup dynamics yourself. If Washington wants to play old man Pierce 37 minutes at the 4 spot, we should be ok with that, and trying to expose it. Having Patrick Patterson or another wing player hanging out on the perimeter on offense makes life easy for Pierce. Put a traditional big man out there and force Pierce to bang with him. I don’t think that Pierce can play 37 minutes a game over a whole series with Amir Johnson leaning on him and battling for position, with James Johnson driving at him and with him trying to recover as the middle man in a pick and roll. Pierce is more likely to wear down and lose the legs that he needs to make his 3s at that rate than he is when we adjust to them and let him sit on a stretch 4 type. Again, the Wizards offense was nowhere near close enough to win even a game as bad as game 1 without a lot of help from the offensive boards. It wasn’t the Wizards big men grabbing all of those late boards, they came as a result of the floor being open, the Raptors being predictably scattered and them not having a big enough lineup to clean the glass. Valanciunas played between 10 and 15 minutes less than Patterson, Amir or any of the other starters, but in his 23 minutes he was still able to handily lead the team in defensive rebound chances, per nba.com, meaning that he was in the position to grab an available defensive rebound more often than anyone else.

The Raptors don’t just need their bigs in order to rebound though, they need to play them and incorporate them into the offence. As mentioned earlier, the Raptors wings who are normally bad at involving the roll man during the season were especially bad in game 1. All 3 of the Raptors bigs scored efficiently this season when used as a roll man, putting up over a point per possession in scoring. James Johnson was one of the league leaders in this stat, and using him to cover Pierce and bend the Washington defense away from the wings could be particularly effective. The problem is that the Raptors wings don’t look for the pass enough, don’t trust the big man, or they hesitate too long looking for their shot and the defense is able to quickly take away the space. With the exception of Lou Williams, all of the Raptors guards have been between shaky and abysmal shooting as the pick and roll ball handler. DeRozan is the worst offender, averaging 0.77 points per possession as a ball handler. Compare that to Valanciunas 1.12, Amir Johnson’s 1.16 or Patrick Patterson’s 1.17 points per possession as a roll man and the difference between the two is roughly double the difference between the Philadelphia 76ers offence and the Golden State Warriors. It’s a problem! The Raptors need to trust their roll men, and they need to use them. It will score points, and doing so will open up space for Lowry, DeMar, Lou and Vasquez to drive. The Raptors also need to do whatever they can to make the Wizards defense scramble. The athletic trio of Wall, Beal and Porter were able to be patient and rely on help in swarming the Raptors wings, knowing how simple the Raps offense is. This resulted in less than 10 free throw attempts for Lowry, Williams and DeRozan combined. If that particular stat keeps up, it will be hard for the Raptors to win a single game. They need to make the defense bend away from their 3 priority scorers and ball handlers so that they can attack scrambling defenders and help defense that isn’t already set. That’s how they’ll get back to the foul line. Washington gave up an above average number of free throws during the season; the opportunity is there.

If the Raptors are going to win this series, they need to finally start addressing some of the simple and long-standing issues with their own offense. By getting into the offensive sets quicker, it will allow them the opportunity to work the ball from side to side before the shot clock forces a bad shot. If they can do this, and do so while better utilizing the roll man, they should be able to scramble Washington’s currently well set defense. That will make shots, open space, and put them back on the line. Forget old man Pierce, the Wizards are not an offensive juggernaut. But if we allow them to become a defensive one because of our own unwillingness to adapt, the series will be over all too quickly.

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