The Toronto Raptors turned in what was mostly a very strong defensive performance on Wednesday, albeit against a very bad Brooklyn Nets team. The Raptors surrendered 74 points on an estimated 93 possessions, a rate that’s far stingier than both Toronto’s normal defense and Brooklyn’s normal offense. All caveats with the quality of the Nets apply, but it was encouraging in the absence of DeMarre Carroll, and it served to push the Raptors back into the top 10 in defensive rating on the season.
Given the bad news that surrounded the team earlier in the day, coming off of two tough losses, no less, it’s hardly the time to get negative in victory. Still, there were a few small things that caught my eye that I took a closer look at on my re-watch this morning. One of them was corrected quickly, one is more of a concern for moving forward against better teams, and one is a positive from the prospect mob. I’ll also quickly answer a Twitter question about a coaching call.
Defending cuts off of Brook Lopez at the high elbow
Since the Nets first paired Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, one of the ways they’ve made use of Lopez’ decent (when willing) passing ability and his ability to can the 17-footer is to get him the ball at the high elbow and run a point guard cutter around him. The effectiveness of this may have waned as Williams’ quickness and own effectiveness did, but Lionel Hollins continues to use it as a means of catching a defense sleeping.
The idea goes something like this: A wing ball-handler sends the ball from the far side or the middle of the floor to Lopez as Lopez establishes a post at the elbow. This can often be a way to reverse the ball back to a point guard and to set up a dribble hand-off. The big man will have to stay close to Lopez because he can turn and face up, and Lopez can act as a strong, immediate screen. Instead of just reversing the ball, though, the Nets have the guard quickly cut to the outside of Lopez as the pass gets to him, and Lopez feeds the guard on the cut (with the option to screen the guard’s man if space allows). This can give the guard a quick look at the rim or force help, opening up a shooter in the weakside corner.
The Nets used this play two minutes into the game Wednesday, and the Raptors were caught napping. That will happen sometimes, but given how often they play the Nets and that this is a standard play in their book, being unprepared for it is a bad look. Here’s the whole play:
By the time Lopez receives the ball from Thad Young, Shane Larkin already has the edge on Kyle Lowry for his cut. Notice how Jonas Valanciunas is looking directly at Lopez and is on his toes. You almost have to defend Lopez that aggressively on an entry pass (which is why this play often works), but he’ll be in no shape to switch or even help on Larkin. Notice, too, how DeMar DeRozan has shaded in from the weak corner in the event help is needed at the rim (that’s his assignment).
Any analysis of the breakdown that follows needs to first mention that Larkin passes up a wide-open layup here. The play worked, he’s free on the cut with a clear path to the basket, and only DeRozan, who has the lowest contest percentage on the team and has never averaged even half a block per-game, is in his way. Even with Larkin being the weak at-rim finisher he is, this is a good look.
Perhaps sensing that Larkin has a clear shot or that the ball’s about to go up for a shot, everyone’s attention turns toward the rim and the defense collapses into the paint.
When Larkin decides to give up the semi-contested layup, all five Raptors have a foot in the paint and the Nets are well spaced. James Johnson has little business being as low as he is, as his assignment is to bridge between Joe Johnson and Bojan Bogdanovic in the event of a kick-out. Valanciunas and Scola are fine where they are in terms of space but have their backs to their checks.
Once Larkin kicks it out to Johnson, all hell is going to break loose. Johnson gets stuck in no man’s land between two shooters, Lowry has to help from the far side of the paint, and the Raptors’ bigs are still flat-footed.
The Nets may even over-pass here, with the ball going Johnson-Bogdanovic-Johnson-Young, enough so that the Raptors can mostly get back in position,but Young has a clean look.
Young attacks Johnson’s late close-out, draws help from Valanciunas, the only person in position to help, and Lopez is free for the dump-off. Nobody rotates in time to help Valanciunas, and Lopez has an easy bucket (or a kick-out to Johnson, who would then have an open swing to Bogdanovic, time permitting).
The Raptors corrected, though, defending it much better the second time around. Bismack Biyombo guards Lopez much the same way but puts a hand out to give him a little extra flexibility helping, and Cory Joseph does a terrific job catching up after losing the hip. The Nets spacing isn’t as pristine in this case, either, as they curiously start Thomas Robinson on the strong-side block, leaving Patrick Patterson in a position to help on the cut.
The Raptors could still be in some trouble if Lopez opted to pass here, but he preferred the mismatch on Lowry. If he had passed, the first closeout would be tough, but Terrence Ross is in a decent spot to get back to the weak corner.
Even once Biyombo switches back on to Lopez, he declines to pass. Ross is in strong close-out position, anyway.
Credit to the Raptors for figuring this one out, and credit to the Nets for a smart play that makes good use of the speedy Larkin and the gravity Lopez has out to the top of the paint.
This shouldn’t happen
The Raptors have generally been a decent transition defense despite an above-average crash percentage on the offensive end. They give up a good number of transition opportunities, a potential problem, but they don’t surrender a great deal of fast-break points. There’s probably some noise here, but it suggests the Raptors are at least a bit adept at defending on the break to allow their defense to get set.
That won’t help much if they fall out of position in semi-transition or once set, as they did on this second-half play.
This one’s on Valanciunas (who otherwise had a strong defensive game), as he mistakenly thinks Johnson is on Lopez on the block. IN reality, Johnson is shading heavily off of Johnson from the weak corner, and while Lopez will eventually be his to bump down on if Valanciunas is needed, Valanciunas jumps the gun.
Valanciunas tries to help Lowry, who doesn’t really need it, missing that Johnson has had to chase off of Lopez as Johnson comes up top.
The result is Lowry getting stuck on Lopez, while Valanciunas is unnecessarily on the opposite block, having helped on what would have been DeRozan’s assignment once the ball swung to Lopez’s side.
Not the end of the world, but the type of easy two points that kill you in a tight game.
At the end of the first half, Dwane Casey used a timeout that seemingly didn’t set up much of a play beyond a Joseph prayer.
It led to this question on TwitterL
@BlakeMurphyODC I’m confused. What did Casey do during that 20-second timeout to get that shot for joseph?
— eberg15 (@eberg15) January 7, 2016
The short answer is: It doesn’t matter. Casey had a 20-second timeout to burn, got Lowry back into the game, and ostensibly drew something up. The cost here was essentially zero, as the play was already dead, negating the benefit of attacking an un-set defense in live play. With a timeout to kill, the ball already dead, and a sub to make, there’s little reason not to call the timeout and talk it over.
With four seconds and a backcourt side out-of-bounds, there’s not much you’re going to be able to run, and I do wonder if Valanciunas and/or Scola missed screen assignments here (Scola seems unsure of what to do at half-court, and Valanciunas has no reason to be in the short corner compromising spacing otherwise). There’s also the chance Joseph had the option to go middle around a Scola screen (hence Lowry in as a shooter on that side) and instead thought he could get the edge for a mid-range look.
D-League mob showing out
I was a little disgruntled that Casey was so slow to go to the youngsters with a big lead against a bad Nets team on Wednesday. This bothers me in blowouts but when I looked at the numbers, it’s hard to get too upset, because it really doesn’t happen that often. The Raptors have played in more “close late” games (within five points in the final five minutes) than any other team, and they’ve led by 10 or more in the fourth quarter on only 12 occasions. They’ve led by 10 or more in the final six minutes, when you’d think to bring in the bench squad, just eight times, and in the final three minutes only nine. In other words, there have been opportunities to get the rookies and sophomores additional run, but they haven’t been frequent.
Still, it sucked to see Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira, and Bruno Caboclo get between 1:07 and 2:19 of run in a game they easily could have gotten four or five minutes. I’m probably more sensitive about this than I should be because I’ve spent so much time watching this group in the D-League this season, and I’d really like to see how they’d perform with a few minutes to get into an actual rhythm. In any case, they were able to flash a few encouraging signs in their short run. Caboclo had a rebound and a steal (and a turnover), Wright had an assist and made another pass that could have been one, Powell had a nice step-in jumper, and Nogueira got to flash his playmaking skill.
One play didn’t result in a basket but was encouraging. Wright fakes going up top to Nogueira, Nogueira makes a nice cut, Wright feeds him with a great bounce pass, and Nogueira shows his hands by corralling it in motion. Nogueira then sucks the help in, makes a great pass to Powell in the corner, and Powell aggressively attacks a closeout in the corner for a look at the rim.
More sample size, please.