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“The playoffs is a different game. You get more attention from the opposite team preparing way more than the regular season,” Valanciunas said. “They know what you’re doing, they know all your plays, they know your next step. It comes to the little details…It’s more of a thinking game, not a physical game. Yeah, we have some experience, we’ve got a couple years in the playoffs. But it’s a total different game. You’ve gotta just be prepared. It’s a different game. Every game is a different game. Game 3 is going to be different, they’re going to try to take something else from us.”
It’s unclear what, specifically, the Pacers may try against Valanciunas. They simply don’t have an answer for him on the offensive glass, and that problem could be exacerbated if Ian Mahinmi, who is day-to-day with a back issue, can’t play Thursday. So the Pacers may accept the rebounding disadvantage and look to make Valanciunas uncomfortable in other ways, like going smaller and forcing him out of the paint on defense. They could send a third body into the paint on his dives and forcing the Raptors to use ball movement around the perimeter to beat them, especially when Luis Scola shares the floor with Valanciunas. They could also throw a double at Valanciunas on post-ups and dare him to beat them with passing, which is improving but is still the biggest weakness in his offensive game. There are options. There are few that don’t risk opening up an advantage for Toronto somewhere else.
It won’t be easy for Indiana, and head coach Dwane Casey did a really nice job varying Valanciunas’ looks in the pick-and-roll, even adding in some wrinkles to some of the team’s pet plays to make hedging on to Kyle Lowry or Cory Joseph a more difficult proposition.
While a late benching might risk a player’s confidence, how Monday’s game played out may actually serve to help DeRozan. He still has to figure George out and find ways to make the tough shots he normally makes, and that’s going to be tough against a defender who seems custom-built to stop him. DeRozan’s going to be fine at some point in this series, and has spent this season, the best of his career, overcoming tough defenders who gave him trouble in the past. Now, though, DeRozan and the Raptors know that they can win when DeRozan’s not at his best, and the knowledge that he doesn’t have the team’s fate on his shoulders may serve to ease that burden moving forward.
“It says a lot especially with the shooting struggles that me and Kyle have had these first two games,” DeRozan said of getting a win when he wasn’t at his best. “To come out and play like the way we did today it’s definitely scary. It shows you the potential we have. Once we get our rhythm it’s going to be a scary thing.
“It’s funny that people think I feel a certain way that I didn’t go back in the fourth. A lot of time I tell the coaches to keep going with the group of guys that are in there, whoever is in there, keep rolling until the second runs off if need be.”
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That being said, using DeRozan in limited doses could still prove useful. He should be viable when:
1. When the defense loads up on DeRozan, try to draw the rim protector’s attention, and pass to Jonas Valanciunas (who’s been fantastic thanks to all the help given on Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and Cory Joseph’s drives).
2. When George is on the bench. Stagger DeRozan’s minutes in the second and third quarters to catch the Pacers when they’re rolling out Rodney Stuckey to check DeRozan.
No matter how much he struggles, demoting DeRozan won’t be an easy sell. He’s a star player and he’s carried the Raptors this far. But if Game 2 proved anything, it’s that the Raptors are better off in this series when DeRozan takes a back seat. It never quite made sense to direct the offense to attack Indiana’s best defender, anyway.
Hopefully, Dwane Casey has built enough of a rapport with DeRozan after five years together to relay that gameplan.
On paper, Valanciunas is the biggest advantage that the Raptors have over the Pacers. He is a large human, even by the NBA’s large human standards. Indiana’s large humans are not as large. Even if Valanciunas’s passing remains unsophisticated, his ability to rebound and catch the ball in traffic makes him a huge weapon against Indiana.
Of course, the Raptors have not always leveraged Valanciunas’s skills. He often gets lost in a sea of jumpers and isolation drives. It is a cause of frustration for a large subset of Raptors fans.
That has made the first two games of this series something of a joy. Both Lowry and Joseph have taken pains to involve Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll. Often, they just throw the ball high, even if Valanciunas is not open; they know if they throw it skyward, he will be the first to get his hands on the ball.
“Everybody wanted that kid to be a superstar when he first got here but he wasn’t ready,” Casey said. “Nobody comes into this league and sets it on fire—it’s very rare when you do. He’s grown, he’s developed, he’s worked his behind off and I’m really proud of him. It makes me feel good to see him develop like that.”
JD and Donnovan debate whether or not a slow start by DeMar DeRozan should impact his free agent status with the team.
They also marvel at the two way play of Paul George.
And, of course, no preview would be complete without Donnovan Bennett professing his admiration for Norman Powell.
Is this effort going to lead to something better for the Raptors? Is it going to lead to joy?
Scola and Joseph, their two most accomplished postseason players, were optimistic of better days to come. They understood the way forward for their teammates — for Lowry and DeRozan especially — and yet, like all of the truths of the playoffs, it must be learned the hard way. Everything Joseph knows came from the 2013-14 championship and 41 playoff games he experienced with San Antonio and coach Gregg Popovich.
“Before the playoffs, Pop used to tell us to just stay in tune with everybody here in the organization and on this team right now, take care of our bodies extra, and ‘don’t read any of that crap,”’ said Joseph. “That’s what I do.”
The larger point, as Joseph saw it, was to not shut off the outside world so much as to revel in these postseason moments. This ought to be the time of DeRozan’s life. “For sure it’s fun,” he said. “You’ve got to have fun. It’s all about fun. That’s the type of guy I am. Some of these other players, they like to be isolated. I try to make light of the situation and have fun and just go out there and compete.”
“He has no ceiling. He could be all-star, he could be All-NBA … He could be whatever he wants to be,” Scola said.
“He just needs to work at it. He just needs to find how far he wants to get and aim for it and work whatever’s necessary to get there. If he does that, there’s no ceiling for him.”
The praise kept coming.
“I think he can be like a great modern centre. There’s a lot of centers that are extremely athletic, but don’t have the skillset that he has. I believe he needs to find a way to match up with these guys’ athleticism, he needs to run more up and down, be able to keep that rhythm up and down, and block shots and rebound. Which he already does because of his length and his feel for the game. But he also can add the touch and the post game and all the things he does offensively. So he could be the next type of centre in the NBA.”
Scola believes Valanciunas must find a way to get a better feel for passing the ball, setting up his teammates for shots, but likes his “feeling for the ball” and his good hands.
The Raptors have run the same play, over and over and over again, to expose the Pacers defense. The play starts with a high screen and roll, sometimes set by Valanciunas, sometimes not, leading into a screen by Valanciunas while the paint is devoid of Pacers defenders.
The Pacers big man in this situation — usually Ian Mahinmi or Myles Turner — is left on an island. As George Hill/Monta Ellis trail the play after going over the screen, the big man has a decision to make. They must either step up, stop the guard penetration, and rely on to slow down a rolling JV, or sag back and try to guard both the rolling big and the attacking guard.
Frank Vogel’s team defense has been built on conservative play from his big men. Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi traditionally drop back when defending the screener, giving up the midrange jumper and relying on their length (and backside help defense) to cover the rolling big man. But the Raptors have done a phenomenal job of pulling all the help defenders away from the basket, leaving Ian and Myles Turner exposed in space.
Jonas Valanciunas has lived on a steady diet of lobs, alley oops, and easy rebounds. He has often found himself with only empty lane between himself and the basket, while Mahinmi/Turner and helplessly sealed behind him and Monta Ellis crashing down too late to be useful. The Raptors have identified this and are running it over and over again, as long as they can keep JV on the floor.
The Pacers have to adjust moving forward. There are a few ways they can do this. None are appealing, but they can’t continue to give Valanciunas whatever he wants at the rim.
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But the solution to DeRozan’s struggles might simply be taking different shots; shots that are open, rather than taking an extra couple of dribbles forcing the ball into the paint hunting fouls that never come.
“Don’t be tentative on his jump shots,” said Casey. “Go ahead and take his jumpers when he comes off of pin-downs and not try to attack the paint. He’s had some times where he can come up and just vault up and shoot his shots and he [forced drives].
“DeMar’s only played, what, 13 playoff games?” said Casey. “He’s going to adjust, he’s going to be OK; he’s not going to forget to ride the bike as far as his play is concerned.”
The Raptors’ playoff future may hinge on DeRozan following the simplest advice imaginable: When open, shoot.
“That’s the way he is throughout the entire season,” Kalamian said. “He is consistent. His attitude and his outlook on his game is so consistent. For a lot of guys who are stars as he is, to not play the fourth quarter of a playoff game at home (like DeRozan did not on Monday), it would affect them. The first thing I did after the game in the locker room was walk up to him and ask him ‘Are you good?’ His outlook even after the game was ‘Hey listen, it’s all about winning.’ ”
So DeRozan and Kalmian are in adapt mode, adapt to what the defence is doing and find another way to impact the game.
He and Kalamian have put in hours dissecting tape and coming up with counters to the wall of three Pacers he is seeing with regularity.
One such counter is to become facilitator instead of scorer.
“We always talk about trusting your teammates, trusting the pass,” Kalamian said. “He’s such a capable scorer and he’s so effective when he sees two defenders, he thinks he can beat two. And he does on most nights. Most nights he’s playing against two and beating two. In this situation there is two and sometimes a third behind him.”
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After shooting 5-of-19 in Game 1, DeRozan delivered on his belief that he wouldn’t shoot 5-of-19 again, instead shooting 5-of-18. Most notably, DeRozan was held without a free-throw attempt, and the league’s third-leading foul-shooter by volume is stuck on six attempts at the charity stripe through two games. To his credit, DeRozan remains eminently confident that the story will soon change, and he’s appreciating the challenge at hand.
“I really, honestly haven’t tried to put too much into it, wondering why I’m not getting the calls,” DeRozan said at practice at the BioSteel Centre on Tuesday. “That’s the beauty of the game. Everything’s not always gonna go your way. The best part about it is when you can make that adjustment next go-round and understand you still can be effective the same way if you don’t get to the free-throw line. So that’s all good.”
It’s a challenge DeRozan’s still navigating. Not only has he not gotten to the line, he’s shooting 5-of-16 in the restricted area, his jumper hasn’t been falling, and he hasn’t been able to shift into facilitator mode like he often did during the regular season. At least, not yet.
Have faith Raptors fans. Yes, he has struggled with his game in the first two playoff games, but I’m confident he’ll figure it out. From my viewpoint (and this isn’t a knock on the referees), some of the contact and non-calls in the series so far have resembled the way NBA basketball was officiated back in the 80s and 90s. It’s not what you expect to see in the 2016 version of the game. DeRozan has to be able to adjust to it and handle it. Those calls that put you on the line in the regular season don’t always get made in the playoffs. You must go to the basket with relentless, empathic force and take on all comers. That’s what it takes to get baskets and get to the free-throw line at this time of the year. DeRozan is a terrific player and, more importantly, a very smart one. He’ll watch video, prepare, chat with his coaches and figure it all out. He does a nice job moving without the ball and needs to trust that the ball will find him in good spots if he puts the necessary work in to be ready. DeRozan has to settle down, slow down and trust his instincts. He has to read the Pacers’ defence and take what it gives him. DeRozan is one of the best in the game, so this is no time for self-doubt. He should have total belief based upon his extensive preparation. If he pays that price success will come. You can’t keep a good man down.
Clearly, most players are less efficient in the postseason, the level of competition is going up. However, Lowry and DeRozan both fall significantly below the line and both have true shooting percentages on the low end of average to begin with. Lowry compensated in Game 2 by becoming more of a facilitator — he had 9 assists and 4 secondary assists (passes that led directly to an assist). Still, the Raptors are in this position mostly because of strong play from Jonas Valanciunas and their bench.
In particular, Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson made huge impacts in the win over Indiana. They didn’t play at all together during Game 1. In 17 minutes during Game 2 with Powell and Patterson on the floor together, Toronto outscored Indiana by 55.8 points per 100 possessions. For eleven of those minutes, Paul George was on the floor for the Pacers. You can see from the game flow at Popcorn Machine that the Raptors really put the game out of reach during the second half stint that Powell and Patterson played together.
“I feel like it’s nothing to get frustrated about, I really do,” DeRozan said Tuesday at the team’s practice facility. “I don’t mind having bad shooting nights. You have to be able to take the good with the bad. I had a great season, the season is over with and I’ve had two rough shooting nights.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the world; we still won [Game 2]. Once I get going and the shots start falling, it’s going to be a scary sight for whoever we play.”
In this first possession, PG got caught up on two Jonas screens. DeMar has half the court to work with. And he hits George with an effective crossover that seems to get him enough space for the stepback. In fairness, DeRozan does have space here for a tough — but makable for him — shot. And his attempt is just barely off. But PG does recover after getting shook by the nice dribble move enough to tightly contest the look.
This would be a theme all game and one that — perhaps due to not playing against a playoff-intensity PG in a few years, if ever — DeMar would never adjust to all game long.
What has likely freed DeRozan to engage in this sort of superpolite, low-level gamesmanship is knowing he doesn’t have to get there. It’d be much, much better, but he doesn’t have to.
Asked if Toronto can still win with DeRozan not at his best, Casey let out a theatrically long, “Hmmmm …” Clearly, it’s something he’s thought about, but didn’t want to seem as if he’s thought about.
“You would hope you could, but it would be more difficult,” Casey said. “If DeMar is a facilitator … then yes.”
And just like – poof! – there goes the internal pressure.
The rookie guard wasn’t hitting many of his shots either, but the ball was moving much more efficiently in the Raptors offence when he was on the court playing DeRozan’s position, and he was doing a terrific job – at least as terrific as one can – of limiting George, who had just four points in six minutes that fourth quarter before checking out of the game.
“He came up big; he played aggressive against one of the top players in the league,” DeRozan said of Powell’s work. “He kept his body on him. He wasn’t scared. I don’t even like using that word. He just took on the challenge.”
The Raptors’ biggest challenge in this series have been finding an answer for George, who presents a match-up nightmare as a big, aggressive, explosive player who can also shoot from long distance. Powell’s just 22-years-old and finishing his first year in the NBA, but he’s done the best job of anyone on the Raptors roster of guarding the Pacers star.
“It’s really tough. He’s a crafty player. He knows how to get to his spots and use his body. He’s able to shot the three, shoot the mid-range, post-up,” Powell said. “So you just try to be physical with him and make those looks as difficult as possible.”
“He’s going to be in this league a long time,” Casey said after Game 2, where Powell had played easily the best defence of any of the Raptors on Indiana star Paul George.
Despite a height disadvantage, Powell crowded George, moved his feet well and used his massive wingspan to make life difficult.
“I thought it was fun, just trying to be physical with him, taking him out of what he wants to do, not making it easy for him, denying him the ball, bumping him off his spots,” Powell said after the game.
“That’s what I want to do, be on this stage and guard those types of players.”
Powell’s teammates noticed what he was up to and the impact he had in the game, despite only hitting one of his six attempts (a three-pointer).
“Obviously he didn’t have the scoring or numbers that he’s capable of having, but made a huge impact for us coming off the bench with his energy, deflections, things that they don’t keep on the stat sheet,” Cory Joseph said.
The tactic of paying close attention to George but not loading up on him too heavily — daring the likes of Monta Ellis, George Hill or even Myles Turner win games — is not one that is revolutionary.
Indiana basically has no offensive post presence among its big men — starting centre Ian Mahinmi hasn’t made a single basket in two games, Solomon Hill is 2-for-8 in 52 minutes — so focusing on Ellis and George Hill becomes even easier.
Ellis has always been a streaky scorer (“keep Monta to his left hand, no matter what; he cannot make a play or do anything left,” a long-time NBA assistant coach said this week) and the Raptors have done a good job of keeping Hill from his sweet spots.
“(We’re) just trying to limit Monta’s transition points (and) take away George’s corner threes, a lot of easy buckets he gets and those corner threes that he’s great at taking,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Try to run him off and make him take contested two-pointers.
“It’s tough slowing down Monta, but showing him three or four bodies in transition so that he has to pull it back out.”
George is making shots from a plethora of areas on the floor and forcing Toronto to use a multitude of different players in order to contain him on the perimeter. Dwane Casey is throwing out Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Norman Powell in an attempt to limit George’s ability to connect on perimeter looks.
It hasn’t panned out yet for Toronto, as George is 6-of-8 (75.0 percent) from deep and a proficient 8-of-13 (61.5 percent) from 10 feet and out. However, Toronto’s behemoths have been stout against George in the paint.
Getting help from Turner and the rest of the frontcourt will be paramount, as George won’t have to take low-efficient looks against Valanciunas or shot blocking savant Bismack Biyombo. He’s having difficulty converting over length and needs a semblance of an outlet when pressured in the low post.
Most importantly, Casey did what very few head coaches in his position would have: Bench a two-time all-star, one of the faces of the franchise and one that will be getting a max-dollar contract this summer, in favour of a rookie, Norman Powell.
DeRozan was in the midst of a second-straight awful performance, just 5-for-18 from the field, without a free throw attempt for the first time all year and for only the fourth time over the past three seasons. Powell is unproven, smaller and had lost his starting spot to Carroll. Yet, it happened, and it worked tremendously well.
Casey saw what was working — Bismack Biyombo and later Jonas Valanciunas, plus Kyle Lowry and the bench — and stuck with it.
That wasn’t an easy thing to do.
To his credit, DeRozan backed the move. Strongly.
“Coaching in the NBA — that wasn’t even a goal of mine, it didn’t seem realistic. To be honest, I didn’t think it was possible. My whole goal was to be a college head coach and get back to college. That was the plan.”
And even that seemed the longest of long shots for the banished coach, then not yet 40 years old.
Dwane Casey is not unlike this Toronto Raptors team he coaches. He is the coach who kind of came from nowhere, working for Masai Ujiri, the long shot Nigerian general manager, teaching kids who have bounced around, many of them written off in other places by other organizations.
The Raptors: a basketball halfway house made good, a team impossible not to hope for, cheer for, want to believe in.
“If you look at the DNA of our team, you see what we’re made of, and nobody ever mentions it,” said Casey. “We don’t talk about it, but you know it and you feel it. It’s where they come from, their hometown, their upbringing, whatever it is.
Love the San Antonio experience that Joseph brings to the Raptors. Joseph spent four years with the Spurs, in mostly a backup role. He didn’t make the playoff roster for those Spurs in 2011-2012, but, he was on the championship squad, and made deep playoff runs several times while wearing the Spurs uniform.
That championship mentality seems to have rubbed off on Joseph, for whom the moment, and stage do not appear to be too large. For Toronto, this guy is still only 24-years old and seems like one of the really vital cogs that will need to perform at a high level if the Raptors are to earn a trip past the first-round.
A Greg Popovich, schooled and seasoned guy? Yes, please!!!
“Usually you walk away from a trip with the series tied 1-1 and feel good about it,” George said. “But I’m kind of upset about this one because a lot of the stuff we gave up was preventable.
“We weren’t tied in, I think our focus was lost. We gave up some plays that we really shouldn’t. They outworked us. That’s the only thing that we could control and we didn’t do that.”
In the aftermath of Indy’s loss, questions get raised about their overall team toughness and ability to defend the paint, the Raptors dominant in the tone-setting first quarter on Monday that saw Toronto outscore its visitors 18-2 in paint points.
The Pacers want to collapse to prevent DeRozan from penetrating the lane, but executing box outs and being physical are now paramount.
The Raptors and their inferiority complex
I don’t know what it is. This team is the 2nd seed, finished the season with 56 damn wins, and are up against a team that is really not that good. And yet, they are playing scared, as if they aren’t equipped to take on the challenge. Raptors fans seem to share this inferiority complex, as if a first round loss should be the expectation, and anything further would be unbelievable. Hell, I read one Raptors fan say that after tonight’s win, the Raptors now ‘have a chance’ in the series. This is the second best team in the Eastern conference. It’s time to grow a pair and start playing like it.
Kyle Lowry may still be struggling with his shot, he’s 7-26 in the first two games combined in this series, but he found other ways to get his points in Game 2. That wasn’t the case in Game 1, when he finished with only 11 points.
In Toronto’s Game 2 win, in which DeMar DeRozan only finished with 10 points on 5-18 from the field, Lowry finished with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
Lowry only shot 4-13 from the field (0-5 from 3-point range), but was a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line. And that almost offsets his bad shooting night. Almost.
However, in Game 2, it was enough. Will that be the case in Game 3 or 4? Probably not. But Lowry did enough for the Toronto Raptors to live another day, which is the most important thing for them right now. If nothing else, it took a HUGE load off their backs.
Despite the Raptors depth, the loss of the 2012 eighth overall draft pick for any period of time could be a blow to the team. He had arguably his best season yet in Toronto, setting a career-high for field goal percentage and proving to be a key contributor off the bench.
Ross had six points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal in 10 minutes of action in the 98-87 win at the Air Canada Centre, before leaving the action. Game three takes place on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Cover Illustration Source: Asur Illustrations
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