The Toronto Raptors made a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback to steal a pivotal playoff game. It was incredible, and while you never hope to need a comeback like that, it was beautiful that they did. I’m still reeling.
I just finished my rewatch and saw a couple of interesting things I felt like pointing out. Let’s start at the end.
The Final Possession, or What Almost Wasn’t
The Raptors completed their comeback and took a late lead, but that lead was still at just three with 13.9 seconds left to play. Out of a Pacers timeout, DeMar DeRozan used the team’s foul to give. You would have liked to see a few additional seconds tick off, but cutting it from 13.9 to 11.8 seconds and forcing Indiana to use another inbounds play is fine.
That set up a sideline out of bounds, and the Pacers swung the ball to Monta Ellis, with George Hill stepping up with a feigned screen for Solomon Hill and a pop-out into space while Paul George worked a weak-side curl to try to shed Norman Powell.
Ellis begins to gather and is clearly looking for a pass, but something’s a bit off – either Ellis expected George to be a little higher on the wing for a kickout (or perhaps Hill to be a little lower), or the timing was just a little off with George’s impending cut. In any case, the Raptors have this well-defended, with Lowry tight on Ellis, Powell bodying George, and Bismack Biyombo in a position to help in either direction.
The result was Ellis forcing a tough shot against Lowry verticality that missed, but Ellis somehow managed to fight Biyombo for the ensuing rebound, and it went out of bounds off of the Raptors.
With 2.7 left on the clock, the Raptors forced the Pacers to use their final 20-second timeout, having denied the inbound initially, to set up their baseline out of bounds play. Here’s how they set up for the first inbound attempt, and then the second:
The Raptors intention here is to deny the inbound first. They very nearly did that, but (Solomon) Hill set a late screen for George that freed him up top.
Once inbounded, the Raptors have a tough strategic choice: Wall off the 3-point line, conceding any potential quick twos and playing a free-throw game from there, intentionally foul to begin the free-throw game even earlier, or defend it straight up. It would appear they opted for the latter, but head coach Dwane Casey revealed after the game that the intention was to foul, at least if it was George receiving the ball.
“The thing about it was I was upset at Norm because he was supposed to foul,” Casey said. “You foul in that situation, you make them shoot two free throws, and it becomes a free throw game, you do your percentages…He said he tried to but he passed it before the officials called it.”
It doesn’t look, to me, like Powell made enough of a reach to warrant the call.
The strangest part of this play is that Cory Joseph then abandons (Solomon) Hill to double on George, an understandable split-second decision but a curious one if the intention was to foul on the play. The result was a pretty good look for Hill, just one he didn’t quite manage to get off in time.
“One frame shy of getting the tie game and going to overtime,” Frank Vogel said.
Getting DeRozan Going – Ram Stagger Tweak
The Raptors needed that heroic fourth-quarter comeback because the team had played so poorly through the first three quarters. That didn’t quite extend to DeRozan, who turned in his best game of the series, shaking off a 29.6-percent shooting mark in Games 1 through 4 to scored 34 points on 10-of-22. Casey had spoken of the need for him to get his stars going by getting them easier looks within the offense, and while you can’t retool a playbook with two days off, the Raptors did manage to tweak a few things to get DeRozan comfortable, especially early in each half.
“It was a little bit of both. We mixed up a couple things to try to get me easier shots, a couple new sets,” DeRozan said.
There were a few I could point out, but one in particular builds nicely off of a piece Cooper Smither wrote recently analyzing the Raptors “Ram Pick & Roll.” Best I can tell, the play that follows is a new variation on the team’s “Ram Stagger” set, and it resulted in DeRozan drawing a foul on Ian Mahinmi in a mismatch scenario.
The “Ram” part of the action is a screen-the-screener leading into a pick-and-roll, and the “Stagger” is added when the screener’s screener then steps up to set a second, staggered screen for the ball-handler. On this play, Valanciunas screens Patterson, who heads to set a screen for Lowry.
Valanciunas then steps up to set a staggered screen to prevent George Hill from recovering on to Lowry quickly. Patterson, meanwhile, will have the option to pop, roll, or move into a weak-side action.
From there, Patterson sets a screen for DeRozan, and Valanciunas follows to set a second.
When DeRozan ultimately catches the ball, he has a mismatch against Mahinmi with George trailing, a desirable outcome.
Here’s the whole thing:
It’s still on DeRozan to make tough plays, and there’s no “solving” a defender like George, but plays like this can certainly help.
“We had a couple new wrinkles into our offense but again, at the end of the day, it’s about what he did: He made shots,” Casey said. “I can put a million new plays in, wrinkles in, but he’s gotta, and he did tonight. That’s the key. It’s a player’s league and we did a couple things to help him, but he did his part.”
As DeMarre Carroll continues to get his legs entirely back under him, his offense is understandably secondary to his defense. The lifting of the minutes restriction has helped, as Carroll’s not feeling the need to get touches within a certain time frame, instead sitting back and picking his spots a little more carefully.
“Yeah, of course,” Carroll said at practice Monday. “Because you can pick and choose on the offensive end. when to cut, when to do certain things. My focus has been defense. My teammates have done a great job getting me the ball.”
He’s mostly subsisted off of catch-and-shoot jumpers in the series, but the Raptors ran unfamiliar duck-in plays for him on multiple occasions in Game 5. Those may have been a part of the playbook early in the season, but if they were, they’ve mostly been shelved in the time Carroll was on the sidelines and in the early part of his return.
Carroll’s a smart player and a savvy cutter, one who can make an extra pass off of the cut and really force the defense into some tough decisions as the ball gets moving. The Raptors haven’t gotten the best of that yet, but some of it’s potential impact was on display with these quick-hitting dump-ins, which act as easy, early-clock looks or initial actions to scramble a defense.
If the Pacers are going to keep Ellis on Carroll, getting him the ball in the post is a sound strategy. They went back to it on the very next play, and Ellis fouled Carroll trying to keep him out of position.
By the third time the Raptors tried it, the Pacers were ready to help way off of Valanciunas at the arc to deny Carroll the ball in the post.
Carroll only finished with five points in 26 minutes and didn’t play nearly as well as in Games 3 and 4. It’s maybe not fair to expect him to be in peak form every night just yet, encouraging as those games were. And defense, naturally, is his focus. Plays like this are a nice way to get him involved, exploit a size mismatch the Pacers are opening with the George-DeRozan matchup, and take advantage of Valanciunas’ improved passing. (And when Valanciunas finally gets 3-point range, look out…)