I had a lot of Jonas Valanciunas video prepped for a post today on how the Toronto Raptors may be able to use him more and use him better against the Miami Heat, whether it was against Hassan Whiteside or the Heat’s reserve bigs and smaller lineups. With Sunday’s news that Valanciunas is done for the series (still reeling from that, by the way), I had to shift gears a little (I have also essentially lost a lot of video work on Whiteside and “midgeting”).
I’m still going to drop a few of those Valanciunas clips in what follows, because they could be important if the Raptors make the third round or even into next season. And then we’ll get into a couple more present-tense relevant clips.
Two ways to counter dig-ins against Valanciunas post-ups
With Valanciunas beasting, some opponents are going to look to dig in against him in the post, flash doubles his way, and send a wing or guard to get in at his hands. For as much as Valanciunas improved in a lot of meaningful ways this year, he still turned the ball over on 11.9 percent of his possessions, and while his passing improved markedly, the speed of his decision making on the block is still a relative weakness. Teams, then, will show a lot of help, forcing the ball out of Valanciunas’ hands and forcing him to make quick reads, a reasonable strategy.
The simple counter to this is for Valanciunas to become a better passer. The cost of a double team is that if the player can make the pass, there has to be an advantage elsewhere on the court. This is particularly true for Valanciunas, who usually plays with Kyle Lowry and/or DeMar DeRozan, who can carve up a defense with the numbers advantage, and at least one shooter. Valanciunas had an assist percentage of 4.8 this year, his highest since his rookie season, and that number improved once he returned from injury in January. He’s never going to be Arvydas Sabonis, but if he can make passes like this when Luol Deng shows toward the middle to help on a sweep…
Or find a cutter from the high block when Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic appear to miscommunicate…
Defenses may have to get a little less aggressive. He’ll probably never pass well enough for the cost of double teaming him to outweigh the benefit, particularly when he’s matched up against a smaller player, but his growing ability to punish extra attention is paramount to him getting a larger chunk of the offense.
The Raptors can help Valanciunas’ case by getting creative in how they post him up. We’ve talked a lot around here about how it’s not as simple as clearing out and dumping the ball to Valanciunas on the block, particularly because he occasionally struggles to get deep post position, even after a few seconds of fighting.
Valanciunas’ post touches are most effective when they’re “improvised” posts, with Valanciunas diving to the block after a screen or establishing position after setting a baseline cross screen or down screen. Those plays give the Raptors options if Valanciunas can’t get good position and also present the potential for Valanciunas to be mismatched on a switch.
Once the Raptors establish Valanciunas and successfully send a post-entry pass, they can prevent a double team (or create an opportunity out of one) by using what’s known as a split-cut. The Raptors have rarely used split-cuts on Valanciunas post-ups this season, in part because it’s most effective with multiple shooting threats and is a much more tenable strategy with Patrick Patterson (or a wing at the four) than Luis Scola. The Warriors use a ton of split-cuts to leverage the passing of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut and their shooting all around the floor, for example.
The basic idea is to have two players make a scissor cut across the top of where the post-up is occurring. Timing is crucial, and ideally the big can make an effective post-kick to the 3-point line. Here’s an example from Game 7 against the Pacers, which may have been the Raptors’ first time using such an action in the series. Valanciunas starts with mediocre position on the entry from DeMarre Carroll, and the Pacers have several players in position to help if need be.
Myles Turner begins to show help at the nail, either expecting a Patterson cut to the rim or a Valanciunas sweep to the middle, but Patterson and Carroll head for each other to confuse things.
Monta Ellis is caught on the Patterson screen and Turner has dropped too far back from the action. Paul George has helped off the weak corner to protect against Valanciunas and begins yelling for someone to recover on Carroll – it appears Turner should have switched, but he’s yelling for Ellis to recover over the screen.
Valanciunas makes a nice dish up top, Patterson holds his screen on Ellis, and George Hill can’t safely help off of Kyle Lowry.
Here’s the whole thing:
The Raptors did something similar against the Heat in Game 2, this time with Lowry and DeRozan working the split action, and the attention the stars drew opened up space for Valanciunas to attack Hassan Whiteside (I remain very unclear on what Gerald Green is doing here, since he doesn’t help even though he’s abandoned his man, a shooter in T.J. Ross).
Finally, and this has nothing to do with passing or split cuts, but what a move from Valanciunas here in Game 3. This is a reverse pivot known as “The Sikma.” Valanciunas, of course, works closely with big-man legend Jack Sikma on his offensive game. If Whiteside’s going to overplay the post-up and sag off just a bit, this quick move lets Valanciunas open up just a little bit more space to let it fly.
Patterson runs the Frye Flare
The Raptors run a lot of action from the standards HORNs set, with wings in the corners, bigs at the elbows, and the ball-handler up top. There’s a ton you can do from there – high screen and roll, dual screens, flex action, and so on – particularly when one of your bigs is a threat to pick-and-pop for a three. Patrick Patterson fits the bill, and the Raptors used a nice HORNs Flare look to get him an open look in Game 3.
The play begins with Patterson coming up to set a screen for Cory Joseph, an action the Heat want to ICE to force Joseph baseline, if possible. That means Joe Johnson drops back to zone up Joseph and prevent him from getting back to the middle, and Goran Dragic tries to fight over the screen to stay near Joseph’s hip.
Valanciunas, meanwhile, has come across the top of the key, potentially ready to set a staggered screen for Joseph. Instead, Valanciunas sets a down-screen on Johnson’s recovery, allowing Patterson to flare to the top of the arc, completely unimpeded (except for Dragic apparently trying to headbutt the ball).
Dragic sticks with Joseph, Johnson has to go long around Valanciunas’ screen after zoning down, and Amar’e Stoudemire is stuck on the center, too. Patterson could shoot a rack of balls in the time he has.
Stretch bigs can make a career off of these actions. They’ve been a huge part of Channing Frye’s repertoire, for example.
The play doesn’t just have to be used to get a big a look, either. That’s important given that the Raptors are set to play some stretches where Patterson may be the center, and the second screener will be a wing or even a guard. When Lowry and Joseph share the floor with Patterson, the HORNs Flare may be a way to get Lowry a look from outside, as he’s a good enough screener to make an action like this Clippers’ Wildcat work against a smaller center (like a Luol Deng).
Expect to see Patterson a lot more involved in the offense now that Valanciunas is on the shelf.
What’s going on with the crunch-time 3-point defense?
The Raptors were one of the worst teams in the NBA at guarding the 3-point line this season. Despite ranking as the No. 11 overall defense and a solid transition defense, the Raptors were found wanting when it comes to running opponents off the arc. In most cases, opponent 3-point percentage isn’t something teams have a great deal of control over (the year-to-year correlation is extremely weak), and volume of attempts is a better indicator.
You get less benefit of the doubt in that regard when you have critical 3-point defense breakdowns in two of the first three games of a second-round playoff series.
Cooper covered the first off last week, with DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph botching their communication on a pivotal Goran Dragic corner three. Carroll and Joseph jokingly argued about who was at fault, with Joseph later saying that Carroll finally agreed it was his mistake, not Joseph’s (I concur, although poor communication is the biggest culprit). Here’s a refresher:
Well, Carroll was at it again at the end of Game 3, and the result was a wide open Joe Johnson 3-point look that I still can’t believe didn’t drop. I mean, look at this. I could hit this shot. (I could not hit this shot.)
What makes this over-help even more egregious is that the Raptors were up three with the shot clock off. You don’t want to concede the quick two too early, but the goal here should be to protect the arc at all costs and avoid fouling. Not only that, but while Joseph is uncharacteristically beat by Dwyane Wade’s initial attack, Bismack Biyombo is already ready to help off of Udonis Haslem, a low-risk help. Carroll has no business collapsing the way he does.
There’s just all sorts of bad in this one.
On the bright side, scares like this are nice on occasion to remind you that you’re alive. I haven’t tasted my heart in the back of my throat like that in a while.
With the miss, by the way, Johnson is now shooting just 137.5 percent against the Raptors in clutch playoff situations.