And so we prepare ourselves for another round of what has looked mostly like an on-going monkey poop-flinging fight between the Toronto Raptors and the high temperature themed basketball franchise from Miami. Through four games thus far, each one has been able to guarantee injuries, difficult to watch, sloppy basketball, Goran Dragic getting hit in the face and incredible amounts of anxiety for either fan base. What a treat. And yet, the Raptors stand just 96 minutes away from the Eastern Conference finals (matchup with a waiting freight train). I can’t figure out if I even like watching these games, but I know that I can’t stop, let’s get to the preview.
How long ago it was that this series looked like it was going to be dominated by Jonas Valanciunas and Hassan Whiteside. It is their combined absence now that looks to dominate the series instead. Game 4 was a feeling-out process for lineup matchups that ultimately had the edge going to Heat Coach Eric Spoelstra. Toronto’s Dwane Casey commitment to ineffective small ball lineups and even worse shots probably cost Toronto a chance to win game 4. How both Coaches adjust or impose their lineups could play heavily into game 5’s outcome. Toronto’s inability to score even 90 points per 100 possessions when Kyle Lowry isn’t on the floor is weighing heavily on their success as well. The Lowry-less bench or hybrid units have been historically bad and woefully problematic so far.
Miami’s defensive response to the Whiteside absence has been to pack the paint and collapse as a team on drives to defend the paint. This strategy has forced the Raptors to rely on deep mid-range jumpers throughout the series, in large part because of impatience from DeRozan or the fact that offensive stagnation has already brought the shot clock to the point where whatever shot is available becomes a necessity. The Raptors have hit a bunch of those shots in big moments through 4 games, but not enough of them, and that’s what the Heat are betting the numbers are going to reflect more and more moving forward. The math is very probably not on the Raptors side on this, and their approach cannot be to continue to pull-up from a few feet inside the 3-point line. The Raptor’s did not attempt a shot from inside 17 feet during the last 2 minutes and 30 seconds of game 4 while coughing up the lead that caused overtime. In overtime, they had their shots blocked or the ball stolen repeatedly trying to frenetically attack a small Heat lineup. The problem therein is that yes, the Heat were playing small ball, but when the Raptors match them with all small lineups, the Heat become much bigger than the Raptors, which proved problematic in driving through multiple opponents.
If the Raptors are going to have success against this defensive approach, they need to initiate their offence much sooner in the shot clock. The first drive is getting nowhere near the rim, but that doesn’t need to be nearly the problem that it is. The Raptors have been for the most part lately unable to try starting the possession quickly and getting multiple drive and kick, drive and kick actions that look to either create an open shot or open up a lane after the Miami defence has been forced through a couple of rotations and made to fight over screens. When the Raptors offence has looked at it’s best it’s been because of Miami’s larger, older wings inability to move quickly around high screens. Taking advantage of this early to break down the defence and not just simply looking to settle for the first lane to the crowded paint that this opens up could be key. Valanciunas was getting double digit screen assists according to nba.com.stats in the games that he was playing facilitating this play. While he’s been sorely missed, Bismack Biyombo can play that role just fine. In fact, Biyombo lead the league in screens set per 100/possessions through the regular season, averaging 65.2 picks per 100 possessions (according to SportVU data via the excellent Tom Haberstroh). Biz can’t give you everything that Valanciunas could offensively, but he doesn’t need to post up or stretch the floor if you use him to pancake several heat defenders in high pick and rolls and then control the glass whenever he isn’t. The Raptors need to make the ball move through high ball screens earlier in the shot clock if they want to manufacture quality shots against the way the Heat are guarding them.
Defensively, the Raptors have been largely holding their own. After one early dominant quarter of offensive play, Joe Johnson has been an offensive black hole for the Heat, with a true shooting percentage that would be the worst in the series for a meaningful player if not for the horror story that reads beside Demar DeRozan’s TS%. Wade, meanwhile, has turned back the clock whenever the Heat have needed him to. He’s scored on a series of nifty up and unders, floaters, layups and jumpers on what feels like every single drive that a Raptor’s defender lets him go right. Overall defence hasn’t been the Raptor’s downside in this series though, as long as they’ve had Biyombo or Valanciunas on the floor especially. While JV is gone, the Raptors need to be sure to balance their lineups in a way that doesn’t give up both shooting and rebounding to a smaller Miami lineup, as the did in losing game 4’s overtime.
The over-arching narrative of these playoffs so far seems to be something along the lines of the platitude that this is shot making league. Whoever makes their shots is going to win. While I think that that is generally something that is both obviously correct and completely stupid at the same time, it’s what the Heat and Raptors seem to be wanting to play out in each game. While I’d love to see the Raptors change their approach and try to speed up their offence in working drive and kick motions to break down the Heat defence, some part of me just expects this game to be another showdown of Raptors pull-up jumpers vs. Heat isolation jumpers. Hope for something more, and pray for a Raptors win, but strap yourself in for another very bumpy race to 85 points that has either fan base pulling out their hair in panic through the game’s final minutes.