Valanciunas’ pick and roll defence at the centre of Raptors struggle

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With Patrick Patterson recovering from a knee injury, the Toronto Raptors have been forced to use the Kyle Lowry-Jonas Valanciunas combo on defence more. It is killing them.

On Jan. 20, Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker lit up the Raptors for 32 points on 11-16 shooting in 28 minutes. In the following game against the Phoenix Suns, Eric Bledsoe went for 40 points on 11-17 shooting with 14 free throws and 13 assists. Since Jan. 17, the Lowry-Valanciunas duo is -5.7 per 100 possessions. For all of January, they are +5.2 per 100 possessions, according the NBA.com/stats.

The centre of the issue is their pick and roll defence. Valanciunas is notorious for his inability to defend against the pick and roll, especially against guards with a great chance of pace. Charlotte immediately picked at this scab on Friday, involving Valanciunas in some kind of screen on nearly every play to start the game. For a Raptors fan, it was hard to watch.

Kemba had already hit a three when Lowry went under the screen, so it looks like the Raptors adjusted and sent Lowry over the screen. Zeller does a great job of flipping into a flat screen and Lowry gets blown up. From here, it is all over.

In this still of the above clip, you can see JV is cooked. He is backpedalling with his hands down. Kemba breezes past him after an slight in-and-out move and cuts to the other side of the rim, where Valanciunas fouls him. This is such easy offence that Hornets head coach Steve Clifford would be stupid not to exploit it.

Valaciunas picked up another foul a couple of defensive possessions later and was forced to sit until late in the first. But to start the third quarter, the Hornets ran the exact same play as above. After a couple of turnovers, the Hornets got an easy score out of the Kemba-Zeller pick and roll.

Even when the Raptors blitzed, Lowry and Valanciunas let Kemba squeeze the ball to Zeller going to the rim and he scored after JV was nailed for a goaltend.

Lowry deserves some blame too. He can get blown up by screens pretty easily, partially because of his size and partially he exaggerates the contact. Lowry is not afraid to hit someone, which is good until he’s running into the screener instead of darting around it.

The problems continued in the loss to Phoenix.

This is a bizarre sequence for a combo that has played together for so long. Valanciuans has horrible positioning here; he lets Bledsoe get too deep and again plays with his hands down. My guess is that Valanciunas wanted to play tight to Tyson Chandler because of an alley-oop threat, but if he plays with his hands up and shrinks the space a bit, Bledsoe is more likely to pick up his dribble than try to beat the seven-footers wingspan with a lob pass.

In the fourth quarter of that game, Brandon Knight split a blitz for a lay-up and the Suns pulled within two. Phoenix then attacked Valanciunas again on the next possession, except the Raptors iced the pick and roll this time. Bledsoe got under the rim, found Chandler, who flipped one off the glass against JV to tie the game. Then Bledsoe got fouled when Valanciunas blitzed on the far wing a couple of possessions after that. Six points, all attacking JV. The Raptors were teetering already, but the reinsertion of Valanciunas pushed them over the edge.

This is not intended to be some kind of illuminating article that has unlocked some secret about the Toronto Raptors’ defence. This stretch has been wretched by Valanciunas and it is because of the frequency of the offences, not the severity. He is not playing more minutes than his average despite the injuries, but he is getting exposed more often defensively. Teams are trying to run him off the floor for his defence or lack thereof, and its working.

Toronto has no real solution for this until Patterson comes back and that has to be concerning. The Raptors are widely-regarded as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but their success hinges on a bench player. The Patterson injury has exposed Toronto’s inability to get solid defensive minutes at the centre position and answered any questions about whether the Raptors need to make a move for frontcourt help at this year’s trade deadline.

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