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Clutch Calamity: The Crunch Time Issues

On Friday, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a semi-familiar position. It was one of those games where they simply hadn’t played well (save for Jonas Valanciunas, who’s been a monster lately) and so the offensively-challenged Utah Jazz were able to stick with them due to their stingy defense. The game wound up going all the way down to the wire, until an ice cold Ricky Rubio three-pointer put the Jazz up by two.

Out of the timeout, DeMar DeRozan came rocketing around a Fred VanVleet screen, caught the ball off of the inbounds as he was curling, launched a midrange two and … missed.

Infuriated with himself, DeRozan walked back down the floor, forcefully ripping open his shiny new Welcome Toronto jersey at the seams. It was a moment that dutifully reflected the mindset most Raptors fans have had during crunch time situations this season.

If it feels like Toronto hasn’t been able to pull through at all in tight games this year, that’s because a lot of the time they haven’t. In games in which there is a five-point differential within the last five minutes, they are currently 27th (96.2) in the league in offensive rating and 25th (-15.3) in net rating.

The major issue plaguing the Raptors has been their predictable play. When things are close, they opt to run primarily one of two sets. The first is a four-on-four set up that sees DeRozan curl to his spot in the midrange on the strong side, much like he does in the clip above. The second has Kyle Lowry come set a screen for DeRozan, ideally forcing a switch that DeRozan can then attack right away.

Unfortunately, these less-than-creative plays are being sniffed out by opposing teams very quickly now. Take a look at this play below, in which Draymond Green realizes exactly what the Raptors are about to do with the game on the line. He makes sure to tell Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to switch ahead of time, effectively blowing up Toronto’s advantage.

The concern that arises from the Raptors’ tepid clutch play is whether or not this will affect them come the playoffs, when things tighten up and games slow down, and every possession is a grind. Will Toronto revert to running things through DeRozan and Lowry and cease the passing excellence they’ve displayed this season? It’s an impossible question to know the answer to, of course, but Dwane Casey has been adamant that the team will continue their new style of play into the postseason, and that the success will translate.

And while there’s a lot of doom and gloom going on whenever someone brings up clutch play, there are also bright spots. One, for instance, is that we’re not even at the All-Star break yet. There is still plenty of time for Casey and company to work out the kinks in their late offense going forward, and the coach has said they are going to do as much.

Something else: The Raptors have only played a total of 75 clutch time minutes this season, good for 24th in the NBA. They’ve had less opportunity to test themselves in close games this year, usually because they’re beating other clubs by a significant margin. When the Raptors are firing on all cylinders, these situations are highly unlikely to come up, which should be a good sign for the playoffs since they’ll be playing as hard as possible each game.

The sample size is also so small that, had a few shots gone down, we could be looking at a big statistical swing and, by extension, a lot less complaining. While the plays the Raptors run are undeniably simple and predictable, a lot of the time they’ve failed only because DeRozan or Lowry has just missed. Oftentimes, the looks they get really aren’t that bad, and both players have proven themselves to be spectacular isolation scorers in the past.

Sometimes, the plays even result in a bucket.

All of that said, it couldn’t hurt for Casey to shakeup his playbook a bit and try something new and more creative. And for creative, why not look to the team that’s pounding literally every other squad these days—the Warriors!

A lot of the plays the Warriors run hinge on their personnel, of course, and would be tougher to translate to other teams and achieve the same success rate. But there are some that could work.

An example from a previous iteration of the Dubs: In the half-court, they begin with a zipper cut to Harrison Barnes, who then fakes a hand-off to Curry while Thompson charges over from the weak side thanks to a nifty Andrew Bogut screen. This frees up Klay to curl into the midrange (DeRozan’s bread and butter!) with just a ridiculous amount of space, and knock down the jumper.

The Raptors might have a bit of a more difficult time running this with two point guards on the floor, since neither Lowry nor VanVleet/Delon Wright would be able to see over the defense the same way Barnes does in this play, but theoretically that shouldn’t be too much of a hinderance. It’s worth a shot, at least, and is more creative than just forcing a switch.

With the way he’s been playing lately, involving Valanciunas might be something Toronto should look at, too. Even just trying to run a pick and roll with DeRozan could yield some better results. But more than that, Jonas has proven that he’s an underrated passer, and as such the team could try running some actions through him to get Lowry and DeRozan off-ball.

While Valanciunas isn’t as good of a passer as Bogut, he’s still pretty good, and he can also shoot if need be, unlike Bogut. The Warriors used to run a lot of their stuff through their Australian big man, allowing both Steph and Klay to play off-ball and streak around in the half-court, snaking their way through screens until they could get a good look.

Here, Bogut goes down to the baseline to screen Klay’s man to allow him to get to the corner, then pops up the middle and gets the ball just below the arc on the weak side. As soon as he’s got the ball, Thompson cuts along the baseline and Bogut delivers a fantastic bounce pass that results in a reverse layup.

Or, if that feels out of Valanciunas’ range as a passer, Toronto could try to emulate a Bogut hand-off sequence. This time, he fakes a hand-off to Justin Holiday, and then actually hands the ball off to Klay, who has come barreling from around the perimeter. Bogut turns and uses his ginormous body to shield Klay as his shooting guard takes and makes the jumper.

The thing is, the Raptors don’t have the kind of trust in Valanciunas that the Warriors had in Bogut. In fact, the Raps haven’t shown much trust in any of the role players in crunch time, and it’s sometimes what costs them. Opponents will literally stray away from guys like Serge Ibaka on late plays because they know he isn’t getting the ball, despite him being an offensive threat.

This is where Norman Powell was supposed to be potent. He was meant to be a third scoring option in times like these, when a late play gets blown up and DeRozan or Lowry are forced to give up the ball. He’s the only other guy on the team who can create a look for himself—he’s bigger than any of the point guards and can get to the rim fairly easily. But it would be difficult to find him minutes now as he’s fallen out of the rotation entirely over the past couple games.

Again, all things in due time. This is the area the Raptors have struggled in the most this season, but they haven’t had that many opportunities to find out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe they’ll pull out something new the next time this happens, or maybe DeRozan or Lowry will just make a shot they normally make. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure: The Raptors are too good for 43 minutes to continue to be this poor in crunch time.

Sooner or later, it’ll be opponents they’re ripping apart at the seams, not jerseys.

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