Washington’s Offense: Set Plays
The biggest benefit of the playoff format is that each team is able to focus in on their oppositions most intricate tendencies. Most important among them are their set plays. We’ll go through the X’s & O’s of 6 different plays to show the ways Washington organizes their players to create advantages against a set defense.
SLOB Zipper Pindown
This is a sideline out of bounds (SLOB) play designed to free up a receiver for the inbounder and then quickly move the ball to the weak side of the floor for an off-ball shooter.
The play starts with the 1 making a Zipper cut – a straight cut from the baseline to the perimeter – to receive the entry pass from the inbounder. On the opposite side of the court, the 2 or 3 will receive a wide pindown screen from the nearest big. Depending on the defense’s reaction and coverage, the 2 will have several options to score.
If their assignment ducks under the screen, they can catch and shoot while utilizing their big as a shield to protect them from a closeout. If their defender trails them on their hip, the 2 can curl off the screen and into lane, where they can pull up for a jumper, drive and finish at the rim, or kick the ball out if an off-ball defender overhelps into the paint.
BLOB Slice STS – “4”
This is a baseline out of bounds (BLOB) play that leverages the threat of Washington’s shooters by initially using them as screeners.
Starting with a Slice screen – an angled screen that takes the cutter from the high post on one side of the paint to the low block on the other – the 2 will free up a forward for a quick cut under the rim. While it is rare that the Slice screen will actually free up the forward along the baseline, it will assuredly be a point of emphasis to not let them break free, as there might not be more of a cardinal sin in basketball than allowing a layup on a BLOB play.
Immediately after setting the Slice screen, the 2 will get a screen of their own for a Screen-the-Screener (STS) action that will free them up in the corner for a three pointer.
Motion Strong Flex
Motion Strong refers to the initiating offensive sequence where the ball swings from the Strong side of the court to the Weak side. Flex refers to a common action where a cross screen is followed by a pindown screen for the original screener.
Washington is very willing to take whatever the defense gives them when playing out of this set. If the cross screen frees up the baseline cutter, the Wizards will hit them for a quick hitter along the sideline. Often, they have to move to their next option, which is the pindown screen in the middle of the floor. If no shot presents itself after this pass, they will quickly transition into a dribble handoff (DHO). Alternatively, if they cannot find a passing angle to the down screen recipient, that player will lift to the perimeter and set an angled ball screen.
Horns Reverse DHO
Horns refers to the starting offensive alignment, as both big men will be positioned at either elbow, while both wing players will be situated in opposite corners. Reverse DHO refers to the ball reversal into a dribble handoff (DHO).
The play starts with the 1 using a ball screen from the 4. The Wizards will never allow their 5 to set this screen, as they need the non-shooting big to dive to the rim, while the perimeter oriented big man can utilize their spacing and gravity later on by lifting. The 1 will then pass to the 4, who quickly engages in a DHO with the 2 that has cut from the weak side of the floor to receive the ball.
This is a quick hitting action and essentially is a side-to-middle pick and roll that is dressed up as another play to get the defense in motion and allow their 2 the best opportunity to get into the middle of the floor.
Weak Side Step Up Ball Screen
This is a common action that the Wizards initiate in a unique, yet predictable way.
The “Weak Side” of the floor refers to the opposite side of the floor of the ball. Additionally, a step up ball screen is just a pick and roll where the screener starts near the baseline and meets ball handler with a flat screen as their defender pushes up against them.
The Wizards will almost always initiate this play with a quick DHO or flip between their two guards, before having their off-ball guard make a shallow cut to the Weak Side of the floor. They have the option to swing it back to the original ball handler and have the step up ball screen set there instead.
This action forces the defense to contort East-West before being pressured North-South on the drive after the screen. The Raptors will utilize a Weak Side step up ball screen in their own offense, though they do it in a variety of ways that look far more natural and less predictable than the Wizards.
Spread Pick and Roll
This is less of a singular set play and more of an offensive concept that Washington uses to their advantage often (as they should). Whether they walk the ball up the floor, set a Drag screen (pick and roll in semi-transition), or go into a Weave Pick and Roll, Washington will usually have Porter, Beal, and Morris spaced along the arc, while Wall and Gortat are able to pick apart opposing defenses with optimal spacing.
Against plodding big men that drop deep into the lane with no off-ball help, Wall will burst into the paint and finish at the rim. If the screen defender shades too far towards Wall, he can find Gortat on the roll for a variety of crafty finishes around the basket. Help on that roll from an off-ball shooter and Wall will sling passes across his body and into the shooting pocket. When defenses try and avoid this problem by meeting Wall at the level of the screen with pressure, he is able to find Gortat on the short roll, who then proceeds to manhandle the 3 remaining defenders with precise passing as he dives to the rim.
Washington has seen every defensive coverage against the high pick and roll during this iteration of the team and there is no obvious solution. Whatever the Raptors decide to do tactically will not be a result of a fatal flaw from the Wizards. If the Raptors win that battle, it will be because they out-executed the Wizards around the finest of margins.
Washington’s Defense: Aggressive Pick and Roll Coverages
The Raptors are going to have to deal with two defenders momentarily guarding the ball every time they use a screen. The Wizards have shown that they firmly believe the remaining 4 off-ball players will not beat their 3 defenders in a pseudo zone.
Here we can see the Wizards defending the pick and roll with an array of aggressive coverages that are altered depending on both team’s personnel and direction of the ball handler. From hard hedges to showing high at the level of the screen, the aim of the Wizards’ defensive strategy is to either force the ball out of the guard’s hands in the hope of a secondary player hesitantly making a decision, or that the ball handler will take it upon themself to beat the extra defender alone.
This isn’t anything new for the Raptors, as each of their past four playoff runs have involved a similar scheme. However, just because they’ve seen it before does not guarantee they’ll crack the code. The first two years they couldn’t escape the first round while their All-Star backcourt struggled to deal with the added defensive pressure. It took them 7 gruelling games against a lesser Indiana Pacers team to escape the defensive pressure and move on to the second round. Last year, and for the first time ever, the Raptors were finally able to leverage that defensive pressure against their opponent enough to enable some strong offensive showings that featured crisp passing and perimeter shooting. To be fair to them, the Raptors weren’t always even equipped to beat such a defensive scheme. For much of that timeline, they didn’t start a stretch-four and topped it off with a DeRozan-Valanciunas pairing that did not shoot from the perimeter or pass with any consistency. Without top-notch spacing and passing to find those open shooters, the defense has been able to send multiple defenders to the ball without fear of being punished on the weak side of the floor. Additionally, the Raptors’ complimentary players usually lacked the “green light” and confidence to decisively take advantage of a rotating defense.
But this year looks different. Qualitatively, the secondary and tertiary offensive options in Toronto look ready to execute against advantages created by their stars. Instead of pump-faking and jab-stepping their way to a recovering defender, they make quick decisions to fire away from three point range or drive it back into the paint. There is a real difference between Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, P.J Tucker and the Raptors’ current supporting cast of Fred Van Vleet, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby. The former had a wavering confidence that couldn’t punish an out-of-position defender like the latter. Quantitatively, the Raptors have a statistical profile of a team that looks ready overcome past struggle against aggressive defensive coverages, as they now shoot more three pointers than ever and find those shots through ball movement that seemed nearly impossible to obtain just a calendar year ago.
There are even strategic differences in the way that Toronto has decided to leverage Washington’s aggressive ball screen coverages against them. In this compilation, the Raptors use a variety of methods to do so – from using the unguarded screener as a screener elsewhere on the court, short rolling into space, “shorting” the pick and roll, and to dedicating themselves to proper offensive spacing to force tough decisions for off-ball defenders.
Toronto’s Defense: Finding a Defender for Beal
It should be noted that Bradley Beal is a legitimate offensive problem and seemingly rises to the occasion every time he’s in the playoff. From a strictly offensive perspective, he is stylistically Paul George-lite. Beal is an absolute savant as a route runner coming off of screens. He will herk and jerk, stop and start his way into using pindowns so that his defender is either late off the blocks and forced to trail him on his hip, or he coerces them into a false start so that his defender smacks into a screen before he gets to his desired location on the floor.
Against defenders that try and shortcut their off-ball route by going under screens, Beal pulls up after the catch and unashamedly shoots from deep. Following behind him will often encourage him to curl off of the arc and into the mid range or paint, but his off the dribble game is more than good enough to punish that as well. Even against big men and screen defenders that go into a deep drop to wall-off the paint when he curls off of a screen will be met by a pull up three pointer. There is no singular inherent flaw in his off-ball game, and he has enough offensive juice and a varied enough repertoire to buoy the offense with the ball in his hands.
Without any low hanging fruit, the Raptors will need to out-execute him and put him in the worst position to succeed while being prepared to accept that their best might not be good enough.
This section should be prefaced with the fact that OG Anunoby has exceeded every preseason expectation a reasonable person could have. He has largely shot the ball effectively and with confidence after being labeled somewhat of a liability from the perimeter, and his defense has lived up to the hype after a worrisome injury and recovery process.
With that being said, he is a large combo forward that has immense difficulty chasing off-ball players around screens. The league’s elite route runners have given him trouble all season, as he is just not quick enough to keep up with them. His large frame, which is one of his best defensive attributes, actually does him a disservice in this area, as it makes it even harder to “get skinny” and navigate tight spaces around screens to maintain optimal defensive positioning. As a result, Beal and the Wizards have won that matchup when Anunoby has checked him.
In the 60+ times where Anunoby has defended Beal for a majority of the possession, Washington has recorded an offensive efficiency that is 13 points per 100 possessions better than their typical ORTG with Beal on the floor. A huge reason for that is Beal increasing his shooting frequency when Anunoby is on him, as he took 33 shots per 100 possessions – 9 more attempts than his usual 24.
Powell is theoretically a much better defensive matchup for Beal. He is similarly sized, has long arms, is quick enough to keep up with Beal, and has shown over his 3 seasons with the Raptors that he can be a legitimate defensive option. However, he has had a similar fate as Anunoby, as the Wizards have scored at a similarly ludicrous rate with Powell on Beal. Though, this comes in a different manner, as Beal actually shot less frequently than his average when Powell was on him.
A part of that offensive success mixed with lower shot attempts could be attributed to Powell’s lack of defensive discipline in the games in which he defended Beal.
As we can see in this clip, Powell’s lack of defensive attention actually produced a good shot away from Beal due to his teammates having to overcompensate for his defensive missteps.
In the situations where Powell actually forced Beal to take a shot, he has made it tough on him.
Here, Powell stuck to the scouting report and quickly ducked under the high screen (while still recovering to contest). Beal shoots under 30% on three pointers off the dribble. Powell clearly has the capability to follow the scouting report and pay attention to close detail – it is just that he has not done it often enough against Beal (or any opponent this regular season) to warrant a guaranteed look against him. He might end up as their “break glass in case of emergency” matchup, and certainly has among the highest ceilings to defend off-ball, but Powell will have to prove it.
Lastly, Fred Van Vleet (in very limited number of possessions) has had the greatest success at lowering the Wizards offensive efficiency when guarding Beal, as he influenced their ORTG to a tick above 1 point per possession in the 30 possessions he checked him. Beal clearly viewed Van Vleet as a mismatch and shot far more frequently when he was on him, but it was usually ill-advised and produced poor results.
The Raptors are going to need to find a solution to Beal, because DeRozan clearly cannot handle that assignment and Lowry is likely to check Wall. There is some potential for moving Lowry around to guard Beal, but that will likely end up as a defensive assignment that consumes too much energy for him. Regardless, the field is open for a rotation player to snatch.
Toronto’s Defense: Ball Screen Coverage
When the Raptors were swept by the Wizards in the playoffs, it marked a significant tactical and stylistic change. Similar to the overhaul that occurred offensively this season, the 2015-16 season saw the Raptors change their defensive philosophy from a team that religiously hedged all side pick and rolls, to a team that followed suit with the rest of the league by ICEing, or denying the ball handler the use of the screen towards the middle of the floor, all ball screens. They have tinkered with that coverage over the past few seasons, and may decide to change it once again in the playoffs, but they have largely ICEd pick and rolls against the Wizards this season. Here is some (non representative, and strictly explanatory) film on what that has looked like.
Washington’s Defense: Finding a Defender for DeRozan
While nowhere near as pronounced as Beal, DeRozan (and lineups that feature him) have exceeded their typical offensive production against the Wizards. From a technical perspective, Porter is a pretty good defender and a nice counterpart to DeRozan. However, the team has performed better than expected when Porter defends DeRozan this season, as Toronto’s ORTG shot up nearly 4 points in those possessions.
Part of that success came as a result of DeRozan’s craftiness and being able to force Porter to smack into screens that lead to better offensive positioning for DeRozan to operate within.
However, when Porter has been able to stick to the scouting report and duck under screens, he has given DeRozan fits. His long arms allow him to recover back into the play before DeRozan can shoot behind the screen and he has shown the ability to anticipate DeRozan’s movements.
That is the matchup related data for both team’s starting lineups, excluding John Wall who has been absent for the entire season series. Due to time constraints, the struggles Raptors’ frontcourt had with Washington’s couldn’t get the proper attention it needed with a film study. I’m itnerested to see if Siakam and one of Ibaka/Valanciunas/Poeltl can hang with Morris and Gortat offensively to allow for that increased quickness defensively when guarding spread pick and rolls. Poeltl will ultimately be Toronto’s best traditional ball screen defender, as he can walk the tightrope of showing high to dissuade penetration, while being able to recover back to the diving Gortat, but his physical limitations might present an issue there. He’s also their best short roll, 4 on 3 passer out of their standard rotation bigs, which can become useful against Washington’s aggressive coverages.
This is all to say that the Raptors will likely need to tinker with their front court if the regular season is indicative of how Morris-Gortat will play against Toronto’s starters.
However, as with everything related to the regular season – past results are not inherently predictive of future success.These two teams are the perfect example of that, as it is well publicized that the Raptors swept the regular season series against the Wizards before they were swept out of the postseason by them. Trying to decipher whether a trend will continue in a 7-game series is difficult, but by using all the available information available, from film to advanced statistics, we can get as clear of a look into the future as possible.
As far as a prediction goes, I’ve already (pessimistically) said Toronto will win in 7 games. Part of it is not even disbelief in the Raptors, but more so a possibly irrational belief in the Wizards to play consistently and care enough. Their top end talent is extremely good and the roster fits very well together. When they are firing on all cylinders, they are far from an 8th seed quality team. Their lack of consistency can just as easily plague them in a 7-game series, but its harder to predict that than a team with mediocre and consistent talent being unable to hang with a 1-seed.