Rotations and Mid-Range Jumpers Topple the Raptors

14 mins read

Usually my recaps involve walking back through the game in real time, and occasionally stopping for jokes. I imagine this game would be a lot less fun to walk through, so this won’t be a narrative driven recap. We’ll talk about good-bad things, while breaking down some gameplay, and visiting some quotes.

A grimy performance for the Raptors, save for tremendous will on Kawhi Leonard’s behalf. Playing the Robin to Leonard’s Batman, Jonas Valanciunas was pivotal tonight. These two combined for 56-points on 20-35 from the floor, but it wasn’t enough to push the Raptors over the edge, as the Nets ended their 8-game losing streak over the NBA’s “best” team.

Outside of these two, there was a large void playing as the third star, then Pascal Siakam chipping in 16-points on 15 shots. It was one of the weaker “team” performances we’ve seen on offense this year. While Kyle Lowry remains loveable, he is at the heart of a shooting crisis that has a stranglehold on the Raptors. Over his last 4 games, Lowry is shooting a paltry 21.6-percent from the field, and a depressing 18.5- percent from downtown. The team can’t sustain that type of play from Lowry while pumping out wins. He spoke about his play of late to Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

“I don’t make excuses. I don’t have any excuses to make. I’m just not playing well… I have to play better. I hold myself to a high standard and the organization holds me to a high standard. As a leader of this team I gotta figure out how to play a lot better.” – Kyle Lowry

Over his last 3 games, Lowry has only hit 4 field goals. Still, he’s tallying 9.5 assists over his last 4 games, and still remains the best pick n’ roll ball handler the Raptors use. With that being said, fans and pundits alike are wondering what’s happening with Lowry.

Looking at the front-court, while Valanciunas played a stellar game, Serge Ibaka was left to the bench. Spending most of your minutes as a running-mate with Fred VanVleet is a death sentence this year. 2-7 from the floor, and relegated to a help-side defender over his 20 minutes, he was fairly quiet.

So if Ibaka was having a pedestrian game, and Valanciunas was dominating the Nets, why didn’t Valanciunas close the game? While I don’t agree with the decision (let the big dog eat), Nurse obviously didn’t like the repeated success that D’Angelo Russell had in the mid-range. Russell – a very big guard, bigger than the Raptors guards – repeatedly waltzed into open space on the floor for jumpers. Valanciunas was often the big man in these scenarios, and he dropped too low, too often. For example:

(Valanciunas wants to deter a drive from Russell here, and credit to Ed Davis for a good screen, but the overall defense that’s played here from Valanciunas is almost nothing. Russell gets a free throw with no contest on this play, and he hit that shot 8 times in this game.)

As far as Valanciunas is concerned, he’s playing to his own defensive strengths. He’s terrific at contesting shots within 10 feet of the basket – 4th in the league in contest rate – not to mention he holds players to less than 47-percent shooting there. Compared to his defense towards the rim, he’s mediocre when being forced to step-out. Players consistently take advantage of Valanciunas dropping too low, and Russell did just that.

Russell finished with 29-points on 60-percent shooting. So is Nurse justified in leaving Valanciunas off the floor in the dying minutes? Perhaps not. The Raptors were bleeding offensive rebounds in the last 5 minutes (4 given up) and in a game where both teams weren’t scoring easily, extra possessions are everything. Not to mention Valanciunas is the Raptors best screener, and the Raptors were struggling to create separation. Often times they would attack off of a breakdown, but with Leonard the only option to go to the rim, weak-side attacks were fruitless endeavours.

(This is much better defense from Valanciunas, and this looks like a shot that NBA defenses like to give up. Russell also did a really nice job of putting Siakam in ‘jail’.)

It’s worth mentioning that the first two buckets the Nets had in overtime came in the exact same fashion as Russell had done all night. It also goes without saying that in the new NBA, mid-range jumpers are often times incentivized by defenses. Something that Valanciunas holds firm to, and something that likely correlates with his team best defensive rating. I’m not making the case that Valanciunas is a world-beater on the defensive end, just that he has his utility there – like when he’s defending shots at the rim.

The decision to leave Valanciunas on the bench for the 4th quarter stretch is a fine decision if you’re trying to play a bit better defense, but when given the opportunity to substitute offense-defense, Nurse didn’t do a thing. The timeouts were being taken, and the opportunity was there to maximize both ends. Puzzling for sure, from our head coach.

Okay, I’m done talking about the ‘JV’ stuff. There was a lot of talk on twitter and in the comments, so I hope this content feeds hungry mouths.

If you were to look directly at the shot attempts, it might seem like the bench guard possessions are swinging back in balance. VanVleet and Delon Wright took 7 and 8 shots, respectively, but VanVleet is still commanding a lot more ‘pnr’ possessions. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that VanVleet is a good bench guard when he’s off-ball, yet he keeps receiving possessions as the offense’s initiator. He’s taking over 40-percent of his shots as a ‘pnr’ ball handler, and he hardly ever creates for anyone else.

In a strange development, though, Wright is attacking more off-ball and that’s why the shot attempts have gotten closer. Both guards are seemingly trying to fill the role that the other one is far better at. It feels as if the whole fanbase is looking at Nurse with an unbroken stare, waiting for Wright to get the ‘pnr’ possessions and for VanVleet to sprint off of pin-downs. This change could likely jump-start a lot of shooting and playmaking for the bench units, so we’ll see.

Even with all of the unrest about VanVleet’s game, he still found himself a spot on the floor in the dying seconds of the game. After Leonard was blanketed, he found Lowry. Lowry attacked a defense in motion, but considering we haven’t seen an attempt at the rim from Lowry in some time, he moved away from that. He still drew attention, and found VanVleet for a what could have been, game-winner. VanVleet’s shot rattled out and the Raptors lost 106-105. Here’s VanVleet’s take on that shot per Ryan Wolstat:

“I know everybody would have probably liked Kawhi or Kyle to take that shot, the last shot, including me, (but) they both made great plays… I’ll take those all day everyday.” – Fred VanVleet

With all of the concerns listed above, you might think that this team isn’t 21-6, but they are. The most important wrinkle, is being ironed out, as well. They traded the beloved DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard – insert Danny Green throw-in joke – and bet the house on Leonard returning to form as one of the league’s true elite players. Something that DeRozan could never truly accomplish, and something well within reach for Leonard.

Well Leonard has been incredible as of late, wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor. Driving the offense for long stretches at a time, and remaining one of the league’s best defenders. I remember a play where Leonard pushed Joe Harris out to the sideline. Harris bobbled the ball before huddling over it, and most players would let that be that. Not Leonard, he stuck his hand in Harris’ cookie jar and jammed the ball loose, jump-starting a transition opportunity. There’s tons of plays like this, where Leonard bullies other players into uncomfortable spots, then snatches the ball away. Leaving players with no recourse to get the ball back, as he sprints the other way.

A wonderful development is the clutch shooting from Leonard, who hit two massive go ahead triples in this one. One in the final minutes of the 4th, to go ahead 96-94. Another to go ahead 103-102 in overtime. Leonard is a robust 10-12 from downtown in the past 2 games, one of which was a division showdown against the 76ers. Even better, in his last 10 games his shooting splits are 52/44/87, which is nuts. All this efficiency packed into 30-points per game, and a more than healthy dose of rebounds (9 per game). Leonard has been a bonafide star of late, and that is without question.

For all of the uncertainty that exists around the team, having none of it involve Leonard is a breath of fresh air. He’s starting to receive more pick n’ roll possessions, and the overall game is coming around. On a night where the guard play failed the Raptors the whole length of the game, Leonard and Valanciunas almost stole one in Brooklyn.

21-6 and headed back to the cozy Scotiabank Arena to take on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, things don’t look so bad. None of us like losing, but a couple puzzle pieces have moved into place as others have been knocked loose. There’s an opportunity this Sunday for the Raptors to gel under the pressure that one of the East’s elite applies to them. Let’s hope they bring their A-game.

Feel free to answer this in the comments… is a recap like this preferable to the present-tense run backs that I usually do? I’ve seen a few people that like the more tongue-in-cheek, story telling type recaps I usually peddle. Thanks for your time.

Have a blessed day.


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