Hiding Behind Kawhi Leonard is not an option; Danny Green and bench must step up

Game 1 was frustrating on three accounts: Danny Green’s miserable performance, Pascal Siakam being neutralized and the bench staying steadfast in its deplorable play. All three may have solutions.

First, Danny Green, who was expected to be the backbone of composure, is turning inwards in clutch moments. Green is hesitating on clean looks, under-performing defensively and looks to be playing scared. It’s harsh, but that’s what the eye-test reveals. His turnover late in the fourth quarter was symptomatic of his play: passing up an open three, hesitating on what to do, doing the wrong thing, all of which resulted in a break for Milwaukee and a team-deflating, crowd-inflating score.

This has been a trend in the playoffs for him and pales in comparison to the impact he had in the regular season. I feel silly even comparing the two because the pressure context in which games are played is so different that very few parallels can be drawn, and certainly none of which may be drawn are extrapolatory. The short and sweet of it is that Green is severely under-performing, and it’s being amplified by the bench being…well, the bench. The missed shots are less frustrating than the hesitation to shoot, not to mention the unwillingness to draw fouls. There are several occasions throughout this post-season that he’s had a chance to go up near the rim but dribbled out, or passed up a clean look under the pretense of being covered.

Coming into any series there are constants and there are variables. Things you can rely on and things that you’re not sure how they’ll turn out. Green was supposed to be the calming presence born of experience who would come through when the team was stumbling. Instead, he’s deepening the crisis to the point where he’s become unplayable in the exact stretches that he was supposed to spearhead. He has not proven to be the steady hand that the team can count on and instead has been a liability. This has to be a difficult turn of events for Nick Nurse, who had to be relying on Green to be a bedrock of stability, not volatile wildfire.

On the bright side he does seem to acknowledge that he needs to do things differently and that the current state isn’t feasible. His comments about “exploring” what he can do in the half-court after talking to Kyle Lowry can be either taken as signs of encouragement or alarm, depending on how much you trust him dribbling the ball.

Second, the scouts are tuned into Pascal Siakam. His head-fakes aren’t working, and his spin moves are covered on the turn. His lack of a passing game is showing because when the double comes the mentality adopted is to find an escape route to relief, not to pick out an open man. The shots that he’s getting blocked are evidence of how the defense is now able to anticipate his moves. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the Raptors had encountered plenty of these situations in the regular season, and Siakam had adapted to them. It’s only now that we’re seeing the full force of scouting in effect as Siakam’s shot angles are getting too tight for comfort as operating space is reduced to uncomfortable levels.

There is hope here because minor adjustments can pay off major dividends. Siakam has to consciously look to create rather than look to score. Though this hasn’t been a priority to date, better floor spacing on the part of the team and better awareness from Siakam can open up offensive channels that aren’t currently being actively sought. Currently, opponents are doubling Siakam and forcing an escape pass back up top instead of to shooters on the side (assuming they can shoot, of course). This has to change because a reset is what the defense is seeking in these situations, and Siakam is playing into their hands. How the Raptors can exploit this extra attention by having Siakam make the right pass can help unlock the sputtering offense.

His defensive assignment will also take a toll on his offense, especially when he’s needlessly pressuring up top. The Raptors need to sag on Giannis and use single coverage because it is a waste of a defender like Siakam if the Raptors also have to send help from the sides.  Might as well have Lowry guard Giannis if we’re going to double anyway. Let him take the three which he shot at 25.6% this season, and if he makes it, we can live with it. It is far more dangerous for him to score 24 than 45, because the former has implications that everyone else is getting theirs off the first or second pass coming out of a kick-out. It’s the kick-outs and transition play that the Raptors need to stop and not worry so much about his half-court scoring.

Third, the bench remains unplayable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has crossed Nick Nurse’s mind that he may just need to play Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard 46 minutes a game. Other than the Game 1 loss against the Magic, Fred VanVleet is yet to crack double digits. Since then he’s averaging 3.2 points per game while providing zero offensive stability and no shot creation while being a defensive sieve. At some point you have to wonder whether whatever Jeremy Lin is capable of is more than what the Raptors are currently getting from VanVleet. Because something is better than nothing.

I’m not sure if the clean looks Norman Powell is getting are by design from the defense or out of good offensive ball movement. Whatever the case, he’s got clean looks that he’s bombing, as well. He is hitting 12-29 (41%) from three this post-season, but it sure doesn’t feel that way, probably because all we remember are the key misses, not the early makes. That fourth quarter lineup with three subs cost the Raptors the game, and if Norm had made the two makeable shots that he got (a layup and an open three), we could be singing a different tune today. What’s a coach to do? These are his options, and his options aren’t delivering.

The playoffs aren’t the ideal time to experiment with new stuff, but at this point it’s hard to see Jeremy Lin being worse and is probably better than VanVleet. The Raptors best hope for a bench boost is on the defensive side if OG Anunoby and Patrick McCaw are able to hold their own defensively in those key quarter end/start stretches. Both remain on the sidelines.

The ball is now in Nick Nurse’s court on how to employ tactics to slow down Milwaukee’s perimeter play. Even if the Raptors and Nurse are running a little dry in those aspects, simple game management that limits the amount of bench players at any time to two is a good start.  Or better use of timeouts to quell the tide. That being said, Green has been so poor that he may as well be part of the bench, which limits Nurse’s confident shooters to Leonard, Lowry, Siakam and Ibaka. Marc Gasol remains a reluctant scorer though he has gotten better.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure,” Paulo Coelho once mused. The Raptors need to take note. Hiding behind Kawhi Leonard is not an option. They need to play like they belong.

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