As the first half of Toronto’s eventual win over the Charlotte Hornets trickled to a close, the Raptors had a seemingly unusual moment. Norman Powell got a rebound, raced down the floor, and the usually passive Marc Gasol hoisted a no-hesitation triple from the corner. Many of Gasol’s 3-point attempts are belated, coming after he pump-fakes, jab steps, looks to pass, checks to see if his defender hasn’t closed out on him, and looks down to set his feet. To see him in a shooting stance, firing almost before the ball even touched his hands, was refreshing.
Gasol’s readiness may be worth mentioning, but the substance of the play is actually common enough if you look closely. The Raptors were all on the same page as Gasol launched from deep. Powell pushed the ball, looking for a shooter. Fred VanVleet saw where the play was heading and didn’t cut into Powell or Gasol’s space. OG Anunoby spaced to the other side. Every player knew what was about to happen, and Gasol knew he had to get the ball towards the rim immediately.
A similar thing happened, in substance if not form, towards the end of the first quarter in Toronto’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. Fred VanVleet, not Gasol, was the one firing without hesitation. Notice VanVleet not touching the ball until it crosses the half-court line, and then shooting almost immediately. He wanted to waste no time, using only 3.5 seconds of the shot-clock.
It happened again to end the second. One would be forgiven for thinking this was a replay of the first quarter finisher and not a live result. Notice though, here, VanVleet dribbles slowly, loitering, killing the clock, as if he’s waiting for the correct time to shoot.
And, yes, VanVleet was up to his old tricks before time expired in the third, too.
“If we get it under 40 [seconds], whoever gets the outlet or the rebound is going to shoot a pull-up. Sometimes when we have more time, like 50 seconds, we’ll run a play,” VanVleet said to explain the difference between the immediacy to end the first quarter and the delay to end the second.
All told, VanVleet took a deep triple after zero-pass possessions to end each of the first three quarters. Ordinarily, that might make a coach scratch his head or even glue a player to the bench for a week. Not in this circumstance. VanVleet went on to play 39 minutes against the Mavericks after his three quarter-ending shots, so there was absolutely no benching for him. In fact, his gun-slinging to end the quarters was by design, a trick taught to VanVleet by Nick Nurse himself.
The play that the Raptors run so frequently is called a two-for-one. Towards the end of each of the first three quarters, there’s a chance for one team to manipulate the shot clock so as to get an extra attempt. With between 35-28 seconds left in a quarter, if Team A fires up a shot, Team B will be left with slightly more than 24 seconds remaining in the quarter, but only 24 seconds on their shot-clock. Team A will then have a few seconds left for one last possession before the break. They thus get two shots to their opponents’ one. Two for one.
“That’s three of the better [two-for-ones] that I’ve had,” said VanVleet of the Dallas game. “I’ve had some good ones and bad ones, but for whatever reason, sometimes it just happens like that [with three nearly identical shots].”
Kyle Lowry and Nurse taught VanVleet upon arriving in Toronto that two-for-ones were more important in the NBA than in college, where there is only one chance to end the first half. He started looking for two-for-ones early in his career when he came off the bench, as he usually played to end the first and third quarters. It was a chance to separate himself, and players with disadvantages — undersized, undrafted — are always looking for small ways to get ahead, set themselves apart. Finding small competitive advantages is part of VanVleet’s DNA, which Nurse and Lowry share.
“It’s a small, marginal thing that some teams pay attention to, some teams don’t, but I think that we’re pretty good at trying to capitalize,” explained VanVleet. Toronto keeps stats that aren’t available to the public, and VanVleet said that Toronto was near the top of the league last year in two-for-ones. They’re on pace to do the same again.
A single two-for-one is a small grift, equivalent to a bar trick worth a free drink, but they add up over a long period of time. The Raptors have outscored their opponents by a wide margin during two-for-one scenarios over the full season. Note that these numbers include situations in which two-for-ones weren’t attempted, but could have been. Basically, the last ~35 seconds of the first three quarters of every game all added together.
In no game yet this year have the Raptors had fewer possessions than their opponents to end the first three quarters. In some games, like against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Raptors were able to get extra possessions at the end of all three quarters. The Raptors are always trying to game the system. Teams who are unaware will be shellacked, as were the Blazers, who were outscored 10-5 across the ends of all three quarters.
Sometimes teams are extremely aware of what’s about to happen, and it leads to comical moments.
Jim Boylen, Chicago’s Head Coach, yells repeatedly, “no 3s! No 3s! No 3s!” as Kyle Lowry twice tries to launch a 3. When Lowry can’t find it, he kicks to Powell, who also wants to shoot a deep, 30-footer. Alas, it, too, is taken away, and the Raptors hang their heads and traipse into an actual offensive set. This is ridiculous basketball, and it makes quite clear that Toronto is going to shoot two-for-ones whenever they possibly can. Playing normally is a thing to be grieved.
Opponents have not been ready for much of the year. Even when teams know what the Raptors want, Toronto’s players are still empowered to force shots at will. It can lead to some comical results in other ways.
VanVleet said that he he doesn’t hear jokes or criticism from teammates when his shots look unorthodox, and Nurse doesn’t say anything either: “You get freedom [in those situations,]” he said. “It’s on you to be responsible with that. For the most part, [they’ve been good.] I’ve rushed a few. I know the one where I had the runner [against New Orleans], I was trying to get fouled. If you don’t get the foul, you look like a jerk when that doesn’t go your way.”
By and large, the choices the Raptors have made are commendable, even when they don’t look good. Even bad shots are a sneaky way to gain an extra shot. Mathematically, even a circus shot is a good choice, as it has some chance of going in, plus you get an extra possession out of it, so you’re helping yourself in the analytics column. Possessions are the secret, not necessarily the points themselves.
“If you don’t score on the first shot, at least you get another chance at the end of the quarter,” said VanVleet. “You just want to increase the amount of opportunities that you get.”
Furthermore, most of Toronto’s front end two-for-one shots are actually good ones. This is a shot Lowry attempts frequently, regardless of the time and score.
To help the process, the Raptors are one of the best early-clock offense teams in the league. They thrive in transition, and they look to hit home run triples before defenses are set. On the year, they’ve attempted 81 triples with the shot-clock in the 22-18 second range, which is the ninth-most in the league. They’ve connected on 39, most in the NBA. Kyle Lowry especially is an assassin with those early attempts when defenses aren’t set, hitting 13 3s already this season with 22-18 seconds left on the clock, which despite his recent absence is good for second-most in the league. Fred VanVleet seems to be absorbing the zealotry for two-for-ones from his mentor. In fact, the two are among the team leaders for most attempted front end shots to set up the two-for-one.
It’s ridiculous how successful Siakam has been. He’s second on the team in two-for-one attempts, with six. And he had scored on every attempt until a missed pick-and-pop jumper to finish the first quarter against Orlando on Wednesday November 20. VanVleet joked before the Orlando game that he needed to sacrifice his own two-for-one numbers to give Siakam more attempts, and then he did to end the first quarter, and Siakam missed for the first time this year. Perhaps my bringing the situation to VanVleet’s attention was for the worse. Regardless, Siakam has become just another in the long line of Raptors dedicated to two-for-ones. There are other devotees across the league, like Lou Williams, but arguably no other team has as many players willing to attempt two-for-ones as Toronto.
The results speak for themselves. Some Raptors’ wins could have been losses without two-for-ones. In a nine-point win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors outscored their opponents 7-0 in the final 35 seconds of the first three quarters. Some losses could have been worse, such as Toronto’s six-points loss to the Celtics that saw a 6-2 spread in Toronto’s favour during two-for-one scenarios.
The Raptors see end-of-quarter two-for-ones as an area in which they can find a competitive advantage. The NBA is so high-stakes, so competitive, that any inch of an edge can turn the tide. Games, as we know, can come down to the slightest of margins. A few extra possessions in a game can be the difference between winning and losing, living and dying. And Toronto’s been living well behind the two-for-one. In total, Toronto has outscored opponents by 110 points on the season, or 0.16 points per minute. During two-for-one scenarios, they’ve outscored opponents by 24 points, or 0.81 points per minute. Put another way, 21.8 percent of Toronto’s out-scoring of opponents has come during two-for-one scenarios, even though those moments only comprise 3.6 percent of games. It’s clear that Lowry, VanVleet, and Siakam’s success at the end of quarters is no small feat. It’s a little easier to win games when you have a secret trick to win extra points.
So the next time there’s 40 seconds left in a quarter, pay attention. The Raptors are probably about to go on a miniature run.