We all need a holiday break. The Raptors got Boxing Day to relax, but the Black Box Report took a full week off. We hope you missed us.
The explanation for this weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about homecoming heroes turned invading villains, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.
It’s also been brought to our attention that the Black Box Report reminds people of plane crashes. Well, we all need to remember our roots as Raptors fans. Times can be too good, and sometimes being a fan can be too easy. We need to remember where we came from. Furthermore, this column is now the top hit when you google ‘black box report.’ So whose column is a plane crash now?
Looking Back – Zatzman
7:00 pm EST on Saturday December 28 @ the Boston Celtics – 113-97 W
6:00 pm EST on Sunday December 29 against the Oklahoma City Thunder – 98-97 L
7:00 pm EST on Tuesday December 31 against the Cleveland Cavaliers – 117-97 W
7:30 pm EST on Thursday January 2 @ the Miami Heat – 84-76 L
Wing rotation is a question mark
Over the past four games, the Toronto Raptors have used exactly 16 different two-man wing rotations. That’s a whole lot of guessing games from the coaching staff, just trying to find something that works. Pat McCaw, OG Anunoby, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been the only certainties. All three have started at least one game.
The question marks have been Malcolm Miller, Oshae Brissett, Stanley Johnson, and Terence Davis. It was, of course, before the scope of this BBR, but Miller was massive in a Toronto comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. Brissett had a huge two games against the Celtics and Thunder before he fell out of the rotation. Nurse tried Johnson against the Heat, but he offered almost zero across the board in his few minutes. Davis played only 13 minutes against the Heat, as he missed most of his shots. In the first half, he was tentative on the defensive end, where a few missed blockouts and slow decisions took place. Though he was better in the second half against Miami, when Davis isn’t forcing stops or hitting triples, his status as a rookie can be more evident.
The problem with Toronto’s wing rotation right now is that none of the seven available players offer any sort of consistent creation ability. McCaw is probably closest, as he has shown some ability to play point guard. When he’s aggressive looking for his own shot, it creates opportunities off the ball for his teammates like Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, who love to whir around the edges of a play. But McCaw is not always aggressive, and his inconsistent jumper can hinder Toronto, especially against a zone, which Miami used extensively. Anunoby has shown some high-level ability as a finisher and driver, but he can’t yet create for himself without the defense already in rotation or if he’s in transition.
Someone at the wing position needs to pop for Toronto. In their two wins this week, one or more of McCaw, Brissett, Anunoby, and others popped. But if none of the seven has a good game, Toronto is quite unlikely to win. Of the sixteen two-man wing combinations that played this past week, only four played in all four games. That level of instability shows that Nurse is trying his best to find something that works for longer than a flash in the pan. Toronto has done well to stay afloat despite injuries. The wing rotation has presaged wins or losses to a great extent during this stretch. If the Raps can find something a little more consistent, that would herald even more success while they wait for reinforcements to return.
Can’t survive without shooting
Shooting isn’t everything that’s required to win a basketball game. It’s simplistic to say that a team lost a basketball game because it didn’t shoot well. It’s also wrong to say that a team won only because of a hot shooting night.
But right now the Raptors don’t have too many sources of offense. Lowry and VanVleet will either shoot or grift their way to a certain number of points a night. Ibaka will give some punch in the paint and midrange. Beyond those three near-certainties, there’s nothing that Toronto can count on every night. As a result, the Raptors need scoring from a thinner number of areas. Currently, the most important of those is probably shooting from deep.
The Raptors shot over 40 percent from deep in their two wins this week. They shot six-of-42 from deep in a loss to Miami. Neither of those facts guaranteed the results, of course. But it’s important to note that Toronto just can’t find enough sources of scoring without a good night from deep. Some streaky shooters like McCaw, Ibaka, or Anunoby need to be hot for the Raptors to put up enough points. That’s reality with lesser talent on the floor than when the team is healthy.
A cold shooting night almost certainly spells defeat for Toronto at the moment, but hot shooting nights still don’t necessarily mean victory. The Raptors shot 15-of-40, or 37.5 percent, from deep against the Thunder. That number is just fine. But they couldn’t finish in the arc, didn’t get enough free throws, and turned the ball over too often. Again: not enough sources of offense.
Lowry has been brilliant during this stretch without injuries. Aside from a woeful shooting night against Miami, he has been absolutely masterful, dialing back his control of the other nine players on the court to 2016-17 levels. That, too, is a necessity for Toronto to beat good teams. That’s reality without enough talent on the floor; there’s no margin for error in some categories for Toronto.
Looking Forward – Folk
6:00 pm EST on Saturday January 4 @ the Brooklyn Nets
7:00 pm EST on Tuesday January 7 against the Portland Trail Blazers
7:00 pm EST on Wednesday January 8 against the Charlotte Hornets
Lowry/Dinwiddie and Grifting
A team without two of the NBA’s biggest stars (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant) that became a landing spot for those stars because of their ability to build a team that contains shot-creation and shot-making outside of those central pieces. Now sitting at .500 on the season, and hanging on for dear life in the Eastern Conference picture… the Nets have relied on their tertiary pieces more than they could have imagined.
Since the last time these two teams played, the Nets offensive rating has taken a massive dive (98 ORTG). Even with the pace of these games being quite fast (103) the Nets are less and less able to create easy looks. Their effective field goal percentage is sitting at a desert-like 47-percent over the last 9 games and they have no choice but to keep going back to the usual suspects to create offense.
That reliance sits heaviest on the shoulders of Spencer Dinwiddie, who is taking 21 shots a game since Irving’s injury. And as teams have begun to figure out the Nets offense (4-game losing streak, lost 5 of 7) Dinwiddie has directed his gaze towards the free throw line, looking to manufacture easy offense and set defenses for his team that keeps getting killed in transition – something that he has in common with our beloved, Kyle Lowry.
In their last matchup the Raptors abused the Nets with an attack spearheaded by Pascal Siakam, who is now injured. The Nets were ill-equipped to deal with the Raptors attack that time around, but this time it looks far more favourable. The Raptors just fell to a Heat team that consistently utilized a zone defense to vex the Raptors creators. The Heat played small and dared the Raptors to try and bust the zone by using the middle of the court, and Anunoby and Serge Ibaka didn’t perform well enough on the inside and the rest of the team went cold from deep. It was rough. The Nets remain one of the most zone-heavy teams in the league, and could lean into that, given what they saw in Raptors vs. Heat.
Likewise for how the Raptors will guard the Nets, though. Two teams in an offensive funk that have terrific and cerebral point guards manning the attack. There’s only one way this ends: Lowry and Dinwiddie performing sacrificial acts of flopping and embellishment to the Lord of the Grift, and letting the deity decide the fate of the two teams.
The Paint is Tough, Let it Fly
We’ve all watched Fred VanVleet struggle at the rim for some time now, and it’s safe to say we’re all much more comfortable watching him hoist up shots from downtown. There’s an overlap here with Charlotte fans and Devonte’ Graham. One of the most entertaining aspects of this season for the Hornets has been watching Graham gunslinging. The guy is putting up nearly a third of the Hornets total attempts from beyond the arc, and while they’re trying to tease some shooting out of Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier, Graham remains their most potent weapon from deep. His 37-percent mark from the field and paltry 54-percent at the rim (same as VanVleet’s) is tough to swallow, but there’s simply no substitution for his shooting and his playstyle is a necessary function of the Hornets offense.
The Raptors rely on VanVleet’s shooting in a similar way, especially as they’ve been ravaged by injuries. With players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Patrick McCaw entering the starting lineup at times (not to mention OG Anunoby’s shooting falling off a cliff) the spacing that VanVleet’s shooting provides is paramount to the Raptors success (10-4 when he makes 3+ triples, 4-3 vs. +.500 teams) and especially against good defenses that are able to force the ball out of the hands of Lowry and Siakam with regularity. It goes without saying, but if VanVleet shoots better than the rough 1-11 (from downtown) performance vs. the Heat, the complexion of that game could’ve looked much different.
So, while VanVleet is the superior player to Graham, and his role will become far more clear once the Raptors can return to some semblance of healthy – VanVleet can (and perhaps should) try to emulate a small nugget of Graham’s game. Graham is one of the NBA’s most prolific pull-up artists, and while VanVleet certainly isn’t shy (3.1 pull-up triples a game) Graham is doubling him in output. For the time being, the Raptors need an injection of shooting in each and every game. Listless drives to the rim that end in missed shots provide little value to these Raptors. An uptick in proficiency from the pull-up might be what VanVleet needs to open up the lane in the future, and provide the spacing for the Raptors in the present.
Have a blessed day.