The winning streak is over, but the NBA All-Star game included Pascal Siakam as a starter, Kyle Lowry off the bench, and Nick Nurse’s entire staff coaching Team Giannis. I think they’ll be ok.
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 tryhards who don’t know how to take a night off, like Kyle Lowry taking charges at the All-Star game. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for myself 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.
Looking back – Zatzman
8:00 pm EST on Friday February 7 @ Indiana Pacers – 115-106 W
7:30 pm EST on Saturday February 8 against the Brooklyn Nets – 119-118 W
7:30 pm EST on Monday February 10 against the Minnesota Timberwolves – 137-126 W
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday February 12 @ the Brooklyn Nets – 101-91 L
What’s with these Nets?
It was weird to see, especially with the Raptors riding a winning streak and playing unbeatable ball, but the Nets gave the Raptors a lot of trouble before the break. What’s the deal?
It would be easy to presume — as I presumed last week — that the Raptors would have a number of systemic advantages over the Nets. I wrote this in last week’s BBR: “The Nets’ best defender for Pascal Siakam is Taurean Prince who is, by quite a large margin, too small.”
That was true when Siakam saw the Nets earlier in the season. But before the break, Siakam struggled greatly against the Nets in both games. He averaged 18.0 points on 15-of-39 shooting, good for 38.5 percent, from the floor. Prince really shouldn’t be able to guard Siakam, but he did a tolerable job last week. It’s not like Prince dominated the matchup, but Siakam wasn’t able to explode, and neither did he draw the double- or triple-teams that unlock his teammates’ offense.
Well, for one, Siakam missed a lot of catch-and-shoot jumpers. Though his shot is greatly improved, especially on pull-ups, he still runs streaky. That’s life for almost every shooter in the NBA, so that Siakam can run hot and cold is really no great concern. He got very high quality jumpers against the Nets, and that’s really the more important element in terms of projecting a potential first-round series.
Secondly, Siakam was a little bit passive in his shooting selection, especially in isolation and in the post. He settled for nine midrange jumpers in the two games, of which he made one lonely attempt. He needs that look as a counter, especially when his drives and spins are taken away. Prince did a good job last week with the scouting report on Siakam. He tried to take away the baseline, reacting to every fake without jumping out of position, and letting Siakam bail out and launch jumpers without really contesting them. Siakam did that too often, but it’s not a bad thing. These counters are necessary, and even if they don’t fall, they’re vitally important to have in the arsenal.
Siakam also hunted a few midrange looks, which is less important to have in the arsenal. Prince ducked under any ball screens Siakam received, which opened acres of midrange space. Siakam chose to launch jumpers or even step back into pull-up triples in both games against the Nets.
This shot is different from a midrange look as a counter in the post. There’s a reason why the defense is ceding that shot. It’s not a good shot, and it’s not a necessity to have in the toolbox. Siakam has other options. He can pass to a release valve and keep the offense moving. Or if he wants to press the issue and make the defense pay for its disrespect, he can attack his own screener’s outside shoulder and try to beat the defender to the corner. That’s easier said than done, especially because Siakam’s athleticism doesn’t always manifest into straight-line speed with the ball. He’s never been terrific at using ball screens because he doesn’t have a polished in-between game yet. He doesn’t have the first step acceleration required to punish defenders for ducking under screens, so he more often turns those drives into sneaky high post back-downs. Those weirdo post-ups are still good, and they’re much better options than firing jumpers that let defenses off the hook. Siakam’s shot selection was a reason why Toronto struggled against Brooklyn last week.
So is there much to use from those two games in terms of projecting a possible first-round series? No, not really. 82 practices, and all that, and you have to believe that Siakam will take better shots when it matters. Nurse even spoke after the break about how the rest of the season is about preparing Siakam especially for his role in the playoffs. Besides, Siakam’s shot selection was only one reason why the Raptors struggled against Brooklyn. A much bigger reason was fatigue. Fortunately, this team got some rest (aside from Kyle Lowry who, as always, played as hard as humanly possible, this time in the freakin’ All-Star game.) When Toronto’s focused, their level of play increases dramatically. It was hard to focus for a team that had already set the franchise record for consecutive wins and was looking ahead to the break. Shot selection is really just a symptom, in that sense. So don’t be worried about Brooklyn, despite Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert being extremely good and cool. If it comes to it, Toronto has extra gears when it matters.
Looking forward – Folk
7:30 pm EST on Friday February 21 against the Phoenix Suns
6:00 pm EST on Sunday February 23 against the Indiana Pacers
7:30 pm EST on Tuesday February 25 against the Milwaukee Bucks
A showcase against drop defense
Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry vs. The half-court defense. I’ve had this conversation on many a podcast with lots of different basketball minds, and the consensus seems to be that we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Raptors haven’t been an unmitigated disaster, not nearly. But, with the Raptors current statistical profile and on-court flair, it would be a little silly to rate them as anything outside of a contender right now. And contenders can score in the half-court. They have players who can punish a drop defense (Kawhi last year) and can un-clunk the offense vs. A stout defense.
Incredible basket, but far from easy offense.
The post-ups on Giannis can get hairy pretty quick.
The Raptors offense is relatively egalitarian compared to a lot of other NBA offenses, and that’s meant that they haven’t asked any player on the team to carry in those scenarios. That, mixed with the high level of transition offense, saving pick n’ roll actions featuring Siakam for the playoffs (presumably) and the new mix of VanVleet + Lowry possessions has left the Raptors fairly raw in those types of scenarios.
So, the question is whether the Raptors will show their hand, at least in part, to gather an important win in the race for the second seed. In last years playoffs Siakam was put through the ringer. Guarded by incredible players night in and night out. When the Raptors wanted to get him going they didn’t go to straight up post-ups, and they didn’t throw repeated touchdown passes. They started to infuse his possessions with DHO actions, staggered screen plays to initiate post-ups on mismatches, and pick n’ roll possessions. He also did a great job of finding soft-spots off of the attention that was paid to Kawhi Leonard – only this year, he’ll be the one drawing the attention that went to Leonard.
Marc Gasol is really important to this style of play with Siakam, and he won’t be in the lineup. But, Nick Nurse mentioned that he wanted to steer more possessions Siakam’s way in preparation for the playoffs. One has to wonder if that will come with more creativity, or if we’ll be seeing more above-the-break iso’s for Siakam. The former could be dynamic against the Bucks and the latter could really stagnate against the Bucks long and structured defense (Siakam is top-5 in isolation frequency and possessions per game, but ranks 10th out of the top-15 in efficiency).
Start off on the right foot
Via Josh Lewenberg:
“Naturally, just how we’re built, we want to be the one seed. We’re not in the position we are in now if we don’t want to be the No. 1 seed, so, yeah, we’ll go for it and we’ll see where we land. I think it would take Milwaukee to take a serious fall, which you never know, might happen, hopefully. But we’re going for the one seed and we’ll see where we fall. But, I think just playing good, feeling good and getting healthy is probably slightly more important than where we end up seeding-wise. Whoever we get in that first round is going to be a tough draw. I think we learned that last year. Going forward, we’re going to have to beat a good team – three good teams – to get where we want to go. And it takes a hell of a two months to get it done and luckily we know what that’s going to be like so we’ll be prepared. It’s just a matter of can we go out there and get it done, so we’ll see.” – Fred VanVleet
After a sobering loss to the Brooklyn Nets (who are now without Kyrie Irving for the rest of the season) the Raptors have to jump back into their winning ways if they want an opportunity to matchup against the Magic (sans Jonathan Isaac) or the Nets (sans Kyrie Irving). Not only that, but VanVleet tells it like the Raptors are trying for the first seed. Of course, it makes sense that they would want the first seed, I mean, you’re the defending champs, aim as high as you want. It would take a real collapse from the Bucks, but if the Raptors have their eyes set on the first seed, that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing as far as securing the second seed.
That first step comes against Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns. And we’ll get to see the Raptors put the screws to him and the Suns, getting to further test the idea that the Raptors defense was put on this earth to suppress superstars’ shot attempts and make role players sweat, as the usual rhythm and cadence with which they get their shots goes to hell.
And while Delon Wright isn’t with the Raptors to continue his beef with Kelly Oubre Jr., it might be more worthwhile to see how the Raptors as a whole defend him as he tries to find the seams in their defense. We can expect Ricky Rubio to exhibit his floor game in he same way that we see Kyle Lowry break exceptional defenses with a pass from seemingly nowhere. They’ll have to try to make Rubio the shooter, instead of the last pass before the shot. The Raptors defense is really good at shoring up the back end while they’re rotating like crazy, but there’s a few players in the league who can find the weak spot (see, Luka Doncic) and Rubio fits that mold. There was a point in time where it almost wasn’t worth it to discuss the Raptors potential to lose to a sub-.5oo team, but here we are. However, this game can get us a little bit closer to that peace of mind again.
Have a blessed day.