Hitting the Wall

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It’s tough to judge how far we can push ourselves, especially when we’re good at something.

When you have a talent for something, typically, you push and push until you meet resistance. Then, you push a little harder. Somewhere, you find yourself at the stopping point.

The Raptors have pushed like hell in this series. It’s safe to say they’ve pushed harder than any other team when you look at the minutes distribution. On top of that, they’ve been doing their heavy lifting on the defensive side of the ball. Good offense can look effortless at times, and sometimes it truly is. Good defense is never effortless. It’s grimy, intelligent, hard, and steadfast. Kyle Lowry & co. have deprived themselves of any easy offense, and it’s left them a road map to victory that is paved in mud. An absolute slog to the finish line, provided that they can get there.

Game 5 was the intersection of 3 major points of the Raptors season:

  1. How long can Kyle Lowry keep this up? His workload is nearly unprecedented at his age and size.
  2. Is Fred VanVleet a lead guard in a read and react system? He seems to operate best as a 2 guard, a very good playmaker at that position, but underwhelming at the 1.
  3. Do we finally force Pascal Siakam’s hand into wing territory? He took significant steps towards a game that is more like an archetypal “wing”, will the Raptors finally mix post-ups with ball screens?

So, the intersection of these points all came to a head early in Game 5, and not in a way that was conducive to the Raptors winning. They all compounded on top of each other, and the Raptors struggled to put a playoff worthy product on the floor.

First of all, Lowry was not operating as the head honcho in this game. That strikes as quite odd because his engine and brain were the lifeblood of the Raptors offense in their victories, and they haven’t shown much of an offensive ceiling without him on the floor pushing them forward. Naturally, as the Raptors have been wont to do, the role of engine and lead guard transferred to VanVleet. Only, his preternatural sense in sniffing out defensive plays is most potent as a defender and as an off-ball threat. When the Raptors spammed pick n’ roll with him at the forefront and Gasol as the screener, the Celtics dropped low with Theis, funneled VanVleet into the defense and crowded him with their length. We’ve seen this movie before, but it involves a lot of reset possessions, and rarely good offensive opportunities.

Lost in the shuffle was Siakam, who only attempted 2 shots in the first quarter as the Celtics ran roughshod over his team. VanVleet beat the dead horse, and Nick Nurse, Lowry, and Siakam looked on with glazed over eyes.

Now, the puzzling part is that we saw changes to that in the second half. The Raptors were down 27 points at halftime. Not an insurmountable lead, but an extremely unlikely come back given that the Raptors haven’t been scoring a lot in this series anyway. Why did we see an immediate turn to a more varied offense? One that featured Lowry on ball, and shockingly, Siakam operating as the ball handler in screening actions, with success.

Raptors fans have championed Nick Nurse as a genius on the sidelines, and rightfully so, he’s been candid with media and intelligent in his decisions. Often times he’s even been innovative. Why did that coach put out the adjustments after the Raptors had already dug themselves a hole that was far too deep to dig out of? Well, I think we have to return to the 3 questions, which now have relevant answers:

  1. Lowry needed a break from all that heavy lifting.
  2. VanVleet struggled as the lead guard in ways that we know Lowry wouldn’t have.
  3. Siakam was waiting to be serviced with the ball, like a big man would be.

On offense, you need something going at all times otherwise you die in the NBA playoffs. The Raptors had every single option dry up at once for the second time in the series – the other time being Game 1 in the first quarter. How then, do the Raptors ensure that no offensive droughts come their way? Well, you start by removing the self imposed limitations on Siakam, whether they come from himself or Nurse. VanVleet and Lowry pushed until they met their limitations. Effort isn’t lacking from Siakam, it’s deployment and utilization.

Use Siakam as a varied offensive option, ensuring rest for Lowry and potent off-ball work for VanVleet. The Siakam and VanVleet 2-man game has been impressive for short bursts in these playoffs. Every Raptor defends their ass off, we know that. Some are better than others, yes. The answer to this series is an offensive one and Lowry and OG Anunoby have dragged the Raptors through to this point with some extra punch from other pieces. The Raptors aren’t built to contend for a championship with Siakam operating as the 3rd guy on offense. We’ve reached the point where most other players have maxed themselves out, and he can tip the scales. The margin for error has vanished, and the winning formula doesn’t include 30% performances from the field.

Lowry will bounce back, and with vigor. However (comma) Siakam’s ceiling has become synonymous with the Raptors. Elimination is on the brink, and it’s go time.

Have a blessed day.

 

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