Morning Coffee – Sun, Sep 13

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Cover Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Six lessons the Raptors can take forward from Boston as they continue building – The Athletic

The need for shot creation

The deeper a team goes in the playoffs, the more difficult the offensive environment becomes.

The Raptors knew that from last season, when they relied heavily on Kawhi Leonard for offence. This time around, their lack of an “alpha” in the offence hurt them. Pascal Siakam may very well grow into that player, but he’s not that player yet. The Raptors had too little offensive help around him to survive as bad a series as he had in terms of scoring. Some of that naturally falls on Siakam. Some of it highlighted that the Raptors are a little light on half-court creation.

The numbers are staggering. During the regular season, the Raptors were the league’s No. 17 half-court offence, per Synergy. They rank ninth out of 16 playoff teams (and 14th by Cleaning the Glass), finishing in the top half among playoff teams in only one of their seven most commonly used play types (when they used their big as a roller or in pick-and-pop). That their most efficient play type was one that one of their bigs was hesitant to execute says a lot, and it exacerbated the problems the pick-and-roll operators had scoring. The Raptors averaged just 0.77 points per possession when the ballhandler finished a possession with a shot, foul or turnover in those situations, and the Milwaukee Bucks were the only team to escape the first round scoring less with their pick-and-roll attackers. Making matters worse, Toronto managed just 21.5 drive points per playoff game, up slightly from its No. 29 mark during the season.

Over 72 games, those weaknesses didn’t matter a great deal. The Raptors got to the rim more than any offence other than that of the Bulls or Lakers, and though they shot relatively poorly there, that pressure helped open up the perimeter game. What the playoffs showed was that too much of that success was driven by their transition game. That’s not to say being an elite transition team isn’t helpful, because it is. It was the difference between the Raptors being a below-average offence and a slightly above-average one. But transition opportunities decrease in the postseason, something that’s stalled the Raptors’ attack in consecutive postseasons. Last year, they had a more functional grind-it-out attack. This year, Siakam was maybe a year too early as the main option, Fred VanVleet struggled to create inside the arc and there was little secondary scoring outside of Kyle Lowry that could self-create. The offence also, at times, lacked the creativity afforded their elite defence.

The problem is not unique to Toronto. Milwaukee and Philadelphia dealt with the same issues, as supporting players couldn’t create enough offence around the stars who drew immense attention. The league-wide push to load up on wing defenders may have tilted playoff rosters too far the other way, meaning a lot of would-be contenders lacked the ability to put pressure on the rim or find their way to pull-up jumpers that can grow vital against defences like Boston.

The solution isn’t immediately clear with the Raptors projecting to have fairly limited cap flexibility. There are internal options to bet on, like continued growth for Siakam, VanVleet, Norman Powell and especially Terence Davis II, who showed potential as a rookie. There could be a number of guards available at No. 29 in the draft who can boost the offence, too, and while adding another guard might seem like overkill if VanVleet is retained, the Raptors simply have to try to raise their perimeter skill level for next season.

Toronto Raptors were a special team in 2019-20 NBA season – Yahoo!

Remember them as proud champions who defended their title against all odds. Prognosticators tried to confiscate the Larry O’Brien Trophy when the Finals MVP left, but the Raptors rightfully claimed what was theirs. Kawhi Leonard was indeed missed in the end, but they won far more in spite of his absence than they lost because of it. This was a team that was counted out — outside of the playoffs altogether in one infamous NBA TV prediction — but finished with the second-best record in the NBA. They had no business winning so many games, except that they made it their business to win every last one.

Remember them for their stubbornness. This was a team that completed a 30-point comeback in the span of 14 minutes. This was a team that lost all but one member of their rotation to injuries for at least a month, but never once missed a beat by winning with undrafted players who made a name for themselves. They were 0.5 seconds away from being down 0-3 to the Boston Celtics, and evened the series instead. They outlasted a championship contender in double overtime with a 34-year-old point guard sinking a turnaround dagger in his 53rd minute of play. Every single win against the Raptors had to be earned, it was never given.

Remember them for how they defended. It was equal parts talent, skill, creativity, and will. They started the smallest backcourt in the league, but made it work in their favour. Fred VanVleet and his 6-foot wingspan led the league in deflections. Lowry absorbed charges against players twice his size without a hint of hesitation. Pascal Siakam ran himself into the ground contesting more 3s than any other player. OG Anunoby took on every defensive assignment from Kemba Walker all the way up to Nikola Jokic. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka used every bit of their veteran guile to throw shots off at the rim. And most of all, remember the nightly geometry classes from the playbook of head coach Nick Nurse, who made “janky” defences mainstream in the NBA.

Remember their humble promise heading into the playoffs. The Raptors didn’t make any predictions, saying only that they would be difficult to beat four times and will shake the hand of any team that met that standard. Boston had substantially more talent, but the series went the distance and the Celtics were made to face elimination. Even in Game 7, with not one player playing well, the Raptors held Boston without a field goal for the final five minutes of the fourth and forced a one-possession game. Toronto’s mistakes caught up to them in the end, but even through the bitterness there was respect, with the two teams sharing handshakes and Lowry helping up a fellow pest in Marcus Smart. This was a team of their word.

Raptors Recalibrated: Closing the book on lessons from the Celtics series – The Athletic

Adjustments

There were some really good examples of what two teams look like in terms of preparation for each other seven games into a series. Let’s just go through a few quickly because, again, there’s no Game 8.

Part of why Gasol’s issues seemed to get worse than better was that Boston got progressively ruder toward him. In addition to ignoring him outside of the 3-point line, it began ignoring him pretty much anywhere, sending two bodies to the ball more often. That makes life tough on Toronto’s guards because Gasol was hesitant to finish as a roller or pop option and because it means extra length in their passing fields.

At the other end, Walker and Tatum hunted pull-up 3s against Gasol knowing he’s most comfortable in a shallow drop coverage. Toronto is mostly fine with that since it pinches high on the floor very aggressively. Against Ibaka, Boston hunted pick-and-pop or drive opportunities, to where the Raptors were trying to keep Ibaka out of those actions altogether with zone.

Speaking of zone, your final tally for the playoffs: The Raptors played 141 possessions of zone, per Synergy, almost more than every other playoff team combined. For reference, the other 15 playoff teams combined for 198 possessions of zone so far, topping out at 49 (Dallas). The Raptors held Brooklyn and Boston to 0.79 points per zone possessions with a 15.6 percent turnover rate.

In games 6 and 7, it included ample box-and-1 against Walker. The Celtics had a stretch when they stashed Walker in a corner to basically play four-on-four elsewhere, but the difficulty of the box-and-1 is the chase and distraction of the “1,” not the four-on-four concession with the most dangerous scorer iced. The tight approach to Walker mostly worked. He was very quiet in games 6 and 7, putting a lot more responsibility in the hands of Brown, Smart and Tatum, the latter of whom they also sent heavy pressure at (and who was great as a passer).

One last example of what can happen when you know an opponent well is how Boston eventually got used to the Raptors’ wild closeouts. Toronto blocked the most 3s in the league this year, and making shooters uncomfortable while buying time for the next rotation is a key part of its strategy and how it limited opponent 3-point percentage. Players like Tatum and Smart were ready by the seventh showing.

As Raptors’ greatest era nears end, celebrate all it achieved – Sportsnet.ca

Of course, in many ways the Raptors were fortunate to make it this far. When Leonard and Green left in free agency, those who didn’t know the team well thought even making the playoffs would be a challenge. And even after a remarkable regular season, there were fair questions about how Toronto’s “by committee” approach on offence would fare against elite playoff defences.

Not all that well, turns out. The Raptors needed a miracle bucket at the buzzer from OG Anunoby to avoid going down 3-0 and then an epic Game 6 double-overtime win to force another elimination game.

They were out of miracles in Game 7, and now it’s Boston that will go on to face Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Raptors can look forward to going home.

It’s not only the end of a season and the longest championship reign in NBA history — a record that might stand for a while — it quite possibly is the end of an era.

Every off-season brings change, but this one could bring more than most for a Raptors team that kept things together in order to defend its championship. Toronto’s hand might be forced this time around. Serge Ibaka, Gasol and VanVleet are free agents, while Lowry is heading into the final year of his contract — as is Nurse, his coaching staff and much of the front office, from president Masai Ujiri on down.

“I enjoyed this year. The emergence of Pascal, the emergence of Freddy. Just being around these guys, these young guys,” said Lowry, who looks as good as ever at the end of his 14th season and would be in sharp demand on the trade market if a shakeup comes. “…For me, being 14 years in, playing with these young guys, those guys pushing me to be better every single day, and those guys letting me lead them, that’s important for a guy like me. Fourteen years have gone by so fast, you want to cherish every moment … you miss out on these moments that you don’t win a championship. You miss out [on] an opportunity to keep continuing to play with these great f-ing guys.”

Raptors earn admiration at the end of longest, most disrespected title defense – The Athletic

The disregard the Raptors encountered before this season was absurd. They had to hear that they’d barely make the playoffs, or better yet, become the third champion to miss the postseason altogether. Kawhi Leonard was phenomenal but he wasn’t leaving a franchise in ruin, like the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls, the last defending champ to flop. Toronto was undergoing a refurbishing of its reputation.

Of all the positives that came from the resumption of the season in Orlando, the Raptors’ ability to rightfully defend what they fought so hard to claim ranks near the top.  It would have been a shame if Kyle Lowry hadn’t been given the chance to reassert himself as the impactful little irritant who could will his team to unlikely victories, if Fred VanVleet hadn’t been allowed to boost his value in the free-agent market with some 3-point barrages, or if Pascal Siakam didn’t learn that the higher you get, the harder it gets.

The Raptors turned the disrespect from Leonard’s departure into a defiant celebration, an if-you-don’t-know-now-you-know recognition of their talent and character. What made these Raptors special is that while they might accept the applause for exceeding outside expectations, they weren’t satisfied in coming up short of the ultimate prize.

“It’s sad that we had more to give,” Lowry said. “Unfortunately, we not giving no more.”

The two teams remaining in the East, Miami and Boston, both have All-Stars who, in times of duress, they hand the ball, clear it out, and let them go get a bucket. The Heat and Celtics also have traditions and cultures that make those organizations special places to work.

The Raptors’ season might be over but they can lay claim to being in the same conversation. They have player development success stories in Siakam and Fred VanVleet. They have rescued the careers of Lowry and Serge Ibaka. They have a first-class practice facility. And while Leonard left for the fine weather and comforts of home, they should be an attractive destination for any player looking to compete and get better.

Raptors leader Kyle Lowry knows what Pascal Siakam is going through. He’s been there, and shares a secret | The Star

And the bulk of it was laid at Siakam’s feet, and fair enough. The 26-year-old all-star was deconstructed in this series, and by Game 7 he was in shambles: five turnovers, three in the fourth quarter, 13 points, a mess. When he couldn’t score in this series everyone else had to work harder to make up for it, and you could see the cost of that. The Raptors, despite everything, should have won this series. And had Siakam been even a little better, they would have.

“I take a lot of the blame, man,” Siakam said, more than once. He was disconsolate. He knew.

Maybe Siakam’s pandemic inactivity ruined him, for now — he couldn’t find a hoop, stuck in a town where a University of Toronto point guard literally came to shoot on my driveway hoop to stay sharp. Progress isn’t linear, and that’s OK. But Siakam will eat this.

And then there was Kyle. He knows what it feels like to fail on this stage and, more, to be blamed for it. He remembers.

“I was talking to somebody about this. It’s tough,” said Lowry. “When we got swept by the Wizards (in 2015) I read every single article, I read every single thing that was said about me: good, bad, evil, terrible, awesome. And I used it as motivation, and that’s what he’s going to do. And that’s the advice that I’m going to give him, which is that you look at everything, you look at all these moments, and you see who’s saying what, because you’re going to use it as fuel. Fuel yourself.

“And that’s what he’s going to do. And for a guy like me, who has gone through the type of things that he’s going through at this moment, he’ll be able to call me whenever, and I won’t be able to tell him nothing wrong. I don’t think he did anything wrong. I think this is a learning experience. It’s only going to make him a better basketball player, a better man, a better everything.”

Kyle knows, because that’s what happened to him.

Raptors exceed expectations with valiant attempt at defending title – Video – TSN

With Kawhi Leonard leaving after one championship season with the Raptors, many did not expect Toronto to come near a title repeat. Despite their season ending in a classic series against the Celtics, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst details why this season should be viewed as a major success for the organization.

The Raptors and Fred VanVleet enter the off-season with no sure things | The Star

VanVleet was instrumental to the Raptors having that chance at a championship, and falling so agonizingly short of advancing.

It was his last-ditch shot — a potential game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left — that was partially blocked and missed, ending the team’s last, best chance at stealing a win.

It was like so much of the series for the Raptors: a good shot he’s made hundreds of times in his career, but half a beat slow developing, half a second late getting into the air and just not enough.

“When we look back on the entire season, and the work that we put in, I think we can be proud of ourselves,” VanVleet said. “But it’s hard to feel that way right now with that performance we just had. All in all, I thought, I’m proud of the effort that our guys gave, especially coming off a championship and losing what we lost, and coming into this season, and all these people that expected us to be good were the people in our locker room.

“I’m proud of that part, but I don’t have the most positive perspective right now after losing a Game 7.”

No matter when the Raptors reconvene — and it’s likely not going to be until December given the pandemic times in which we still live — it will be a different team, a different vibe, different relationships, a different reality.

All three centres — Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Chris Boucher — are free agents and it’s highly unlikely all three will be back.

Mitchell, Rautins confident Siakam will bounce back after underwhelming playoffs – Video – TSN

Pascal Siakam never looked like himself since the NBA restart, and his underwhelming play carried into the playoffs where the Raptors really missed his offensive production. The Raptors on TSN panel expressed confidence in the 26-year old, and explained why the poor showing may be a catalyst for future success.

The reign ends for the Raptors, who now look to the future – Yahoo!

Five points as the Raptors head into the offseason:

NBA’S BEST

No matter who wins what in the rest of these playoffs, the Raptors – counting regular-season and playoff contests – will go into next season having won more games than anyone else in the NBA over the last two (134), three (197) and four (252) years combined. Yes, Leonard made them much better last season. But the level of consistency proves the Raptors are no one-year wonder, either.

VANVLEET PAYDAY

VanVleet came into the league four years ago making just over a half-million dollars (averaging 2.9 points per game), watched that salary climb to $9 million this season (averaging 17.6 points per game) and it’s going to keep climbing in 2020-21. Whenever free agency starts – it could be mid-to-late November, nobody knows for sure yet – he’s going to be a top priority for the Raptors. ”He’s going to be rewarded,” Lowry said. ”To me, that means the world that he can take care of his family and take care of his family at a high level.”

FREE AGENCY

The Raptors will be walking a bit of a tightrope this offseason, almost certainly unwilling to do anything that would hurt their spending ability for the next expected NBA free agent circus of big names in 2021. A possible scenario would be to keep Gasol and Ibaka on one-year deals – that won’t work for VanVleet, who at his age will want, and deserves, a multi-year contract – and run it back in 2020-21 with basically the same core.

NURSE’S JOB

Nurse was the runaway choice for coach of the year in the NBA’s media balloting. The Raptors were the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning record in games where they weren’t leading at halftime this regular season, going 16-15 in those matchups. Only the Los Angeles Lakers, at 13-11, were better.

LAST WORD

Before he left his final postgame media session of the season, Lowry was asked to reflect on his bubble memories. ”It was challenging,” Lowry said. ”It was well put-together. The NBA and the teams and the players did a hell of a job sacrificing. We used our platform for our voices to be heard on social injustices and getting guys to go out there to vote. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for everybody, every Black American out there that are being harmed by police and police brutality. So, I think the bubble was a success.”

Note: Hell of a year, people. We appreciate you. I appreciate you. Morning Coffee will keep going until there’s nothing. As always, keep sending me things that I may have missed: [email protected]

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