Thirty-four games into the 2020-21 season, we have seen teams try to combat the Toronto Raptors small-ball lineups in different ways. Some teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers have tried to out-size the Toronto Raptors, while others like the Brooklyn Nets tried to match the Raptors by going small.
The Houston Rockets never really had a choice. With Christian Wood injured and Boogie Cousins waived just days before their matchup with the Raptors on Friday night, the Rockets started P.J. Tucker at center and tried to defeat the Raptors at their own game: small-ball. That is: their game this season. In fact, the Rockets were the ones who pushed small-ball to its limits in 2019-20, trading away Clint Capela for Robert Covington at the trade deadline in order to test the true limits of small ball. Ultimately, the experiment failed, as the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated them in the second-round of the playoffs by winning four straight games.
But just because it failed at the hands of LeBron James and Anthony Davis doesn’t mean that small-ball isn’t viable. The Raptors have followed the Rockets’ blueprint, going all-in on small-ball this season as they bring Aron Baynes off the bench in favour of a Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Norman Powell-Pascal Siakam-OG Anunoby starting group (although Boucher started this one, which I’ll get into). That starting lineup has worked to the tune of +11.3 points per 100 possessions, the net rating of a championship-level team.
(Will the Raptors also follow in Houston’s footsteps by trading their center (Aron Baynes) for another wing and really going all-in on small-ball? We’ll have to wait and see).
So, while the Rockets were the first team to go all-in on small-ball last season, the Raptors are the ones to follow the lead. Only the difference is that the Raptors have had 34 games to work on their small-ball this season, developing a switch-happy identity that helps on drives and rotates and closes out like clockwork that is night-and-day to how they looked at the start of the season. And despite not having six of their coaches or their No. 1 option Pascal Siakam against the Rockets, the Raptors’ experience playing that style was the difference-maker against a Rockets team who was playing it by necessity rather than choice.
The Rockets’ starting lineup of John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Jae’Sean Tate, Danuel House Jr. and P.J. Tucker have only played 35 possessions together this season entering Friday night, with a net rating of –21.6 per 100 possessions. While they have played other small groups in spurts this season, their best lineups all feature Wood. It was clear that they weren’t used to playing long stretches so small, and were out-rebounded (48-37) and out foul-shot (27-20) as a result. After all, it’s not as if the Raptors have better drivers than Wall and Oladipo, who theoretically should have been able to punish the Raptors by getting into the open paint and making things happen against a collapsing defence. Only when the Raptors defence collapsed it opened right back out to rotate and close out on shooters, forcing the Rockets into bad looks.
On the other side of the ball, the Raptors were diligent about attacking the open paint, moving the ball well to get paint touches and then either attack or kick out. They assisted on 29 of their 40 baskets, with VanVleet and Powell doing the bulk of the work, combing for 55 points.
But the real driver of success for the Raptors was — as it often is — Kyle Lowry. Lowry was masterful at manipulating the Rockets’ rotating defence and managing the game without dominating the ball. He rarely missed a rotation on defence, drew a charge, hit shots, got to the line, and used his ability to get to the paint to thread some beautifully passes to his teammates, including the dagger:
Lowry ended with 20 points on 6/9 shooting, 4/4 from the line, along with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. For every team, small-ball has to start somewhere. For the Raptors, it happens to start with the smallest guy on the court.
Check out our post-game show for more coverage: