Lambs to the Slaughter as Low-Key Tank Hits Top Gear

The low-key tank may be the greatest marketing trick in the world. If you win you're a genius. If you lose it was all planned.

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The Detroit Pistons did not look like the worst team in the East. That distinction belonged to the Toronto Raptors who were hit early as Detroit held onto a comfortable lead for the balance of the night. This would be far easier to swallow if it weren’t for the smug look under Dwane Casey’s mask of whose outline I juuuust see. It bugs me, that’s all, I won’t mention it again.

There aren’t new tales to tell here but only familiar events to describe. The Raptors front-office (not the players) continued their low-key tank, this time aided by the dreadful (and helpful) back-to-back. Plumlee and Stewart were an overwhelming presence in the paint, and the Raptors “bigs” – which includes Pascal Siakam at the 5 – cannot be expected to keep up. The physical and emotional toll of playing undersized for this long must have psychological effects that require more a shrink than a coach. It’s not only about the bigs being outmuscled by other bigs, it’s that once you’ve taken a beating in the paint, you weaken at defending dribble penetration. And Detroit’s guards, led by Bey, Grant and Diallo, attacked the soft belly of the wounded animal until it was beaten to a pulp.

But that’s old news. And there may be new contours to examine.

OG Anunoby is the sole bright spot because he’s the only one who is making significant strides in his development. Tangible and visible strides. His confidence in his handles has made his passing crisper, his timing more precise, and permeated a surety in his pull-up game, where we’re seeing contours of an end product rather than the elements of construction. This is evident in how opposing players react to him, where there is an element of respect given to OG. Maybe a hand after a hard fall, a nod after an And1 or just stone cold silence in the face of stone cold silence. This has been OG’s year of discovering what’s beyond the 3-and-D game and people are taking notice.

Anunoby was the only Raptor to give Detroit trouble because he was the only one able to physically cope with the Pistons. Some plays to give you an idea:

In sharp contrast is Pascal Siakam who is unable to adjust his game to anything except exactly what the defense is expecting. He’s too light to play the center and is asked to do so while probably not even in basketball shape. After getting tossed around and picking up cheap fouls, expecting him to somehow turn it around on offense is wishful thinking. He’s so done after the defensive possession that even if he had his offensive shit sorted (which he doesn’t), it would have been a tall order to climb.

His drive is predictable with defenders backing up as soon as he puts the shoulder down. His preferred outlet is being covered so he has to lob it out instead of zipping it, which takes away its effectiveness. The frustration of watching him clang mid-range jumpers is not reduced by him getting in the right position to take it. It is amplified because of how he’s unable to improve his finishing despite getting the amount of touches he does. Perhaps it’s because of the lack of practice time, or perhaps limited one-on-one coaching, or perhaps Covid, or perhaps it’s all part of the low-key tank (insert GIF of Mr. Burns’ replaced with Masai going ‘Eeeeexcellent’).

There’s a thing called Godwin’s Law which states “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler becomes more likely.” It works because we’ve all seen an instance of it so it rings true. Here’s something else that rings true: “as an analysis of this Raptors season grows deeper, the probability of the root cause being identified as the center position becomes more likely.” So it is in this context that I will not mention Aron Baynes and our defensive and rebounding problems except to give you an idea of our transition defense:

You can pick on the communication, the team positioning, the individual effort and just about whatever you want. Extrapolate the aspects of this play over 48 minutes and set it against a young Pistons team smelling blood and wanting to snap their own losing streak, and you get a nightmarish evening of basketball. And throwing out a familiar zone isn’t going to throw off the Pistons, it’ll take them 10 seconds longer to adjust on 2 possessions before normal service resumes. So I will not mention the defense and rebounding anymore, and instead dedicate the next paragraph or two to what’s going on in Fred VanVleet’s mind.

Looking around VanVleet has to be thinking where the leadership will come from. You can lead by example but Siakam is abdicating that, Lowry’s here only because of Masai Ujiri’s miscalculation and the rest are either too young or flat out scrubs. So what VanVleet tries to do in the first quarter is carry the team, nay, will the team forward on a back-to-back. The result is a short burst of mostly individual offense which the Pistons snuff out quite easily. Fred is a good playmaker but he can’t be the best offensive player on the court to be that playmaker. He needs someone to interplay with and when you put the onus of scoring and playmaking on him, you’ll see those ill-advised bombs that spark the opposition’s breaks.

Fred probably didn’t think he was going to carry the team, but maybe thought he’d kick things off and inject some energy which others could feed off. The problem is that there is no energy on the court, it’s just a tired bunch of guys who have been playing banged and bruised by being undersized for four months. In this situation, Fred VanVleet can’t save them. Kyle Lowry can’t save them. I’m not even sure Kawhi Leonard could save them. We are a physically spent bunch, both through roster construction and illness.

Quick Reaction: Raptors 104, Pistons 118

The low-key tank may be the greatest marketing trick in the world. If you win, you’re a genius. If you lose, it was all planned. Since we won’t tell you if we’re trying to win or lose, we win. But beneath all the facades it is only time that conceals the product. This summer there will be no more room for ambiguity where silly questions float like a dull cloud – is it a bridge year? Are we trying to contend? Are we trying to tank? Did we have all our eggs in the Giannis basket? What is our plan? What happens in the summer will be telling because there is no room for half-measures. The Raptors have decisions in Kyle Lowry, Gary Trent, the center position, the draft, that will make their strategy for the medium-term quite clear.

The Raptors will try to either parlay their player assets (perhaps using sign-and-trades) and draft picks into a player who they hope will develop to the same level of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, or they may look to upgrade the peripheral pieces proven to be faulty. The reason I believe in the low-key tank is because to execute either strategy, the Raptors need a high pick in this year’s draft. They just do not have enough valuable assets (save OG, Siakam, Fred) to manoeuvre significantly in the market this summer. Certainly not after being unable to move Lowry and instead now relying on a sign-and-trade to not lose him for nothing.

Oh yes, the game. This is a recap after all. They say statistics don’t tell all the story. Well, sometimes they do and here are some stats. I’ll put the stats down and you can figure out which team is which.

– 51% FG vs 41% FG
– 50% 3FG vs 31% 3FG
– 44 REB vs 38 REB

Yup, you got it. The most surprising stat for me might be the lack of fast break points for the Raptors. They only had 2 which matched Detroit and this is despite forcing 20 turnovers (to their own 13). This is largely because the Raptors are exhausted and because they’re exhausted (or maybe because out of habit), they settle for threes in transition. Threes which they’re not making. Not being able to get transition points is pouring fuel on the fire of the half court struggles and making everyone look worse than they are. Fix the transition offense and we might have a chance. Without that we’re dead.

Malachi Flynn got some playing and the best he can do is weave his way into mid-range jumpers. He’s not able to breakdown defenses, especially not Detroit’s ultra-physical backcourt. The end product becomes aimless dribbling that lacks a spear in the attack. He needs to both show the ability to get to the rim and the willingness to take contact. Right now he’s not taking enough hits and not putting enough pressure on the defense. Let me put it this way: the amount of pressure Stanley Johnson and Malachi Flynn put on the defense is comparable.

Final word goes to new boy Gary Trent Jr., who resembled Norman Powell minus the shooting, the strength and the drive. Whereas Flynn has an excuse of being new to the league, Trent at the same age of 22, is in his third year. Both have similar problems – they can’t take contact and continue the play. Trent had a half-decent game with 15 points on 6-15 shooting, but there’s no point where he was a problem for the Pistons. They never had to worry about him because everyone’s offense was more out of individual play than team play, and individual offense is just easier to stop.

The Raptors offense reduces itself to one-on-one play at the first sight of adversity. The plays they have – the dribble hand-offs, the hammer screens for corner threes, the screen ‘n rolls – are quickly experimented with and discarded, and everyone seems comfortable playing their own game. This is where Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam’s offensive leadership is most lacking. So you’ll see “good” stat lines in the box score which don’t reflect the pressure put on the defense, and that’s what Gary Trent’s game was like. This isn’t intended to be a knock on Trent, I honestly do not know what his career arc might resemble.

As I mentioned earlier and is worth concluding on, Anunoby was the only Raptor who the Pistons had to think about. The rest of the Raptors simply got in line.

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