TORONTO — Sometimes, when you lose a player to injury, you’re left with fewer decisions to make. You just have to roll with what you’ve got.
But Jonas Valanciunas‘ absence in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, as well as Kyle Lowry‘s sixth foul with two minutes left in regulation, gave Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey a big decision to make down the stretch on Monday. And it was about offense vs. defense.
Initially, Casey went with defense, leaving DeMar DeRozan – who had played terribly through three quarters – on the bench. For one defensive possession, a critical stop with the Raptors up two, Casey had a lineup of Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo on the floor.
But after Biyombo grabbed the rebound and the Raptors called a timeout, Casey replaced the center with DeRozan.
“We were trying to create offense,” Casey said Tuesday. “That lineup had been successful for us the game before.”
A DeRozan screen did give Joseph some space for a pull-up jumper to put the Raptors up four. But the Heat smartly went without a timeout, keeping Biyombo on the bench, for the ensuing possession.
They scored, DeRozan kicked the ball into Goran Dragic‘s face, missed a pull-up jumper, and grabbed an offensive rebound tapped back by Patterson. The Raptors took another timeout, and with another offensive possession, they kept DeRozan on the floor.
But after Joseph missed on a drive, there was still plenty of time for the Heat. Once again, they smartly went without a timeout. Dwyane Wade attacked the basket, Biyombo wasn’t there to stop him, and he tied the game with a layup.
Credit Heat coach Erik Spoelstra for not calling timeout those two times and catching Casey with his rim protector off the floor on two crucial defensive possessions. But Casey doubled down in overtime, going with the smaller lineup for all but two seconds in the extra period, where all of the Heat’s first nine points came via drives to the basket or offensive rebounds. Biyombo’s presence was missed, and DeRozan didn’t make up for it on the other end of the floor.
“That was the decision we made,” Casey said. “It didn’t work out.”
Valanciunas’ absence for the remainder of the series means that the Raptors will have to play some minutes with Patterson or Lucas Nogueira at center. But Biyombo can play a few more minutes than he did on Monday, and he could definitely be on the floor down the stretch, when his value on defense is greater than a smaller player’s value on offense.
Casey believes that the first key to protecting the basket is containing the ball on the perimeter. But the Heat aren’t going to stop attacking. Their offense has been ugly for most of the series and they’ve bailed themselves out of some ugly possessions with tough jumpers at times. But they need paint attacks to survive. And those attacks have come more often and more successfully when the Raptors haven’t had a center on the floor.
With either Valanciunas or Biyombo in the game, 22 percent of the Heat’s shots have come in the restricted area, where they’ve shot 61 percent. With neither in the game, 44 percent of the Heat’s shots have come in the restricted area, where they’ve shot 74 percent. They’ve scored more points at the basket in 37 minutes with neither on the floor than they’ve scored in 69 minutes with Biyombo on the floor.
The Heat were playing small in overtime in Game 4, using Luol Deng at “center.” And you might ask who Biyombo could guard in that scenario. But Miami provided an easy answer: Justise Winslow, who has shot 2-for-21 from outside the restricted area over his last eight games. Biyombo wouldn’t need to chase Winslow away from the basket and, because the Heat don’t have dangerous perimeter shooting elsewhere on the floor, wouldn’t have to stress too much about an unguarded Winslow freeing a teammate up for a jumper with a screen.
The injuries to Valanciunas and Heat center Hassan Whiteside have turned this series into more of a chess match than it was before. DeRozan could certainly make things easier on Casey by making some shots and/or quicker decisions with the ball. But no matter what is happening on offense in Game 5 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT), rim protection should be priority No. 1 for Toronto.