VIDEO: Inside The NBA: Raptors-Cavaliers Game 5 Preview
HANG TIME, N.J. — The last time the Toronto Raptors’ offense had to worry about rim protection was early in the second quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals, right before the Miami Heat lost Hassan Whiteside to a knee injury.
After that, the Heat played the following players at “center”: Udonis Haslem (35 years old and ground-bound), Amar’e Stoudemire (one of the worst defensive big men of the last 10 years), Justise Winslow (a 6-foot-7 small forward), Luol Deng (another tweener forward) and Josh McRoberts (who blocked seven shots in the regular season).
The Raptors haven’t had to worry about rim protection in the conference finals, either. Their guards have taken the ball at Cleveland Cavaliers big men Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye with little respect for their ability to block shots.
On the Raptors’ first possession of the third quarter of Game 4 on Monday, DeMar DeRozan drove right at Thompson and shot a 10-foot floater right in Thompson’s face, almost as if he wasn’t there at all. Love has been similarly invisible defensively.
But the key to the Raptors’ attacks has been the cushion that the Cleveland bigs have provided. It’s easier to put Love and Thompson on their heels when you have a running start.
So late in Game 4, the Cavs started defending pick-and-rolls differently, bringing their bigs out and trapping the Toronto guards in order to: 1. take the ball out of their hands and 2. keep them from attacking the basket with a running start.
The Raptors aren’t the Spurs or Warriors in regard to their ability to take advantage of traps and the ensuing 4-on-3 situations. And the Cavs’ first hard trap was a resounding success…
They trapped Kyle Lowry…
… putting the ball in the hands of Bismack Biyombo, with a 4-on-3…
Biyombo hesitated before passing the ball to Patrick Patterson, who passed it back. Biyombo then tried to dribble his way to the basket, but the shot clock ran out before he got there.
Other Cleveland traps weren’t so successful. In fact, two of them (one and two) resulted in three-point plays from Lowry on the weak side of the floor, because the Cavs’ defense sprung leaks after the trap. And later, the Raptors started running guard/guard pick-and-rolls to get the one-on-one matchups they wanted.
Still, we can anticipate more trapping in Game 5 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), which, at times, will put the ball in the hands of Biyombo — who’s not exactly Boris Diaw or Draymond Green when it comes to pick-and-roll playmaking — far from the basket.
The Raptors can adjust by using Patterson or James Johnson – guys who can put the ball on the floor – as screeners. Interestingly, when asked Tuesday about Jonas Valanciunas‘ possible return, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that Valanciunas might be a key to how the Raptors handle the traps.
“He’s going to be valuable for us if they’re blitzing,” Casey said, “because he’s an excellent passer and can make plays from the top of the key.”
Though it seemed like Love forgot to pack his offense for the trip to Toronto after Game 2, the bigger difference between the Cavs’ two wins and the Raptors’ two wins has been on Toronto’s end of the floor, where the Raptors scored 118 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4 after scoring only 91 in Games 1 and 2.
Game 5 may depend on the Cavs’ ability to get the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan without springing a leak elsewhere. The guards’ willingness to move the ball quickly will be a key for the Raptors, who could use their three-guard lineup for more minutes. That will ensure that there’s always another ball-handler on the weak side to take advantage of the post-trap, defensive rotations.
As always, it’s about adjustments and execution.