HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — As bad as the Toronto Raptors’ defense was in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Washington Wizards, they’ve also got some things to figure out offensively as they prepare for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
The Raptors ranked third in offensive efficiency in the regular season. But through two playoff games, they rank 14th. Their offense was much better in Game 2 than it was in Game 1, but not good enough to keep up with their defensive issues.
The problems on defense aren’t getting fixed overnight. The Wizards will continue putting Jonas Valanciunas in situations where he has to move his feet, and he will continue to not move them quickly enough. The Raptors ranked 26th defensively after Thanksgiving, and they’re probably not going to flip the switch on that end of the floor.
So if Toronto is to give themselves a chance in this series by winning Game 3, they have to start looking like a top-five offense again. And to do that, they have to unlock their guards.
It’s no secret that the Raptors’ offense is guard-heavy. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams were not only their three leading scorers by a wide margin, but also their leaders in usage rate (the percentage of a team’s possessions a player uses while he’s on the floor), with another guard – Greivis Vasquez – ranking fourth.
The Wizards know this. The Toronto guards are the head of the snake, and that’s where Washington’s defense has been focused.
Here’s DeRozan being double-teamed in the post…
Here’s Lowry being denied the ball more than 30 feet from the basket…
And here’s Williams being trapped 10 feet beyond the 3-point line…
DeRozan and Lowry have each seen a drop in usage rate. Williams’ usage rate has gone up, but the Kia Sixth Man award winner has been forced to … force things. Only 10 (34 percent) of his 29 shots have been uncontested, a drop from 47 percent in the regular season.
The key to beating extra pressure on the perimeter is to pass the ball. But the Raptors aren’t exactly the Spurs in that regard. They averaged just 281 passes per game, a rate that ranked 24th in the league. And they were one of four teams that isolated on more than 10 percent of its possessions.
The Raptors were able to get DeRozan some more space by having him catch the ball on the move and operate one-on-one against Paul Pierce early in Game 2. He also went away from the screen (or just told his screener to back off) to avoid an extra defender.
Here are a few more suggestions for the Raptors to get their guards some more space to operate or take advantage of the perimeter pressure…
1. Catches at the nail
The Raptors can take a lesson from last year’s series against Brooklyn, when the Nets got the ball to Joe Johnson at the middle of the foul line to avoid double-teams in the post. If the ball is in the middle of the floor, it’s difficult to double-team, because the four other offensive players are all just one pass away. There’s a reason why a lot of defenses (the Spurs are a great example) do everything to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor.
A pin-down screen for DeRozan and a catch above the foul line will give him a one-on-one situation, a look similar to this…
The spacing above isn’t ideal, but if you replace Tyler Hansbrough with Patrick Patterson and put him on the left wing, DeRozan would have more room to operate and no Washington defender would be able to offer help without leaving a shooter open at the 3-point line or Jonas Valanciunas open on the baseline.
2. Three-guard lineups
The Raptors’ backcourt goes four deep, with Williams and Vasquez able to make plays off the bench. And they’ve played with three of the four on the floor together for about 60 of the 101 minutes thus far in the series.
Not surprisingly, the offense has been much better (104.3 points scored per 100 possessions) in those minutes than in the minutes with just two guards (83.0). Simple math tells you that if there are three playmakers on the floor, the defense can’t double-team all of them. And if a guy who’s being double-teamed can get rid of the ball quickly, he’ll have at least two teammates who can take advantage of a four-on-three situation.
3. James Johnson
When the opponent defends your pick-and-roll aggressively, it helps to have a screener who can get the ball from the ball-handler and quickly make a play before the defense recovers. See Diaw, Boris.
In Game 1, Amir Johnson was often that release valve for the Raptors and led the team with 18 points as a result. On several possessions in the second quarter of Game 2, the Raptors used James Johnson as the screener and had him attack the rim while the defense was still moving. Here’s an example.
The results would have been OK if Johnson didn’t shoot 0-for-4 from the free throw line. The bigger problem was that the Raptors’ defense was getting scorched at the same time. Johnson was a minus-14 in just seven minutes of action, with the Wizards scoring 26 points on the 15 possessions for which he was on the floor.
James Johnson isn’t nearly the passer that Diaw is, but he is better than Amir Johnson at attacking and scoring. It’s a question of whether or not he can be trusted on the other end of the floor.
4. Hope Lowry is healthy
None of the above matters much if Lowry isn’t close to 100 percent. He’s been dealing with a back issue and then suffered a shin contusion in the fourth quarter of Game 2. He seemingly is lacking both burst off the dribble and lift on his jumper.
The Raptors have a deep backcourt and one of the best benches in the league, but Lowry is still their engine.