The Toronto Raptors are figuring things out on the fly.
This is a star-driven league, and the absence of Kyle Lowry has caused the Raptors to search for a new identity on the offensive end. The initial search for a winning formula brought them to a very basic derivative.
Defend for your lives, and give the ball to DeMar DeRozan.
The Raptors have improved from 16th in defensive rating before the all-star break to third after, but the offensive rating has dropped from fourth in the league to 17th.
Without Lowry, the team have set demands of DeRozan so incredibly high that when he is unable to perform at superhuman levels against a playoff team, the Raptors are hard pressed to win. Prior to their last two wins over Detroit and Indiana, DeRozan averaged 30.7 points over Toronto’s six wins since the all-star break, and 20.4 points in five losses.
Having watched Toronto’s style of play for several games now, more opponents are forcing the ball out of DeRozan’s hands, and challenging his teammates to hit shots. When they’re able to hit shots, Toronto has been able to compete, even defeating the likes of Boston and Washington.
When the role players struggle to hit shots from the outset, they begin to fear that failure. They stop looking for their shot, miss opportunities to cut to the basket as they wait for someone else to make a play, and turn uncontested shots to contested ones because they aren’t ready to shoot.
Not being ready to perform one’s duties on the court brought out the ire of head coach Dwane Casey after a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I want to apologize to our fans, to everybody for the way we played tonight,” he said after the game. “That’s just the effort. The competitive spirit wasn’t there. That team came out and played like it was a championship game, we played like it was a middle of the season game. It’s not acceptable and that’s the bottom-line.”
The beauty of the NBA is that a rough night like that can be overturned quickly, and a challenge like the one Casey laid out for the players can be met as soon as the next night. The Raptors did just that by defeating the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday night, and did so without heavily leaning on DeRozan.
The shooting guard finished with 14 points in the 87-75 win, suggesting that the Raptors can win without a big night from their only active all-star. The Pistons are 26th (101.5ppg) in the league in scoring, so winning with just 87 points on the board probably isn’t something they can rely on going forward.
The Raptors have a much different feel on offence now with Cory Joseph playing big minutes and Delon Wright serving as the primary backup, and the two have combined for a much weaker outside threat than Lowry. They’ve both combined to shoot 30.6% from beyond the arc on a combined 3.8 attempts a game. On the season, Lowry is shooting 41.7% from three on 7.9 attempts.
One noticeable adjustment Joseph has made as the games have progressed is to push the pace on a much more consistent basis. The Raptors struggles on that end have made Casey demand that the Pickering native look for early offence at every opportunity, something that comes much more naturally to Delon Wright. Despite some impressive stretches, Wright has had his difficulties in the rotation, and even fell out of the rotation against the Pistons after six minutes where he missed four shots and added nothing else.
The duo of Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka is the dynamic that presented the most intrigue coming out of the all-star break, but only one half has lived up to expectations. Ibaka is averaging 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds and shooting 38.3% on 4.6 three-point attempts per game. Patterson’s production has taken a hit, playing almost eight minutes less per game, and has been one of those players that shoots with a conscience.
What I mean by that is that it becomes apparent with Patterson when he’s having a bad shooting night. He doesn’t look for his shot as much as he should, and DeMarre Carroll is often guilty of this as well. As the misses pile up for either of these two, there is a hesitation not only in anticipating their shot, but an uncertainty to their form as well. As the pros say, they start aiming their shot instead of just letting it fly.
With Lowry out and Terrence Ross no longer around, the Raptors need the few three-point threats they have to continue to shoot the ball even when they’re struggling. Heck, they might even need the ones that aren’t strong threats to fake it till they make it.
P.J. Tucker, one of the team’s weaker three-point threats provided a perfect lead for them to follow in the game against the Pistons. He was embarrassed by the team’s effort against the Thunder, and came out as one of the team’s main aggressors on both ends. He made two 3-pointers as well, and showed a willingness to shoot when he became the recipient of an open look. Despite Norman Powell, Carroll, and Joseph combining to shoot 1-for-12 from the outside, it was still a positive to see them ready to try and take advantage of their open looks.
An even bigger positive was that the mindset carried over to Sunday evening against the Indiana Pacers. Powell, Wright, and Tucker didn’t hesitate to take the threes that presented themselves. They shot a combined 2-of-12 from the outside, but it’s the threat of shooting three-pointers that makes defenders work. No team looks to concede open looks, and with more players looking willing to take the shot, it creates even better looks for the ones that can.
Ibaka, Carroll, and Patterson combined to shoot 8-for-11 from three, and this is a much more sustainable offence. 25 assists like they had last night where everyone plays with a sense of purpose and accountability shows that the Raptors can play in a more team-oriented manner.
After needing DeRozan to average 30.7 points per game to win post all-star break, winning with scores of 14 and 22 from him brings a greater degree of confidence. If the Raptors are finding an identity that eases the load on their stars, it will only make them that much more threatening once back at full strength.
- Stats per NBA.com/stats