One of the reasons I like to publish this column the morning after games is that I like to think my initial, knee-jerk reactions to any outcome are tempered by a night’s sleep. I can more accurately consider the good and the bad when it’s not the immediate aftermath.
In theory, anyway. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes I’m angry after the game, still angry when I go to sleep, and still angry when I wake up.
Like last night’s game.
A Quick Look at the Final Play
The initial play call was excellent; get Kawhi Leonard driving baseline, for that little pull-up fadeaway that’s usually money for him. And although Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played excellent D initially, Leonard did get Jefferson on his heels with a little bump… but it looked like Leonard lost his footing a little too, and the play got blown up. So, the Raptors reset and…
What the heck is this!?
The final shot that resulted — Leonard kicked to Lowry, Lowry found Fred VanVleet for a three from the wing — was decent enough, but with a full 24 seconds, the Raptors should have been able to get something better.
Where Was Jonas Valanciunas on That Play?
The initial play call mentioned above was designed for the Raptors to get a shot up quickly, which makes sense in that scenario: score, and you trust your defense to hold it; miss, and you have the opportunity for an offensive rebound, or you foul and give yourself another chance. When Leonard couldn’t get a shot up, the reset meant they were playing for the final shot.
But if that shot had gone up and missed… who on the floor was getting that rebound?
I know second-guessing coaches usually makes writers like me look like idiots, because what the f–k do I know? I’m not an NBA coach! But I can’t fathom the decision to run that final play without your best screen-setter and your best rebounder in the game.
It stung enough to see Jonas Valanciunas sit the entire fourth, after seeing him play extremely well through three quarters. But the opening minutes of OT showed why Nick Nurse was hesitant to play Valanciunas extended minutes late; Brooklyn made every effort to get JV into switches, forcing him to guard D’Angelo Russell. Russell took three of the Nets’ first five shots in OT, hitting all three. Now, I’d argue that what JV was doing on offense, and his ability to rebound, offset that over an extended period, but fine; you can see the difference it makes on the Nets’ final possession: with JV out of the game, the Nets couldn’t find a switch that worked (because there isn’t one against a Leonard-Kyle Lowry–Fred VanVleet-Pascal Siakam-Danny Green lineup) and Russell turned the ball over after 22.5 seconds of dribbling.
That still doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t play Valanciunas on the Raptors’ final offensive possession; his being out there on offense, when you’re down by one point with a full shot clock, can only be a positive.
This Kind of Effort is Inexcusable
You’ll often hear phrases like “they wanted it more” or “they just played harder” from a losing team after a game; if you want to see what that looks like, take a gander:
Here, Spencer Dinwiddie launches a long three; the rebound bounces pretty much straight up and three Raptors are in good position to rebound it; not one of them boxes out DeMarre Carroll, who runs in all the way from outside the arc; not one of the Raptors even bothers to jump to get the rebound; Carroll snags it without any resistance whatsover. Serge Ibaka, C.J. Miles and Fred VanVleet are literally just standing there, waiting for the ball to come to them; Carroll is going after it.
He just wanted it more.
Carroll proceeded to hit a three off the play. And you’re not going to believe this, but Dinwiddie’s three-pointer to start that sequence? Also came off an offensive rebound.
Conventional modern NBA wisdom tells us teams don’t crash the offensive glass, that it’s better to get back in transition. But if the Raptors’ defensive rebounding remains this poor, the scouting report on the Raptors may well be to chase offensive boards because the extra possessions will make up for anything lost in transition.
Modern Basketball Can Look Great, But Sometimes…
Speaking of conventional modern NBA wisdom, the Nets play a very “modern” style — lots of threes and shots at the rim, limit mid-range shots to only the highest-quality looks. But their three-point shooters just aren’t that great. Meanwhile, Toronto is in full-on bricklayer mode from downtown lately. And so we saw one damn ugly quarter of basketball to open the game last night.
The teams combined to shoot 26 3-pointers in that first quarter, but only shot 27%. They shot 16-for-51 from the field overall in the opening frame.
To be fair, the rest of the game wasn’t much prettier. The Raptors finished below 40% from the field on the night, and both teams shot 11-for-35 from downtown. That ugly first quarter certainly was a harbinger of what was to come.
Kawhi Leonard, Finding His Groove — and his Teammates
All right, I can’t get out of here without saying something positive, and the positive has to be — has to be — Kawhi Leonard. The rust is clearly being shaken off, he’s getting his shots up with ease, and he’s got way more explosiveness going to the rim than he had a month ago. I’ve just been watching this over and over again this morning, trying to cheer myself up:
What’s also great to see is that Leonard is getting more comfortable with his teammates. Check out these two nice drive-and-kick sequences with Siakam and VanVleet:
There are still chemistry improvements to come; Leonard and Lowry still have to work out their pick-and-roll action (a play that, when Lowry is healthy and playing well, I think can be extremely effective) for one thing. But Leonard rounding into form is awesome to see.
Single bad games are fine, you can forget about them and move on to the next one. But if the Raptors don’t fix their rebounding issues, and if Kyle Lowry doesn’t get healthy (whether physically or mentally) these next five games are going to go extremely poorly. Let’s hope last night’s game was a wake-up call.