Three years ago, the Raptors were just starting to see the fruits of their labor — they just couldn’t find a way to win close games. Three years later, things are … the same? Almost exactly this time in 2014, Toronto found themselves down by one point to the Chicago Bulls. The Raptors had the ball, with 11 seconds remaining in the game, coming out of a timeout. Toronto ran the play that has come to define the entire DeMar DeRozan–Kyle Lowry era of the team: an isolation set initiated just behind the 3-point line, with the four other Raptors clearing out to make room. But this was 2014 — positively pre-Galilean by today’s standards of floor spacing. For the Raptors back then, clearing out seemed to mean providing the isolationist (in this case, DeRozan) the most difficult path to success possible. As if to presage the eventual result, John Salmons, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Hansbrough, and Amir Johnson formed an L shape along the left corner and baseline, which essentially corralled the Bulls exactly where then-coach Tom Thibodeau wanted his players — right between DeRozan and the rest of his team.
As DeRozan plunged his way into the paint, the nine other players on the court contracted in kind; from the nosebleeds, it might’ve looked like an iris with a constricting pupil. The sudden crowding meant that DeRozan was forced to take a shot surrounded by four Bulls players. Jimmy Butler, who had hounded him from behind the 3-point line, blocked the shot. The Bulls would seal the game with free throws. It was the Raptors’ 18th crunch-time loss of the season — they’d played 22 such games. Here’s what the play looked like:
Things are different now. Not different enough for the preferred late-game play to not be an isolation, but still, things are a little different. For one, Raptors coach Dwane Casey has embraced the concepts of proper floor spacing and as a result, Lowry and DeRozan have turned in the best seasons of their careers over the past two years.
Instead of overloading one side of the court on last-second out-of-bounds plays, players are stationed on both wings, with a center underneath the basket and a roving player motioning along the baseline from the corner. Here’s what that looks like:
“We put ourselves in position to win, but we’ve got to learn to play with a lead,” Casey said after a dispiriting loss to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, a rock-bottom moment that forced the Raptors into a retail-therapy session on Tuesday. “That’s our biggest issue right now.”
He’s not wrong. It is a pretty big issue the team is facing. But learning to play with a lead is something you’d expect to come out of 2014 Casey’s mouth, when he helmed the Raptors’ first winning campaign in six seasons, not a team whose roster remains mostly intact from last year’s Eastern Conference finals run, and whose offensive rating remains one of the three best in the league even after their collapse this past month. Somehow, the Raptors, who earlier this season were on pace to become the most efficient offense in league history, have entered a strange fugue state, rejecting their progression as an Eastern elite and reverting to a former self. Or maybe this is what they’ve always been: a good, possibly great team built atop a shoddy foundation.
The complexity of the sideline, after-timeout play has evolved as eras have passed, but Toronto remains stuck in its paleolithic ways. Too many times, aimless plays end in isolation heaves, as though Casey and the team is bound to the idea that the fight-or-flight mechanisms that guide our survival instincts are enough to generate points under duress. The play call is obvious, and numbers bear out what the eyes have witnessed over the last three years: Since 2013–14, the Raptors’ assist rate in crunch time has remained one of the four worst in the league. The ball simply does not move, and it’s only gotten worse in this year’s downward spiral: Only the Russell Westbrook–dominated Thunder and the puppy-dog Suns have an assist percentage worse than the 32 the Raptors boast. In Toronto’s previous three seasons, the figure had never dipped below an already-low 37.2.
Lowry expressed his frustration after the Pistons loss, and the subtext was so dense you’d need a chainsaw to cut through it. “Keep [getting put in] the same situations over and over and not being successful, something gotta give, something gotta change,” Lowry said. “I have an idea, but I’ma keep my mouth shut, keep it professional.” It was in response to a more general question about their late-game execution against Detroit, but it’s been a long-running problem: Since 2013–14, the Raptors have played 129 games in which they found themselves behind by five or fewer points with no more than five minutes remaining, and they’ve won only 42 of them.
Lowry’s comments can be seen as an indictment of Casey’s lack of imagination under pressure, but here’s the secret to after-timeout wizardry: It isn’t the result of spontaneous engineering. It’s the product of practice, preparation, and trust-building, of identifying a play the team knows by heart and knowing your players have the muscle memory to pull it off under pressure. Brad Stevens has a dense ATO-play catalog, but he also drills his guys like a college team. Casey’s late-game management is indicative of a much broader issue with both imagination and preparation. An iso strips all of that away, leaving only trust, and the league is too good to operate on blind faith on a nightly basis.
An indictment of Casey’s late-game management is an indictment of Casey’s coaching as a whole.
But you have to hand it to the Raptors: They wear the obvious with pride, like an “I Voted” sticker. And the Serge Ibaka trade was as obvious as it gets. General manager Masai Ujiri has had a well-documented affinity for the big man, and reports coming out of draft night in June said that the only thing keeping him from joining forces with Ibaka sooner was Oklahoma City’s desire for more assets.
Ibaka also slides into an obvious area of need, and will likely make a triumphant return to being a complementary player on a winning team. Some of Toronto’s backslide can be attributed to injuries, most notably to Patrick Patterson, whose importance to the Raptors is palpable, yet inarticulable — like bay leaves in a stock. He is the perimeter threat at the 4 that allows DeRozan, Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas to operate in as much space as possible; he is the general on the backline barking defensive assignments; he is the reason Raptors five-man units comprising mostly reserves (in addition to DeRozan or Lowry) have routinely outperformed the team’s standard starting lineup over the past two seasons. If the Raptors had three Pat Pats, it’s hard to imagine they’d be in this mess. But for most of the season, they’ve had only one, and he’s already missed 17 games.
With Ibaka, the Raptors come about as close to cloning a human as it gets in the NBA. Ibaka is shooting a career-high 38.8 percent from 3 on a career-high number of attempts per game, and while he’s not quite as mobile as he was during his peak as the Thunder’s rim enforcer, he’s plenty mobile for any version of perimeter-oriented small ball Casey might consider. The team has experimented with DeMarre Carroll as a small-ball 4, but according to Basketball-Reference’s positional estimates, he spends only 27 percent of his time on the court at the power forward spot. That percentage could soon see an uptick with Ibaka in the fold, as could the possibility of an Ibaka-Patterson tandem up front, which would have both the size and 3-point marksmanship necessary to stay versatile on both ends of the floor. An arsenal that includes Ibaka, Patterson, and Carroll means the team has finally unlocked a five-out, perimeter-oriented attack suited for the modern world. In essence, the Raptors are now equipped to situationally play in the same style as their Eastern Conference tormentors from last year. But could the Raptors out-Cavs the Cavs?
We’ll find out in the second half of the season. Perhaps more important than the Ibaka acquisition is Kevin Love’s knee injury. The East is suddenly as wide open as it’s been in years, and Boston, Washington, and Toronto (reinvigorated by Ibaka joining the ranks, one would hope) will all be jockeying to take advantage of a compromised Cavs team that will need more out of LeBron than they’d originally thought they would. The Raptors’ next 10 games include a matchup against the Celtics, two games against the Wizards, and one against the Hawks, currently sitting second, third, and fifth in the East, respectively. More important than playoff positioning, however, is Casey finally getting a grip on what his team needs out of him, and what the players need out of each other. The Raptors now have the potential to be a matchup nightmare for most teams, but chemistry takes time and requires clear direction. We know exactly how a Dwane Casey–led team goes down, but from the depths of rock bottom comes an opportunity to rewire the doomed perception of the team: Somehow the Raptors are still a Finals contender.