Film Study: New and Familiar Trends Emerge for Revamped Raptors

The Raptors, who have a realistic shot at the No. 2 seed in the East, are a more adaptable team this season and seem better equipped to finally win a playoff series.

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Jan 4 2016, 5:45pm

Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

(Editor's note: Catch The Rap Up weekly at VICE Sports, where Alex Wong covers off all things Raptors. You can check previous installments here, and follow him on Twitter.)

At 21-14 heading into Monday's matchup against the East-leading Cavaliers, the Raptors sit three games out of first place in their conference, and are just a half-game behind the Bulls for the second seed, a realistic goal for this team as we near the halfway mark of the season. Toronto has not lost more than three games in a row this season, an encouraging sign especially given the injuries the team has dealt with. The revamped roster and an emphasis on defence has paid off for the most part. Dwane Casey talked extensively during the offseason about the team losing its balance last year, relying on the offence to win games and having nothing to fall back on when shots stopped falling for them.

Per NBA.com, through 35 games the Raptors rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 11th on defence. Still, at times it's been two steps forward and one step back for this team, as we saw Sunday when Jimmy Butler scored 40 points in the second half, to power Chicago to victory at the Air Canada Centre. So, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and the Raptors have certainly not forgotten about last year's playoff sweep to the Wizards, when John Wall and Bradley Beal outplayed Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and when Randy Wittman deployed a small-ball lineup featuring Paul Pierce at the power forward spot that Toronto's defence had no answers for.

The two teams met at the Air Canada Centre for the first time since the four-game sweep last week (the Raptors beat the Wizards in Washington earlier in the season on a Cory Joseph buzzer beater), but it was a Wizards team without Beal, Nene, Drew Gooden and Gary Neal—all out with injury—and Pierce, who has since left to join the Clippers. So, it was a different and very shorthanded squad the Raptors were facing.

Still, the matchup gave us a snapshot of where the Raptors stand, and why there's hope they just might be able to avoid a third consecutive first-round exit in April.

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On the offensive end, the Raptors have spent most of the season emphasizing ball movement—making sure the ball doesn't stick. It is a bit of a conundrum to wait to change the way points are generated for a team that still very much revolves around Lowry and DeRozan's individual ability to create shots for themselves. Still, the Raptors are trying. Especially with the addition of DeMarre Carroll and Luis Scola's newfound 3-point range, Casey has plenty of options to use smaller lineups that can spread the floor with shooters (which runs into another problem, given that DeRozan isn't a strong 3-point shooter, but is a primary focus of the attack). On possessions when the ball is moving, it can look like this:

That's 11 passes on a single possession, which leads to a 3-point attempt, and subsequent free throws, for Carroll. The Raptors are making more passes this season, but they rank last in potential assists, which tracks passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would have been an assist.

In other words, extra passes aren't leading to additional scoring opportunities, or easier shots. More often than not, even if the ball is swinging from one end to another, defenders are rotating well enough on the perimeter—as is the case in the above possession—to close off any gaps for drive and kicks. Even when Lowry does find Carroll, it's a contested shot.

Other times, the passing simply brings the Raptors offence back to square one: isolation possessions for their perimeter players. For all the emphasis on ball movement, Toronto ranks fifth in isolation plays this season, per Synergy. When asked to assess the team's ball movement last week, Carroll called it "average, at best," which, based on the evidence, is a fair assessment at this point.

In late-game situations, the Raptors still lean on Lowry and DeRozan to create scoring opportunities. In a podcast with Lowry last week, ESPN's Zach Lowe pointed out how the Raptors point guard is always moving with the dribble instead of being stagnant with the ball. Here, in a late fourth-quarter possession, watch Lowry probe with his dribble, get into the lane, then draw contact from Otto Porter in order to get two free throw attempts:

Later, with under a minute left, the Raptors run some action for DeRozan up top but it's essentially an isolation play, and you see again, he draws a questionable foul (according to Wall) and gets to the line where he made all 15 of his attempts against the Wizards:

On the season, DeRozan is third in the league behind only James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins in free throw attempts per game. DeRozan has improved by leaps and bounds as a playmaker this season, but having the ball in his hands doesn't necessarily mean the possession ends with a low-percentage mid-range shot. The Raptors will likely live and die with these types of possessions, but there's more variety to them now, with DeRozan mixing in possessions where he is a creator. So, even if the ball is still sticking late in games, other options are opening up for the offence.

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Another part of the game that absolutely killed the Raptors in the playoffs last season was their transition defence, which was non-existence for most of the series. It's difficult for any team to contain a point guard like Wall, especially in the open floor. Here, you see how Wall draws four defenders towards him in transition, and before the defence can set itself, he finds Jared Dudley for a wide open 3-pointer:

Here's another example in the third quarter when Wall drives and kicks to Dudley, once again drawing a crowd:

The Raptors have to do a better job of communicating and picking up assignments in transition. Some of that is limited by their slow-footed big men, but part of that is just effort. Here you see Carroll sprint back to track Wall in transition after a missed shot, preventing another easy opportunity in transition:

If the Raptors want to go on a playoff run—or just get out of the first round—they will face guards like Jeff Teague, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, who can all create the same problems as Wall.

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I joked last week that Bismack Biyombo might be the best free-agent signing in franchise history (we went through some of the worst ones last year), but until Carroll returns to full strength, which might not be until next season, that declaration might have some merit. Biyombo is a limited offensive player, but what he brings in terms of rim protection and energy on the boards has been indispensable for this Raptors team looking for exactly that. Check out this sequence here in the second quarter:

That's a defensive rebound, a slam dunk off a pick-and-roll with Lowry, another board on the defensive end, an offensive rebound off a Lowry 3-point attempt, and a defensive foul. On the ensuing possession, Biyombo grabbed another offensive rebound and earned two free throws, then, with his presence in the paint, forced Ramon Sessions into shooting a floater instead of attacking the rim.

It's these types of sequences that makes Biyombo valuable to the second unit. The Raptors have struggled whenever Lowry and DeRozan have both been on the bench this season, but Casey did play an all-bench lineup to start the fourth quarter against the Wizards and it didn't completely fall apart. Biyombo's contributions, and the improved play of Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross, can help ease the minutes of Lowry and DeRozan.

The on/off court stats don't support the claim the Raptors are a better team with Biyombo on the floor, although there is also some noise in that data. It's likely we'll see an uptick in the net rating numbers with Biyombo on the floor as Patterson and Ross continue to improve. For now, Biyombo's contributions on the court passes the eye test. He helps create possessions on the offensive end, and closes them on the opposite end of the floor. His rebounding and defence could be key in preventing the type of huge runs that doomed the Raptors in the playoffs last season.

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Defensively, the Raptors have improved, but they still had some trouble navigating some of the pick-and-roll sets the Wizards were using. Here's a nice play that uses two screens to free up Porter for a 3-pointer (my favourite part of this is notice how Wittman is yelling at Kris Humphries to direct the play):

With under two minutes to play, Marcin Gortat slips his defender for an open lane to the rim off a pick-and-roll with Wall:

Several possessions later, with a chance to take the lead, Gortat is able to draw multiple defenders towards him off a similar pick-and-roll action with Wall, which frees up Dudley for another 3-pointer, which he misses:

The Wizards got plenty of great looks late in the game. Wall shot just 8-for-23 from the field, but was unstoppable most of the night in creating opportunities for his teammates and getting to the spots he wanted to on the floor, finishing with 19 points, 11 assists and five steals. A few more made baskets and the Wizards could have easily stolen this one on the road.

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After the 94-91 victory over the Wizards, Casey called his team grittier and grimier than last season, and the numbers support that. They beat the Wizards on Wednesday despite shooting below 40 percent from the field. Per NBA.com, the Raptors are now 3-5 this season in games where they've shot below that mark. Last season's team finished 2-6 in those games.

The Raptors have a realistic shot at the No. 2 seed in the East, and seem more equipped to win a playoff series this year. Some things have changed: this team appears less prone to completely falling apart defensively, and have the personnel to be a competent defence which compliments their still potent offence. Some things remain the same: the Raptors will still rely on Lowry and DeRozan to carry them. But they're no longer a run-and-gun team that ran themselves into the ground in last year's playoffs. They're a more adaptable team this season, depending on the opponent and the type of game that unfolds, and that bodes well for the playoffs. Finding a consistency on both ends of the floor between now and the postseason will be important.