Don't count your baskets before they're shot.
In the Torontoist guide to the 2015 Raptors playoffs, we outline what you need to know, and some things you don’t.
Wooooo! Playoffs, baby! Wooooooo!
Yes. The Toronto Raptors have, for the second year in a row, made the NBA playoffs.
You seem awfully sedate. WE’RE IN THE PLAYOFFS! MOST WINNING RAPTORS TEAM EVER! DIVISION CHAMPIONS! WE HAVE A SHOT AT THE TITLE!
Well, no. We don’t. Not realistically, anyway. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have fun anyway.
It’s true that this Raptors team has won more games (49) than any Raptors team in history. (We’re still the only franchise in the NBA that has never had a 50-win season, mind you.) This represents a minor improvement over last season’s 48 wins. And yes, we did win the Atlantic Division, although it might be the worst division in the NBA.
But what a lot of Toronto fans who, ahem, may not have followed basketball so closely in past years (and given how bad the Raptors were for so long, we understand why that might be the case) may not understand is that playoff basketball is entirely a different thing than the regular season. That’s a cliché in most sports but in basketball, and especially in the NBA, it’s true. Playoff basketball is just played differently than regular-season basketball.
The biggest reason for this is that in the playoffs, star players play for more of the game. Basketball is already, more than any other game, a star-driven sport; LeBron James or Steph Curry (or, to use a Toronto example, Kyle Lowry) is generally on the court for about 60–66 per cent of total play time when they’re healthy, and one of only five players active for their team. No other sport comes close to this—not even hockey (where a star player, goalies aside, can often play for only a third of the game). In playoff basketball this grows even more pronounced: star players will often play for more than 80 per cent of the game, and even playing all 48 minutes is something that happens now and then.
A large part of the Raptors’ winning ways this season has come from depth. Their second line of players (Greivis Vasquez, James Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Patrick Patterson, and possible Sixth Man of The Year–winner Lou Wlliams) are all above-average bench players; most of them could likely be a fifth-most-important starting player on a different team. Our bench is much better than most other team’s benches, and that’s great—until the role of the bench is reduced during the playoffs. Our second line has contributed greatly because it was, to a large extent, beating up other teams’ second lines. When bench players play less and stars play more, however—that’s a problem for teams that rely on depth to win in the regular season.
But we have a great offence. Doesn’t that count for something?
It’s certainly true that the Raptors ended the season with the second-best offence in the NBA. (Some have complained that the Raptors do not run the pass-heavy offence that top teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs run, which is gorgeous to watch—the Raptors prefer a more “iso”-heavy offence, which is a nice way of saying they like to encourage players to score on more one-on-one battles against the player guarding them on the other team. It’s an old-school approach to basketball offence, and perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing—but it’s worked well.) However, they also ended the season with the 23rd-best defence in the NBA. Scoring is great, but you also want the other guys to not score.
I thought we had a defensive-minded coach.
Well, Dwane Casey has certainly said many times this season that the Raptors need to play better defence. Unfortunately, simply saying it has not made it happen. Part of this is because the Raptors run a relatively unorthodox defensive scheme.
A quick primer about basketball offence: The modern NBA is largely based around the pick-and-roll offence, where a ball-handler runs behind a larger player (who is “setting a screen”) in order to set up an offensive play such as a drive to the hoop, a more open three-point shot, or a clever pass. Many teams in the league “ice”—which is to say, they defend by trying to force opposing ball-handlers against the baseline to interfere with the pick-and-roll offence. (Here is a good video of the Memphis Grizzlies doing it.) Ice defence isn’t flawless and there are ways around it, but it’s popular around the league because it’s a solid, low-risk defensive strategy.
The Raptors don’t ice. The Raptors, instead, try to match the opposing teams’ rotations—in essence, each player guards one other player completely (and switch up their guarding roles as needed), and the Raptors bank on being able to match or even out-rotate the other team and completely shut them down. It’s sort of the opposite of ice defence in that it is a high-risk, high-reward strategy—and one Dwane Casey used to great effect when he was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, when they won the NBA championship.
The problem that has become evident over the season is that the Raptors can’t really execute this defensive system consistently enough to have a good defence. (In particular, starting centre Jonas Valanciunas isn’t mobile enough to adequately defend smaller, faster players; a lot of fans and sports writers believe he would likely benefit much more from a conservative defensive system.) The result of that is defensive plays that don’t quite work, leaving the Raps to try and scramble to prevent, well, this sort of thing:
So you can see this is a problem.
What about our star players?
Nobody’s saying we don’t have talent. Kyle Lowry, when healthy (and he may not be quite at 100 per cent for the playoffs, as he has been dealing with ongoing back problems) is one of the most dangerous guards in the league. DeMar DeRozan has turned into a gifted playmaker and is masterful at drawing fouls from opponents. Jonas Valanciunas might not entirely work in the Raptors’ current defensive system, but he’s rapidly developing into an offensive powerhouse and a strong rebounder. And, like we said, Lou Williams has a really good shot to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award (an award for bench players) because he provides so much scoring punch.
But the Raptors don’t have a lot of rebounding from players other than Jonas. (Amir Johnson had an injury-wracked season, which means his rebounding has taken a serious hit.) Third-year player Terrence Ross hasn’t yet become what the Raptors need him to be; he’s a good three-point shooter but he’s struggled this season in other aspects of the game. And, most importantly, Kyle, DeMar, and Jonas all excel when they have the ball and can take personal control of the game for a few seconds—which makes sharing the rock, even for three players who clearly are not selfish, a tricky proposition.
Jeez, this got dark in a hurry. Do we have any hope at all?
Our first-round opponents are the Washington Wizards. The Wizards play solid defence and their offence has become very bad (most observers blame uninspired coaching); our excellent offence and inconsistent defence should match up well enough against them. We beat the Wizards all three times that we met them in this season. And the team is motivated to beat them because Paul Pierce, who killed Toronto’s hopes of winning out of the first round last year when he was playing for the Brooklyn Nets, is now a Washington Wizard. They’re probably one of the better match-ups we could have hoped for in the first round.
It’s the question of the second round that’s more interesting. Not to count chickens before they are hatched, of course, but the Raptors dropping to the fourth seed in the playoffs means that, should they beat Washington, they will most likely go up against the Atlanta Hawks, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference—and a team we went 3–1 against in the regular season. For some reason we seem to be Atlanta’s personal kryptonite, and as a result there is a not-unreasonable chance we could make the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Of course, at that point we’ll almost certainly be playing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will likely murder us without even trying hard because James is still the best basketball player on the planet, and that counts for a lot. And of course there’s no guarantee we even get there. But it is plausible that we might, because although we aren’t a championship team yet, we’re definitely an improving one.
And that’s really the point. This Raptors team isn’t done growing into itself yet; this is not the final version of a championship team. It’s still a very young team and our players have time to grow into their roles. The point of these playoffs is to get playoff experience; the wins are, in essence, found money. So sit back and enjoy the ride, because now we’re playing on the house’s dime, and everything good that happens from here on out is a bonus.