Article Written by Rodrigo Albizurez (@rodzyalbizurez)
The Raptors are 23-9, which is good enough to earn them the right of having the best record in the NBA. But, do I really have the audacity to ask if Kawhi really fits in with this current Raptors team? Someone has to ask the tough questions, and to be honest, it’s the right question Raptors’ faithful should be asking themselves. Raptors fans are already full of self-doubt, why not fuel the fire a little more and take on this hot topic? As a fellow who has been following this team avidly since ‘95-’96, I’ve earned the right to tell you that you’re insane in the membrane for thinking that the Raptors would be better off without Kawhi in the lineup. Now I would be considered crazy if I told you that they have the perfect formula boiling on the NBA Bunsen burner, and I’m here to point out the missing ingredients. These Ingredients are going to help develop the Raptors from a science fair winning offense into the NBA’s offensive version of the Nobel Prize.
Again, I’m going to reiterate that the Raptors are 23-9 with stellar offensive weapons in place already, but sometimes you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight. By “knife” I mean pure Iso-ball that relies on your superstar to carry you and also relies on refs to make tough calls when Leonard is taking it to the hoop. So far, Leonard has been able to carry us through ball games without the support of the refs’ whistle which isn’t ideal, but it says how tough-minded Leonard really is. Now, with that being said, he also hasn’t been efficient in late game situations. During these situations, he ends up coughing up the ball trying to take on 3 defenders or forces up tough contested shots which turn into easy transition buckets for the opposing team in crunch time. You won’t win a lot of ball games taking on 3 defenders, but in his defense, the other Raptors players haven’t been very efficient from deep, which is the ideal look in those close/late game situations when your superstar attracts double and triple teams. It’s no secret that the Raptors are struggling from the 3-point line, which is the reason they need to find a way to pound the ball inside consistently until they can fix their shooting woes.
The Raptors have honestly done a great job at exposing teams with their pick-n-roll, whether it’s Lowry or Leonard handling the rock. But they haven’t utilized it enough as of late. Lowry runs the pick-n-roll great with Ibaka either rolling to the hoop for an easy bucket or hitting him for an open 16 foot jump shot. This is why the Raptors were able to expose the Warriors last Wednesday night because the defending champs had no response for Serge and Jonas’ size and versatility in and outside of the paint. Now, whenever the Raptors run the pick-n-roll with Leonard, he exposes teams with his midrange early on in the game. But in late game situations, they are throwing double teams at him in which he puts up a tough shot or turns the ball over. Leonard needs to recognize the double team earlier and find Serge or Pascal on the roll to the hoop. If they defend that pick-n-roll properly, Nick Nurse needs to find a way to properly identify the open shooter with a well-designed play. If that fails, the open offensive player needs to be able to identify himself to Leonard with a quick cut to the hoop before the double comes. Eventually, this will become second nature to the Raptors once they start executing this offensive prowess and ease the pressure off Leonard in those clutch situations. You can also argue that the Raptors have done a great job in most of the losses through 3 quarters, and their bench has coughed up comfortable leads quicker than Usain Bolts 100M time. You won’t win a lot of games in this league if your bench isn’t going to exceed or match the opposing teams energy from their second unit.
The Raptors’ bench has been spotty all year and that might be the understatement of the year. Last year, they were able to take leads and run away with them, but we cannot live in the past and we can only focus on the present. Other than Jonas and VanVleet at times, the Raptors’ bench players have been really inconsistent. They end up taking tough contested lay-ups or late clock jump shots that result in zero movement during the 24 second possession. They need to do a better job of moving the ball and finding open guys in their spots. VanVleet needs to take the reins and run his sets consistently or push the pace during a transition possession. The Raptors have problems when they are stuck in their half-court offense. Nick Nurse has to simplify their offense for now and pound the ball inside with Serge or Monroe. By establishing the bigs inside, it’ll eventually open up looks for struggling shooters like Miles and OG. Also, Delon does a great job of getting into the paint, but his decision-making has been sub-par this season so far. He either takes a tough lay-up or ends up making an errand pass which probably resulted in him jumping before making the decision to pass or shoot. At the end of the day, if the Raptors’ second unit wants to establish themselves as the Bench Mob again, it’s going to have to start at the defensive end. As long as they can stop the opposing team’s run in those crucial moments, their offensive swagger will come back. There’s no easier bucket then a transition 3 or layup, and to execute those, they are going to have to punish teams on the glass. They have the athleticism and the talent to execute all of the above and it’s going to come down to whether or not they want it enough.
“It’s a make or miss league” as Dwane Casey once said, and that’s always going to be the tale of the tape. Now, if the Raptors want to make it easier on themselves to win ball games, they are going to want to simplify their offense by taking better looks, executing their late game offense, hitting open 3 point shots, and have their bench hold onto leads and runaway with them if possible. If they can execute those easier then said tasks, they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA during the regular season and in the playoffs as well.
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