In a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Toronto Raptors have spent the first two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers getting thoroughly waxed.
Over the last 12 months, the Raptors have lost five playoff games in Cleveland by a margin of 24.1 points, a streak that the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur summarized as “ritualized slaughter.”
Going down 2-0 in a playoff series to the defending champions in any sport is mostly always a recipe for disaster, which is why ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Raptors a 14 percent likelihood of getting swept and a 20 percent likelihood of advancing.
As the series moves to Toronto, here’s how the Raptors can get back into the series.
Emphasize transition defense
In the opening round of the playoffs, Cleveland scored 4.5 fast break points per contest, the lowest amount of any playoff team. The Cavaliers have seen a 300 percent increase in the second round, dropping 18 per contest on the Raptors.
This is clearly a point of emphasis for Tyronn Lue, as the Raptors ranked 17th during the regular season in points allowed per possession in transition (1.115) and sixth in the half court (0.922). Why slow your offense down when it can generate easier points in transition?
Cleveland’s spike in production isn’t the product of a high turnover rate for Toronto, either. Casey’s club has the second lowest turnover percentage (12.2) of any team in the conference semifinals. The Cavaliers are simply turning defensive rebounds into jet fuel, surging down court for easy buckets.
Worth noting is Toronto’s inability to score at the rate Cleveland can. With offensive limitations noted, Casey can start by biting into transition defense, where the Cavaliers are generating nearly 15 percent of their total points this series.
Pound Cleveland with pick-and-roll sets
The dreaded pick-and-roll has long been Cleveland’s Kryptonite, largely because Irving is akin to a dreidel defensively at the top of the key.
During the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked 26th in points allowed per possession to the ballhandler when the play is run (0.891). In the postseason, it’s only gotten worse, with opponents scoring 1.04 points per possession, the highest rate of any remaining playoff team.
What’s more, Toronto ballhandlers scored 2,013 points this season in pick-and-roll sets, 220 more than any other team.
It’s not just the ballhandler who finds the bottom of the bucket, either. Roll men in pick-and-roll sets are scoring 1.017 points per possession against Cleveland this postseason.
Cleveland is effectively blitzing Toronto’s pick-and-roll sets, but some of the Raptors’ offensive issues thus far can simply be chalked up to the team missing wide-open opportunities, as is the case in the sequence below. Ibaka sets a screen for Kyle Lowry, who swings him the ball right back for an easy jumper from the free-throw line. It clangs off the back iron. Although it doesn’t lead to a bucket, it illustrates the poor communication between Irving and Tristan Thompson, two players who have spent years together defensively. It’s an area for Toronto to attack.
Should Lowry be unable to play, Powell has been an effective ballhandler in pick-and-roll sets, scoring 15 points on 15 possessions this postseason. DeRozan is always a threat, too, having accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s regular season pick-and-roll points.
But some of it is a matter of scheming. The frequency with which Toronto ballhandlers are running pick-and-rolls has dropped nearly four percentage points from the regular season to the playoffs. Facing a team with clear defensive weaknesses that plays directly into your strengths, what does Casey stand to lose by repeatedly pounding Lue’s defense with high-screen-and-rolls?
Stick a hand in a shooter’s face and take chances defensively
During the regular season, Toronto forced Cleveland into 16.9 turnovers per 100 possessions, the team’s highest turnover rate against an Eastern Conference opponent. Fully aware of their inability to stop LeBron and Irving in isolation, the Raptors blitzed Cleveland’s half-court sets.
Theoretically, that should be an easier task since P.J. Tucker, a hawking defender, was added to the fold in late February.
However, the same team that racked up nine steals per contest against Cleveland during the regular season is generating 6.3 thus far. The Cavaliers’ turnover rate has dropped to 12.2, affording Lue more offensive possessions to work with. Powell is forcing a higher percentage of steals this postseason than Lowry, and it will be incumbent on him, should Lowry be unable to play, to generate some turnovers.
The Cavaliers are taking 34.4 percent of their total field goal attempts this series with 4-6 feet of space, or what NBA.com defines as “open” shots. In the last round, Milwaukee, Toronto’s opponent, only took 23.6 percent of its attempts with that degree of space.
In Game 2, Serge Ibaka was so disinterested in closing out on LeBron James along the perimeter, that he allowed James to casually spin the ball twice and bury a shot in his face. The sequence was a microcosm of Toronto’s defensive pressure this series.
There comes a point where Cleveland will simply shoot the lights out, regardless if Toronto’s clamping down defensively. In Game 2, for example, Cleveland shot 55.6 percent on contested field goals and only 53.8 percent on uncontested looks. But the Cavaliers tout a roster teeming with top-tier shooters, and the antidote cannot be to allow them to hoist shots without fear of it being altered.
This isn’t a new concept for the Raptors; the team ranked third during the regular season in the volume of shots forced with “tight” defensive coverage. But that pressure has gotten lax in this series, and the Cavaliers have had little difficulty finding open looks.
Some of this must come at the rim, too, where Cleveland is feasting. Ibaka led all players in the first round by defending 11.7 shots at the rim per contest, holding opponents to 38.6 percent on those attempts. In the second round, he’s defending just four shots at the rim.