Breaking it Down: Raptors-Cavaliers tactical preview

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After escaping another grueling seventh game, the Raptors once again find themselves preparing for a series where there is very little transferable information from the regular season. Some of that was under their control, in regards to starting Luis Scola for the entirety of the regular season and then finally opting for Patrick Patterson for the majority of the post season. On the other hand, a lot of that was out of their control. The three regular season encounters featured players such as Jared Cunningham and James Johnson filling in for meaningful starters, in Kyrie Irving and DeMarre Carroll, respectively.
The Raptors put themselves into scenarios which will not be replicated, and as a result, direct conclusions cannot always be drawn from the regular season to the playoffs. Specifically, the likes of Johnson and Scola being replaced with legitimate long-range threats in Carroll and Patterson removes the possibility for Cleveland to completely ignore perimeter players to clog the lane without suffering consequences.

There, DeRozan created a meaningful offensive advantage by gaining separation from his defensive assignment after using “Fan” action – an off-ball rescreen. He caught the ball on the move towards the paint and was abruptly stopped by LeBron James stunting into the lane to impede his progress. In the playoffs, that turnover gets turned into an easy spot up three pointer for Carroll, while the regular season Raptors lost the ball with Johnson taking up real-estate along the perimeter.
Additionally, when the Raptors show on side pick and rolls where the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love is a screener, those possessions will more likely end in the Raptors’ favour with Patterson defending instead of Scola.

The Valanciunas-Biyombo Conundrum
Beyond that, the Raptors are in a precarious situation which centers around Jonas Valanciunas. He’s expected to be out for the first two games, leaving Biyombo to replace him. There is no guarantee for his status and his presence on the court is equally as perplexing. Arguing that Biyombo is a better player than Valanciunas has become ridiculous and no one would dare to do that after Valanciunas’ stellar playoff run, but the fit of either big man is interesting against Cleveland. There are serious advantages to each player and it’s not as if Toronto is in a position right now to just choose one or the other, but it’s interesting to note that there are problems they automatically alleviated themselves from by not having Valanciunas at their disposal.
On one hand, the Raptors have proven they will struggle to score at times during the playoffs. With the resurgence of Lowry and marginal improvements from DeRozan, that problem is less evident but still remains. Without Valanciunas, that problem is most likely to be exacerbated as more defensive options and variety are available without him on the court. Both Indiana and Miami left aggressively trapping the Raptors’ star guards on the cutting-room floor and opted for more conservative defensive schemes, but if Cleveland wants to get greedy, doing just that with Biyombo as a screener could make the Raptors’ offense a nightmare. His hands are questionable when catching the ball five feet from the rim. Him catching at the free-throw line and being forced to make decisions with a 4-on-3 in front of him should terrify the Raptors.
With Valanciunas, it becomes much harder to be that aggressive as he is a respectable decision maker and a larger threat in a mismatch. The regular season Cavaliers can attest to that, as  late in games they had no answer to high pick and rolls with Lowry and Valanciunas while trotting out a small lineup defensively.

With James at the nominal power forward, Love was the only big man on the floor who wouldn’t be decimated by Valanciunas in the post, but because of his poor positioning and lateral quickness, he was picked apart in other ways. He was forced to conservatively drop back in pick and rolls, allowing Lowry to have clean space for decision making. He could drive, snake or drop a pocket pass – all of which lead to great shots. Putting two “on the ball” made the Cavaliers send extra help for Valanciunas as a roller, and it will be interesting to see if they continue to do that with Biyombo. He’s shown good ability to catch and finish near the rim during the playoffs, but the Cavaliers will test his awareness. Again, it would be unwise to leave their scheme unaltered, but if the Cavaliers go that route, Biyombo has a chance to fill Valanciunas’ role well enough where the drop off isn’t as dramatic as one may initially think.
Regardless of that, Love got picked apart late in games against Toronto’s high pick and roll.

The Raptors actually did a great job of attacking him off the ball as well. Love’s inability to show higher on the ball allows for crucial penetration, which Ross and Valanciunas took advantage of. With Biyombo on the floor, Love doesn’t have to worry as much about recovering after shading towards the ball. There are legitimate downsides to having Biyombo in offensively when comparing him to Valanciunas – I know, big surprise – but if the Raptors can find a way to win along the margins offensively, even with Biyombo, they might reap the rewards on the other end.
The reason Love was put into such a difficult position as a primary screen defender is because the Cavaliers went small with him and James as the “big men” while spacing the floor. The Cavaliers have continued to go to similar lineups throughout the playoffs and have decimated their opponents with a devastating spread attack offensively. The Raptors had legitimate  systematic issues defending this lineup, especially with Valanciunas on the floor.

The first clip has Love and James engage in a DHO (dribble handoff) that functionally serves as a pick and roll. Patterson, the on ball defender, denies James the use of the screen as well as the middle of the floor. While this occurs, Valanciunas, the screener’s defender, drops back towards the basket to corral James’ inevitable drive. This action is known as ICEing the pick and roll. The caveat to this strategy is that it doesn’t account for the screen setter to also be a tremendous three point shooter and passer. James makes the correct play and kicks it to Love along the perimeter, causing Valanciunas to close out wildly, eventually leading to a perimeter three after the rest of the defense collapsed.
The next clip has the same action occur, except Valanciunas acts in a slightly different manner. Instead of fully committing to dropping back towards the basket, Valanciunas is more prepared to close out on Love. He recovers towards the perimeter too early and allows James the baseline, while Patterson has yet to fully recover. James is an exceptional passer and the Cavaliers continue to execute in this situation with Irving cutting at the perfect moment against a vulnerable defense.
Those are real situations the Cavaliers would have picked at over and over again with Valanciunas on the floor. Even with Carroll matching up against James, the Raptors will continue to face decisions in the 4-5 spread pick and roll and Valanciunas just doesn’t fit. He made tremendous strides as a defender during his playoff performance, but that was relating to his rim protection and general awareness. He is still nowhere near good enough when the offense is spread out like this, and that’s okay, most bulky seven-footers struggle with that task. What is important to understand is that if the Cavaliers wanted, they could have run Valanciunas off the floor with plays such as those, mitigating Valanciunas’ offensive importance.

Inserting Biyombo into Valanciunas’ role is where things get interesting. The Cavaliers opted to stop using Love as a screener in James’ pick and rolls once he entered the game, instead placing him along the perimeter as a spot up shooter. It’s complete conjecture to guess why they would do that, but logic would lead one to assume it’s because the Cavaliers know Biyombo could actually recover successfully after dropping back and decided to pick on Terrence Ross. Heck, if it’s late in the shot clock, Biyombo could probably switch onto James and minimal harm would be done.
Off the ball, Biyombo was able to roam into the lane, show himself as a disrupter if a pass were made to the screener (known as bumping or tagging the roller) while still being able to close out under control towards the corner to stop Love’s three pointer.
With the playoffs allowing for more experimentation and precise decision making, the Cavaliers could still adjust to Biyombo if he were making such a significant impact. The Cavaliers could opt to put James on him as a better pick and roll defender than Love. At that point, it would be interesting to see how Biyombo’s offensive rebounding outweighs James’ defensive versatility. Most importantly, it gives the Raptors something to work with. If the Cavaliers opt against aggressively trapping Lowry on high pick and rolls, Biyombo might be a more sustainable big man for the Raptors in this series than Valanciunas could have been, as crazy as it may seem.
LeBron James’ Attention
The Raptors are going to slot Carroll against James on defense and the Cavaliers are going to try to force the Raptors’ hand in isolation situations.
The Raptors were forced to use smaller defenders, such as Terrence Ross, to defend James in the last regular season game. Even though Carroll is a larger and superior defensive talent, the Raptors have shown during their series against lesser offensive talents, such as Wade and Joe Johnson, that they will send help from the baseline and play a zone on the weakside.

James is just too skilled of a passer out of the post and when the Raptors send help from the baseline and zone up on the weakside, James is going to make the correct play. It’s unfortunately cut-and-dry, but the Raptors defend wing players that post up in a specific way, and James is such a superior player that it makes the opposition seem foolish for even trying.
Irving: Eater of Joseph’s Lunch
It doesn’t make logical sense that Joseph is unable to defend Irving, but in a majority of the film I watched, Irving had his way with Joseph. This isn’t to say Joseph was tactically ineffective, he did exactly what he should, but some players just catch a rhythm against certain defenders.

It remains to be seen who the Raptors will close the game with, but if Joseph draws Irving, it becomes difficult to envision a scenario where a defensive possession nullifies a spread 4-5 pick and roll and subsequently has Joseph stop Irving.
Closing Thoughts
Up until this point, I have stated (like many others) that the Raptors can win or lose around the margins and nothing will matter as long as Kyle Lowry is great. It’s not really a groundbreaking realization; he’s a tremendous player and the team goes as far as he does. That sentiment comes to a screeching halt against the Cavaliers. There is no longer any leeway for the Raptors to wiggle in, they cannot win in some areas, lose in a couple, and feature Lowry having an off-night and still squeak away with a victory.
Every aspect of this 56-win has to be at it’s peak form for the Raptors to even have a shot against the LeBron James-led behemoth that waits for them in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @OnionsBabyBreaking it Down: Raptors-Cavaliers tactical preview originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.

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