How do the Raptors want to play Game 6?

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The Toronto Raptors’ massive fourth-quarter comeback on Tuesday was achieved with a pair of lineups the Raptors had never used in a game before. They’d never even used them in a practice. It stands to reason, then, that looks like the particular two they had on the floor as they erased a 15-point deficit to steal Game 5 are not how they envisioned playing. But is it how they should be playing?
That’s a tough question to answer. The Raptors haven’t really played to their identity yet in the series, in the sense that they haven’t leaned on spectacular performances from their two All-Stars to carry the offense, or in the sense that they haven’t thrived exactly the way they normally play. What they’ve been doing has been “working,” since they’re up 3-2, but aside from the bulk of Games 2 and 3, this hasn’t really looked like the Raptors’ usual attack.
The Raptors like to choke opponent offenses by grinding things to a half on defense, neutralizing the running game and, while they’ll push the offense as opportunities present themselves, they’re entirely content to slow things down on offense, too. They played the second-slowest pace in the NBA, thanks in part to a top-six turnover rate that ensured few quick buckets for the opposition. Toronto was only a middle-of-the-pack team in defensive fast-break efficiency, partly because they struggle to pick up the 3-point line in transition, but when you don’t turn the ball over and grab offensive rebounds at an above-average rate, the opponent doesn’t have opportunities to push. The Raptors were also slightly above-average in terms of preventing runouts, buckets within the first seven seconds of the shot clock after a steal or defensive rebound, per Nylon Calculus.
The result of their style was the third-fewest points off of transition allowed and the fourth-fewest fastbreak points allowed, in raw numbers. The Raptors were actually a slightly below-average defense in the half court, per-possession, but because they forced teams into the halfcourt more than average and were a strong defensive rebounding team, they were able to rank 11th overall on that end, with the perceived upside of a top-10 outfit.
For the bulk of the series, the Raptors defense has been decent. They’re allowing essentially the same rate of scoring as they did in the regular season despite an otherworldly performance from Paul George, and the bigger issue on a per-possession basis has been on the offensive end. Which makes sense, since Indiana was the league’s third-best defense. But Indiana was a middling offense, and George`s dominance aside, the team’s defense could and probably should be better.
And again, the Raptors are achieving that fine-not-good result differently. The pace of the games has slowed down even more, which should favor the Raptors, but Toronto’s uncharacteristically turned the ball over on 15 percent of possessions. The Pacers’ offense lives off of such miscues, and they’re averaging 17 points off of turnovers and 13.2 fast-break points per-game in the series. That’s “good” relative to what Indiana normally does, but it’s a far cry from the stingier transition defense of the regular season Raptors. When controlling for pace, Indiana is essentially doing what they do in transition.
That’s something the Raptors need to figure out quickly. Head coach Dwane Casey continues to hammer the importance of protecting the ball, which is easier said than done. He’s also stressing getting back – “winning the race to halfcourt” – and that’s where how the Raptors succeeded in Game 5 again becomes interesting. The Raptors prefer to slow things down and grind it out, but they’re perfectly well-equipped for a track meet, so long as it’s run by their rules.
The closing unit included two guards, two wings, and an agile, switch-everything center, a lightning-quick group that completely choked out Indiana’s transition game. It helped that the Raptors didn’t commit a turnover, of course, but being quick back forced Indiana into their half-court sets, which, again, the Pacers have struggled in outside of George. Somewhat ironically, the pace of the pivotal fourth-quarter was glacial, with an estimated 20 possessions per-side, because the Raptors used all of that ball-handling to move the ball well – and protect it – and then used all of that speed and cross-matching ability to snuff out Indiana’s transition attack. When people think of a slow, grit-and-grind (TM) team, they generally, I think, think of bulkier teams that are less fleet of foot. For the Raptors, slowing things down is entirely about forcing the opponent to beat a set defense, and their athleticism and intensity are paramount to that.
Of course, the Raptors were also succeeding earlier in the series with a more plodding, Jonas Valanciunas-led attack that took advantage of Indiana’s preference to play a little smaller, with a small frontcourt by size and depth. Valanciunas has struggled over the last two games, somewhat inexplicably, and the Patrick Patterson-Biyombo frontcourt unexpectedly struggled to slow the Pacers down in support in Game 5. The team’s opening-night starting lineup couldn’t score at the snail’s pace, so they tried Patterson, which has worked all season and all series but didn’t Tuesday. Playing any sort of power forward wasn’t working, so they went ultra-small. Casey adjusted well early in the series. It took two games, but Casey eventually found the right mix again, as he did in Games 2 and 3, and he deserves credit for stretching well beyond his comfort zone.
Now, the Raptors have to “bottle” what they found in Game 5, in Casey’s words, which is easier said than done. They’ll look for a hotter start somehow, they’ll continue to try to exploit the tiny windows that George sits (if George sits), and they’ll be strict in making sure going small doesn’t mean getting into a fast-paced game, in possession terms. There’s some evidence, now, that they might be best off playing with a single big more often, as they’ve outscored Indiana by 11 points in 53 minutes with those looks (and been outscored by eight in the series’ other 185 minutes). They’ll probably start traditional and then once again search for whatever the right mix is on Friday, and Casey’s shown now that he’ll get creative if the usual rotation isn’t working.
The Raptors are still searching for a way to play to their most obvious, familiar identity. The fact that they’re winning while doing so kind of speaks to their true identity, though, as a team built on versatility, two-way play, and the ability to succeed in any style of game. That was the entire point of the offseason moves they made, and though they’d prefer to win by sheer force of talent and, you know, playing well, the moves Masai Ujiri made were aimed to help them win a playoff series just like this.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @BlakeMurphyODCHow do the Raptors want to play Game 6? originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.

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