TORONTO — Monday, after a dispiriting weekend in Washington that produced two losses in two games and, oh, merely called into question the very fabric and legitimacy of the wide-scale adjustments in style of play the Toronto Raptors have spent the last year honing, Dwane Casey sat before a black-clothed table at BioSteel Centre following a brief practice and reflected.
That he used the word “uncharacteristic” in reference to his team’s recent play six times in the 10-minute session probably tells you something about what he saw over the weekend. About how the Raptors have bafflingly gotten away from what’s made them successful. And why Casey’s confident matters can improve in short order.
“There are things that we can correct,” he said. “Some uncharacteristic things that we’ve been doing.”
That starts with turnovers. After the Raptors were the fourth-best team in basketball at limiting turnovers this season, it has to be a little startling for Casey to see his team holding the worst turnover rate of the playoffs thus far, at an almost absurd 16.7 per cent.
Toronto’s coaching staff identified it as an issue when their team turned the ball over 17 and 14 times in a pair of wins to start the series. And the Raptors have since responded by coughing the ball up 18 times in each of the subsequent two games, both losses.
Kyle Lowry (15 turnovers) and DeMar DeRozan (11) have been the worst offenders, which is to be expected, as they have the ball in their hands far more often than their teammates. Less forgivable is the amount of times Jonas Valanciunas (9), Serge Ibaka (8) and Jakob Poeltl (7) have turned the ball over, as they aren’t being asked to make plays off the dribble.
“We had 10 turnovers that were just bad passes,” Casey said, referring to Sunday’s loss. “Just uncharacteristic things that are unexplainable. Guys see it, they know it — it’s things we can control. Just making the obvious, right pass — right decisions with the ball. And then, once you catch it, be decisive.”
Of course, there’s only so much Casey and his staff can accomplish by showing their team video of its untimely errors every couple days. Unlike shooting or floor spacing, turnovers are not something that can be worked on through repetition on the practice court.
Toronto’s players are either going to have to start taking better care of the basketball, or they’re not. This one is on them — to make better decisions in the 48 minutes that matter.
“And, no disrespect to Washington — it’s not like they’re doing something, trapping or doing something that’s confusing us. We’re confusing ourselves,” Casey said. “As a coach, all we can do is show it to the guys and trust. We’ve got to trust the pass.”
That gets at another peculiarity in the Raptors’ play over the weekend — the way the offence seemed to suffer from facing less pressure. The Wizards made a clear adjustment to stop trapping and blitzing DeRozan and Lowry as much as they had been in the first two games of the series, and, almost counterintuitively, it dried up Toronto’s ball movement.
Toronto’s assists have steadily declined as the series has worn on, dropping from 26 in Game 1, to 24 in Game 2, 20 in Game 3, and only 19 in Game 4. And after averaging 294 passes per night through the first three games of the series, the Raptors threw only 260 passes Sunday.
“Ball movement is something we’ve got to get back to,” Casey said. “We’ve got to continue to move the ball, continue to go through our actions, and not give in to that. We have done that. We did that. They did the same thing in Game 2 — they didn’t blitz as much and played us a little bit softer. But we’ve gotten away from continuing to move the ball.”
If you watched the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, you saw the worst of Toronto’s ball movement in the series, as the Raptors often isolated DeRozan and asked him to create on his own.
But Toronto actually hasn’t been a particularly isolation-heavy group in these playoffs. Only 8.3 per cent of their possessions have been run in isolation through the first four games, which ranks 11th of the 16 playoff teams. For one reason or another, that’s just how the Raptors reacted in the most critical moments of Game 4.
“That’s why we changed what we do, that’s why we changed our offence — is to make sure the ball’s moving, clicking,” Casey said. “It’s one of those things, sometimes you fall back into that mindset. At some point in the shot clock you have to have that — but not as early in the shot clock as we’ve been doing it. And we explained that and we showed that today and we’re going to work on it again tomorrow.”
Another reason the Raptors changed their offence? To get more scoring from secondary sources. To shoot more threes, to share offensive responsibilities, to make it tougher for defences to contain them by taking one or two things away. But Sunday, when Raptors shooters got their opportunities, they hesitated to take them.
“Two for sure. Could be more,” said Delon Wright of open looks he had during Sunday’s game and regrets passing up. “I already knew that I should have took them. But I didn’t.”
It was inexplicable. Toronto shot only 18 three-pointers in Game 4 — the fewest it attempted in a regular season game was 21 — as players with green lights opted time and again to pull the ball down and push the team into late shot clock situations.
Nearly 15 per cent of Toronto’s attempts Sunday came with four seconds or less on the shot clock, and just under 20 per cent came with seven seconds or less. The sweet spot is generally between 15 and 7 seconds remaining if the Raptors are going to play at the pace they want to.
The fix to that? It’s pretty straightforward.
“Let ‘em fly. C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, they’ve got to let those shots fly,” Casey said. “I don’t care if you miss six or seven of them, if they’re in the shot spectrum, they’re your shots, you’ve got to shoot those shots.”
Really, the corrections for most of the Raptors woes over the last two games are similarly simple. Just do what you did all season. Casey will reinforce that over the next 48 hours. And Wednesday, the Raptors will try to just be themselves.