TORONTO — Deep into the back nine of his career, when Dwyane Wade gets into the paint the risk of him climbing over a 7-footer and throwing down a ferocious dunk is low. Instead, in that scenario, it’s as if Wade is stretching a rubber band, seeing how much he can pull it before it snaps. And in this case, the rubber band is the opposing big man.
Once Wade puts his primary defender on his hip, it seems like he slows the game down to whatever pace he would like— and only he can speed it up again. Is the big man going to stay near the rim? Fine, he will take his silky mid-range jumper. Is the big man going to pressure him? Fine, he will use a hesitation dribble to free himself for a layup. Did the big man play the angles well enough to keep that from happening? Fine, Wade will throw a lob to teammate Hassan Whiteside, lurking behind the play.
“It’s just like baseball,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Great hitters it looks like it’s an underhand softball pitch coming in there. It’s the same with great basketball players. The old saying (is) ‘The older you get, the slower the game becomes.’ And it’s so true. Every great player I’ve ever been around and coached always said the game seems like it’s in slow motion. I think that’s the difference between a young player and an old player, too.”
This type of play from Wade — as well as Joe Johnson and Goran Dragic, to lesser extents — is a meaningful, if not massive, issue for the Raptors, particularly because of the lineup change they made before Game 1 against the Miami Heat. The Raptors experimented with smaller lineups in the opening round against the Pacers, but never right from the tip. In general, it was a response to a situation in the game. Now, the Raptors are starting Jonas Valanciunas up front, along with three wings and a point guard, Kyle Lowry.
Valanciunas has greatly improved as a rim defender this year, but his lateral quickness is still lacking. In the past, he’s had help-oriented interior defenders such as Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson to help neutralize that weakness. With the wing players needing to stay home on shooters, Valanciunas is put in a very tough position once one of the Heat penetrators inches past their primary defender. Whereas Bismack Biyombo has the speed to cut off a dribbler and recover back to his man, Valanciunas does not have that luxury. An extra half-step either way can be deadly.
In a somewhat counter-intuitive statistic, the Raptors’ small lineup has actually been stingier in the 68 minutes that Valanciunas has played with them this post-season than in Biyombo’s 51 minutes. No matter who is the pivot, though, it is an issue because it is so unfamiliar, and because Wade is so smart.
“The communication has to be great in those situation with the smaller group,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “JV has been defending the paint well. … We’ve just got to talk a bit more. But when Joe (Johnson) is backing (his man) down and getting five, six bounces, that can’t happen.”
“We can do a better job of having the help ready and available, bringing help from different situations, different areas, getting back in front of him once he does cross grain like that and try to get you on his hip,” Casey added. “Joe Johnson does the same thing, even Dragic does the same thing. We can do a better job of our bigs, maybe coming up (toward the ball-handler) a little bit more, bringing help when they’re on the side from a certain area that we wanna come from. There’s different things we can do that we can do a better job of.”
That gets into risky territory for the Raptors, of course. All in all, it sounded like the Raptors were not altogether displeased with their Game 1 defensive effort, and they should not have been. The Heat shot 45 percent from the field, but that was propped up by hitting eight of their 11 three-pointers. The Heat won the game from beyond the arc (the Raptors bricked 16 of their 21 three-pointers, continuing their struggles from deep) and on the glass, where their seven extra offensive rebounds resulted in a major advantage in second-chance points.
However, Wade did some damage by his trademark slithering, especially down the stretch when the Raptors needed a stop. He had 24 points, and scored four of Miami’s seven field goals (only seven, more credence to the Raptors’ decent defence) in the final 11 minutes of the game.
“We have handled it during the season pretty well,” Biyombo said. “We’ve just got to find a way. It’s not like they’re going to score all of the time. If they score consistently, it means we’re doing a bad job as players. At the same time, we’ve got to find a way to control and not give them that momentum. For us as players, you’ve got to find a way to help the guards. The guards have to find a way to help the bigs. I had this conversation with Kyle and Cory (Joseph): If they get in a situation like that, they’ve just got to run to my man and I’ll take their man so we don’t have to get into all of those situations. We have handled it pretty well.”
Biyombo is right: NBA defence comes down to choosing what you can live with. And the Raptors played well enough on that end to win on Tuesday. Still, the Raptors have to continue to be prepared. Wade is not going to stop seeing just how far he can stretch the Raptors’ interior defence. It is on Casey, Valanciunas and company to be flexible.