Opposing coaching staffs don’t have to dig too deeply into advanced analytics to figure out a game plan for the Toronto Raptors.
Not for the moment at least.
Short-handed and staffed by too many players that are too short on experience -- or perhaps talent -- the Raptors have become heavily reliant on Fred VanVleet in all phases of their game.
The sixth-year point guard is in a (virtual) tie for the team lead in scoring at 19.9 points a game; leads the team in assists with 6.3 and is their best three-point shooter, leading the Raptors both in accuracy (38.7 per cent) and volume (8.0 attempts per game) -- a big deal on a team that ranks in the bottom quarter of the league in percentage of points scored from beyond the arc.
On Tuesday night the visiting Memphis Grizzlies did what only makes sense against the Raptors -- at least until OG Anunoby (hip), Gary Trent Jr. (calf) and Khem Birch (knee) or some combination thereof are back in the lineup. They followed VanVleet around the floor whether he had the ball or not and dared anyone else on the Raptors to beat them without VanVleet orchestrating.
Not surprisingly, it worked.
VanVleet played 42 minutes but only got 13 shots up for 15 points. The rest of the Raptors shot just 38 per cent from the floor against the worst defensive team in the league.
To the extent that the Raptors inspire opposing teams to conjure up specific approaches, it could be something Toronto sees more of in the coming days or weeks.
“It's just a little different,” said VanVleet, who has been given the responsibility of taking away the top threat on other teams -- Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, most famously -- but is only now getting a sense of how the sneaker feels on the other foot. “It's gonna come with the territory. Obviously, I'm getting better as a player, but also given the makeup of this team with guys out they could show a little bit more attention.
“So, we've been seeing that. We just played (Memphis) last week, I had a great game [23 points on 9-of-13 shooting] so, we expected that we would see more attention. And we just tried to find other ways to manufacture points. It didn't really happen all that well for us, but I'll continue to learn and grow from it because it's going to be that way. Especially in this league where whoever we play is going to watch the film and see if they can take some of that.”
VanVleet might get some help Thursday night when the Raptors host the surging Milwaukee Bucks as Toronto tries to nip its losing streak at three games and avoid losing their fourth straight at Scotiabank Arena, where they are a concerning 2-8 for the year.
Trent Jr. practiced on Wednesday which bodes well for his return. But Anunoby and Birch did not practice and are likely to remain sidelined.
In their absence, it would be handy if someone else would step up and take advantage of the extra shots and extra minutes that are available. It’s worth noting that when Toronto used VanVleet to successfully limit Warrior star Curry to just 12 points and 1-of-6 from deep recently, the rest of the Warriors combined to shoot an astounding 21-of-39 from beyond the arc in an easy Warriors win.
The Raptors aren’t the Warriors, but they’re not going anywhere if teams can load up on VanVleet or Pascal Siakam without fear of consequence. The Raptors are last in bench scoring -- getting just 26.3 points a game, in part because they are the worst shooting bench in the league, converting on just 26.3 per cent of their attempts from deep.
“There’s gonna be opportunities, definitely opportunity across the board and just waiting for one of those guys to breakthrough,” said VanVleet. “I thought Yuta [Watanabe] played pretty well but we just need more, we just need more. We’re trying to play winning basketball and with that being said, I could try to fight the game and I could… go shoot 20 times in the second half tomorrow but I think our team is gonna be at its best when we’re playing team basketball.”
Watanabe is showing some signs of returning to form after missing the exhibition season and the first 18 games of the regular season with a calf strain. In his fourth game he hunted his shot more and knocked down three triples on eight attempts -- a career-high for the late bloomer who the Raptors have been pushing to be more aggressive offensively.
And rookie Scottie Barnes is beginning to set up behind the three-point line more often and has shown more confidence pulling the trigger on what have been wide-open looks, for the most part. He’s taken 15 threes (making seven) in his last two games after taking 13 triples (making two) in his first 15 games.
But after that?
The pickings have been slim.
Second-year guard Malachi Flynn should be in a position to benefit. He played 22 minutes against Memphis, just off his season-high, and played nearly 16 of those minutes alongside VanVleet, presumably because Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was looking for additional playmaking if the Grizzlies were going to force the ball out of VanVleet’s hands.
But it’s been a struggle for Flynn this season -- first to get into the rotation and lately to produce.
Flynn was 2-of-8 from the floor and 1-of-7 from deep while adding just one assist against two turnovers. He hit a big three with 1:42 left in the game that pulled the Raptors to within five points, but that was the extent of his positive contributions.
For the season Flynn is shooting just 34 per cent from the floor and 25 per cent from deep, albeit in just nine minutes a game sprinkled over 16 appearances.
It’s not easy to produce on demand in the NBA, but it’s part of the job description for those who want to carve out a place for themselves.
For Flynn the time is now.
“He’s fighting out there. He’s moving good. He’s creating shots. He’s got some quickness or some stop-starts to get free,” said Nurse. “But the bottom line is he’s got to shoot a lot higher percentage than he’s shooting. He gives us a lift when he can come in and bang one. He usually can do that right away. In a game right now for us when there’s a small margin for error, we’re just gonna have to make more of those shots. He’s a good shooter. He’s a good scorer. He can do it. He’s just got to get a little more comfortable out there, get a few more reps, get a little more swag and knock ‘em down.”
Someone is going to have to, especially if more teams adopt the ‘make anyone but VanVleet beat us’ approach.
And if you were game-planning the Raptors right now, why would you do anything different?