Obviously, as was proven last season, being down 2-0 isn’t the end of the world, but Thursday’s game is, essentially, a must-win contest if Toronto wants to have any hope of getting back into the series, and the team has problems at the moment that they might not be able to correct in time.
Still, the Raptors have to at least try.
And with that in mind, here’s a look at the three biggest issues plaguing the Raptors right now, along with some possible solutions.
It’s not exactly a new talking point, but Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam has continued to struggle in the bubble and the poor ending to his Game 2 — when he was stripped by Marcus Smart and then stepped out of bounds on plays that could’ve brought the Raptors within one or even tied the game with less than 40 seconds remaining — only managed to further exacerbate the issues.
On one play you just have to tip your hat to the defensive acumen of Smart – even though Raptors head coach Nick Nurse believed Siakam was fouled – and on the out-of-bounds action it was just common carelessness that could have happened to anybody, really.
But here’s the thing: Siakam isn’t just anybody. Not anymore, at least.
The Raptors’ leading scorer during the regular season and all-around best player, Siakam is a star, and as such the level of expectation and scrutiny has to increase during the post-season.
It’s what comes with the territory of having reached that milestone.
Bottom line, a team’s top offensive option can’t just be shooting 39.4 per cent from the field as he’s done so far in the post-season, and certainly can’t only go 0-for-3 in the fourth quarter for two points when his team needs so much more, as was evident Tuesday night.
Though it may seem unfair to put this on a player who’s experiencing being relied upon so heavily and in such important games for the first time in his basketball-playing life, there’s an expectation that a team’s top scorer will be just as good, if not better, in the playoffs than the regular season, and at the moment Siakam is falling short.
So, then, what to do?
There are many aspects of Siakam’s game that have looked out of sync, but the most significant has definitely been his accuracy from inside.
During the regular season, Siakam shot a solid 64.2 per cent in the restricted area by utilizing his superior length, quickness and athleticism to put defenders into blenders and make smoothies out of them as he soared in for easy layups and dunks.
In the post-season, however, he’s seen his conversion rate in that space drop to 60.9 per cent, and a big part of that shift is owed to the fact that he doesn’t yet have a proper counter when his patented spin move — which opponents have thoroughly scouted by now — is adequately defended.
Take a look at the clip above from Game 2. In it, you can see Siakam attempting to attack Jayson Tatum by driving hard into the paint so he can set up a spin over his left shoulder. However, because Tatum stayed positionally sound and didn’t allow himself to lean, Siakam wasn’t given the opportunity to go to his pet move and was instead forced into a difficult contested layup attempt.
This play is a microcosm of Siakam’s struggles. He’s a player who has feasted on the inside because of how devastating his spin move has proven to be, but when opponents know it’s coming every time it obviously won’t be as effective.
As such, against the Celtics, Nurse and Co. have tried to give Siakam closer looks to the basket by running offence through him in the post a lot.
It’s not a bad idea as Siakam has converted 62.5 per cent of his post touches into field goals this post-season, but there are times when he’s forcing post-ups and gets himself into trouble as a result, like in the clip below:
Siakam isn’t yet used to recognizing double teams that are obviously heading his way in the post and so he appears to get a little bit of tunnel vision when trying to score the ball because it seems like he’s getting to the spot on the floor he’d like to.
In time, it’s very possible – likely even – that Siakam will add counters, and counters to counters, to his repertoire of post moves and will be able to see double teams heading his way before defences even know such an opportunity is possible.
But that time, unfortunately for the Raptors, isn’t now, and in the meantime they need to find another way to get him going — so why not return to the basics?
Remember, before Siakam was an All-Star-level player, he was a high-level role player who did the brunt of his work just by running the floor, filling the lane and, generally, not having the ball in his hands all that much.
There’s been a lot of Siakam at point guard during these playoffs and rightfully so, since having him as a ball-handler with a guard setting a screen has been among Toronto’s best, most effective actions all season long.
But against the Celtics and their ability to switch with impunity thanks to their plethora of plus-defenders, this action has proven to be less effective. So why not try something a little different and get the ball out of Siakam’s hands to turn him more into a cutting threat rather than a playmaking one?
The clip above isn’t a perfect example of this as Siakam receives the pass at the wing and waits for Fred VanVleet to clear out before attacking the hole, but the concept remains the same in the sense that Siakam knew as soon as he touched the ball he’d have an opportunity to drive because VanVleet was going to clear the paint. All he had to do was get the step on Jaylen Brown and he was home free.
There was no worrying about where a second defender may be coming from, no need to think about where his teammates might be relocating to and no additional reads to make on the play. Just get the ball and attack.
That’s when Siakam’s at his best, and that’s the Siakam who the Raptors need if they’re going dig their way out of this pit they now find themselves in.
Three-point shooting woes
Another area of major concern has been Toronto’s lacklustre three-point shooting.
In the two games against Boston, Toronto has only shot 26.3 per cent from deep after connecting on 43.3 per cent of their outside looks in Round 1 against the Brooklyn Nets.
Obviously, as a whole, the Raptors haven’t shot the ball very well, but most significant has been Fred VanVleet’s stroke.
Through the first two games of the series, VanVleet is only shooting 5-for-23 from three-point range, a surprising sight, considering he was the Raptors’ leading scorer in the first round and shot an immaculate 55.9 per cent from deep in Toronto’s four-game sweep.
Even more puzzling is VanVleet is only 3-for-11 on shots NBA.com defines as “open” and “wide open,” such as this this look he miss from the corner in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s contest.
Seeing VanVleet miss in general is really head-scratching and is even more so when you consider just how inaccurate he’s been on good looks.
Worse yet, there’s very little the Raptors can do about this other than to encourage VanVleet to just keep shooting and hope he gets himself out of this slump because the team absolutely needs him to at least take these shots to try to keep Boston’s defence honest.
Something the Raptors can look to do is maybe re-assess the kind of three-point shots they’re seeking out. Most notably, it might be a good idea for the Raptors to try to hunt corner threes more than they have so far.
Of the 80 three-pointers the Raptors have attempted against Boston, only 15 have come from the corner. Obviously, defending the corner three is a concern for every team in the league and it’s no different for Boston, but given the nature of the short-corner shot, trying to find more looks from that area may be a way to kick-start the Raptors’ three-point threat again.
Lack of bench production
After a regular season that saw them finish with the fourth-best plus-minus in the league and a playoff series capper that saw them score an NBA record 100 points, Toronto’s bench has been missing in action, averaging only 27.5 points per game with Serge Ibaka alone accounting for over 58 per cent of the Raptors’ reserve scoring.
That simply isn’t good enough.
The bench should be an advantage the Raptors have over the Celtics because of how interchangeable Toronto’s sixth (Ibaka) and seventh (Norman Powell) men are with the rest of the starting lineup, along with a versatile rotating cast of players who can fit seamlessly into nearly any situation in the No. 8 and 9 spots.
Ibaka’s been great so far in this series, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game on 50 per cent shooting both from the field and from three-point range.
The rest, however? There’s a lot to be desired.
Boston’s defence has seemingly completely flummoxed Powell as he’s only averaging seven points per game and shooting just 29.4 per cent from the field. Meanwhile, Nurse has been reticent to use the rest of his bench as Terence Davis II, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have combined to play 36 minutes total in this series.
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Again, there’s no easy solution to this that doesn’t largely revolve around Powell picking up his game again, but the Raptors could do some things to try to help Powell get uncorked.
A possibility may be to move Powell into the starting lineup as, during the regular season, in an equal amount of games played, Powell’s numbers were better across the board as a starter than they were when he came off the bench.
Granted, as a starter, a player’s more likely to get more opportunity, but Powell’s too important a scorer – he averaged 16 per game in the regular season – for Toronto to be held down like this, so why not just try it out?
Starting Powell would probably mean VanVleet would have to go back to the bench, but he thrived in that role last season so it shouldn’t be too big a deal for him.