TORONTO — For a minute there, it was like seeing a unicorn. The Toronto Raptors were slinging the ball around the perimeter, playing the kind of offence that the NBA has long been moving toward: pass, pass, pass, score.
This was Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors had 28 assists, against a regular-season average of 18.5 per game, the lowest in the NBA. Toronto’s assist ratio — the percentage of a team’s possessions that end with an assist — in that game was 21.8, which is a Golden State kind of number. In the regular season, the Raptors had an assist ratio of 14.6, the second-lowest in the NBA.
So, was this a sign that the ball movement the coaching staff had long preached had finally clicked? Were the Raptors, a team that has zigged while the NBA has zagged, built around a isolation-driven offence when everyone else was going in the other direction, suddenly a — gasp! — sweet passing team?
Let’s ask Kyle Lowry.
“We made a lot of shots,” said the point guard. “I mean, honestly, you make shots, your assist rate goes up.”
“You miss shots, your assist rate goes down,” Lowry added.
OK, then. So the team leader is not buying a wholesale revolution in the way Toronto plays offence.
But, heading into a second-round series against the runaway freight train that is LeBron James in the playoffs, the question remains: can the Raptors be something that they have not really been before? More to the point, with the Cleveland Cavaliers deploying a scorching-hot offence that will be tough to cool, might the Raptors be able to match them with the dynamic offensive play that materialized, however briefly, in that Game 5 win over the Bucks?
It’s at least possible. For one thing, the Cavaliers’ defence can be had. Cleveland was 22nd out of the NBA’s 30 teams in defensive rating in 2017, after being 10th in that metric before last year’s championship run. In this year’s playoffs, they were 13th out of 16 teams in defensive rating in the first round, despite sweeping the Indiana Pacers.
The Cavaliers also have the potential to play the kind of aggressive, trapping defence that Milwaukee employed against the Raptors, which itself was a big reason that Toronto turned suddenly pass-happy. If the Cavs start trying to double team DeMar DeRozan every time he gets the ball, and DeRozan responds by passing out of it, the Raptors could end up looking un-Raptor-like again.
“Ball movement is going to be huge,” coach Dwane Casey said on Sunday afternoon at the Raptors’ practice facility, before the team flew to Cleveland. “We’ve got to have ball movement against this team.”
They didn’t last year. In their six-game loss to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors had an assist ratio of 14.0, right around their isolationist average. It was hardly the only reason Cleveland pushed them around — the Cavaliers shot 49.7% from the field for the entire series — but while LeBron and company were filling the basket, the Raptors were unable to respond in kind.
It’s worth noting here that as much as the Toronto offence flies against current NBA trends, it has also been quite effective. They don’t pass and run like the wonder-offences of Golden State and Houston, but Toronto’s offensive rating of 109.8 was good enough for sixth in the league. They run a pile of isolation plays and old-school pick-and-rolls, and they are very good at it.
It’s also true that they aren’t quite as out-of-step with NBA trends as is sometimes suggested. The Raptors get beat up a lot for playing too much hero ball while teams like San Antonio and Atlanta run more collective and pass-frequent offences, but there are still star players who score a lot of unassisted baskets. DeRozan is one of them. Today’s NBA coaches are not terribly interested in watching mediocre players who are ball stoppers, but they don’t mind when the best players in the league are doing it.
The Raptors, though, have already tried playing that way against the Cavs; it didn’t work out so well. They know they are in for a tough series. Asked for this thoughts on Cleveland, this year versus last, Lowry gave a typical Lowry answer: “I think they’re the defending champs,” he said. Patrick Patterson, asked about the Cavs’ defensive vulnerabilities, said, “they’re still a phenomenal team.”
This is a pretty fair assessment. The Cavs still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and on and on. Even role players like Channing Frye killed the Raptors last year.
That could be the trick for the Raptors this time around, then: Don’t play like the Raptors. Pass, pass, pass, shoot. Time for another unicorn sighting.