Both the Wizards and the Raptors suffer from a similar defensive problem: their centers have a lot of trouble defending in space. Both Jonas Valanciunas and Marcin Gortat were unable to keep up with opposing guards in Game 1 and backups Jakob Poeltl and Ian Mahinmi were even worse, to the point that both teams closed with unconventional centers; the Raptors dusted off Lucas Nogueira, who has been almost entirely out of the rotation since December 1, and the Wizards went small with Mike Scott and Markieff Morris manning the big man positions.
Throughout the game, both teams were able to generate quality looks attacking their opponent’s center in an unconventional manner. Conceptually, Toronto and Washington mirrored one another offensively in a key way: rather than spreading the defense as thin as possible with a high pick-and-roll surrounded by shooters, both teams consistently went to action that emptied out a side of the floor and attacked to the middle, either drawing help or finishing over the slower big men.
Washington had a lot of success with the simplest version of this: a side pick-and-roll targeting Toronto’s big men.
If the ball handler gets to the middle of the floor with a live dribble, the offense has won that possession, whether the ball actually goes in the basket or not. Once John Wall is able to turn the corner and get to the free throw line, Valanciunas and Poeltl are completely at his mercy, as he’s got every option available to him: he can attack downhill to get to the rim, hit the screener diving or popping for a jumper, or swing the ball to Otto Porter or Bradley Beal on the perimeter for an open three-pointer. The Raptors mostly stayed home on Porter and Beal and dared Wall to finish at the basket or make a play for his big man and although Wall had a very poor night around the rim, Toronto is playing with fire giving him that many looks in the middle of the floor.
Given the sometimes stagnant nature of the Wizards offense, especially when they’ve found a particular weakness to exploit in the defense, opponents can sometimes quickly switch off the ball to avoid their big men being put in the pick-and-roll at all. Watch below how Valanciunas motions for Serge Ibaka to take the primary defensive responsibility in pick-and-roll:
Valanciunas recognizes what’s coming and tries to communicate it to Ibaka, but he reacts too late and both guys end up in defensive position on the pick-and-roll, which leaves Morris wide open at the three-point line. The miscommunication is obviously not what the Raptors were looking for there, but the idea of pre-switching to get Valanciunas out of pick-and-roll defense will certainly be something to look for going forward in this series.
When Wall has the ball, the side pick-and-roll is enough to generate a good shot, but when the Wizards want to go to Beal, more creativity is required. Beal doesn’t have the off-the-dribble speed Wall has, so he can’t make plays like this, where Wall destroys the Raptors’ Ice defense with help from a Gortat screen:
Beal doesn’t have the juice to get past his own man with enough regularity to make this play happen, but Washington has a few tricks up their sleeve to get Beal going in the same positions where Wall was successful.
Double Away Counter is a favorite of Washington’s as a way to get both of their high-level shooters involved in the action and force the defense into some tough decisions. In the above clips, Porter curls around the staggered screens and goes through to the other side of the floor, then Beal wheels around a single screen and receives the ball. From this position, it’s just like a side pick-and-roll, but Beal didn’t have to create the initial opening with the ball in his hands.
On the other side, the Raptors run a lot of handoffs to combat defenses using Ice to stop Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan from getting to the middle of the floor. These aren’t necessarily set plays, but actions that evolve from the natural flow of Toronto’s new offense.
Dribble handoffs (DHOs) have a very similar effect to Beal curling around a down screen before getting the ball: the guard gets the ball on the move and the action itself creates the advantage, rather than relying upon the guard to create the advantage off the dribble. Just like Beal curling off the screen, it’s almost impossible to consistently restrict this action to the side of the floor, which allows the offense to get to the middle of the floor and wreak havoc on the defense.
The Raptors have a few set plays they run for DeRozan to get him going in the middle of the floor, including an Iverson pick-and-roll and Swing Step:
In both of the above plays, the Raptors empty out one side of the floor for DeRozan and a big man to operate, spacing the floor to a much greater extent than the Wizards. Lowry essentially replaces DeRozan once the latter drives to the rim, maximizing the spacing on the perimeter and making it much more difficult for the Wizards to throw help in the paint, as the defenders left on the perimeter have further to go to close out on any of the Raptors’ shooters. In the second clip, DeRozan finds Ibaka for the open three for this reason: Morris went to help, OG Anunoby cut backdoor to occupy Beal, and Lowry moved to the right side of the floor, where DeRozan just left, to drag Wall further from Ibaka.
Both teams were tremendous attacking opposing big men in pick-and-roll and it will be interesting to see how each coach adjusts in Game 2. Both Scott Brooks and Dwane Casey went to unconventional remedies in the fourth quarter in Game 1 and it would be no surprise, given the relative success on both sides defensively in the final period, if we see a lot more Morris and Nogueira at center in crunch time.