The Toronto Raptors survived a scare on Sunday night as they faced the Indiana Pacers in a do or die, win or go home game seven. They now go on to play the Miami Heat in the semi-finals.
For a team that has shown so much promise in recent seasons, the playoffs have brought nothing but disappointment over the last three years. Having grafted to earn home-court advantage through at least the first round in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16, each time, the Raptors have squandered their chances and failed to win on their own turf.
Starting a series off with a win, in front of your home fans is a must. It sets the tone and instils confidence in the fans to “buy in”. Let’s face it, winning at home is pretty much expected. Yet when given the chance to do this for three consecutive years, the Raps have fallen short each time.
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This was seen as their last chance. If they failed to get out of the first round once again it would have damaged their stock in a vital off-season, in which they hope to not only add additional weapons to the roster but also retain the services of DeMar DeRozen. Failure could also have raised questions about Dwane Casey’s future as head coach.
So what is it that the Raptors are failing to do when the ball is literally in their court? Well, asides from scoring more points than their opponents of course… that much is obvious. But let’s look a little deeper than that and try and identify a common theme between the losses.
I spent some time (ok, I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole) trawling through stats over at basketball-reference.com to try and solve the riddle. As a pointer, if I refer to stats such as the team’s average points per game as being 98.0, 100.9 and 98.2, this would mean that in 2013-14 they averaged 98.0, in 2014-15 it was 100.9 and, for this season, it was 98.2.
A (very) brief summary of the games
Saturday 19th April 2014 - Nets 94, Raptors 87
The 2013-14 Raptors finished with a 48-34 record. Good enough for the third seed in the East and a matchup with the sixth seed Nets (whose record was 44-38). The Raptors ended up losing the series in 7 games.
Saturday 18th April 2015 - Wizards 93, Raptors 86 (OT)
2014-15’s version of the Raps ended the season slightly better with 49-33. This time landing in the fourth seed and a head to head with the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards (46-36). The Wizards to the surprise of many, and the utter dismay of the Toronto fans, swept the series 4-0
Saturday 16th April 2016 - Pacers 100, Raptors 90
After a franchise-best 56-26 season, Toronto found themselves in the second seed. Facing off against the seventh seed Indiana Pacers (45-37) in an unusually UK friendly tip-off time of 5:30pm BST. We don’t yet know how this series ends, but it has been a much closer match-up than many anticipated.
As we know, every basketball game is different. We can see that across all three games the Raptors scored less than their season averages (by 11, 14.9 and 8.2). This in itself is not surprising given that post-season basketball tends to be slower than its regular season counterpart – playoff intensity if you will.
This is backed up by the pace of each game also dropping below the season average (89.6, 86.7 and 92.4 versus 91.8, 92.8 and 92.9 respectively), though I appreciate 2016’s figures are very close.
So, in order to establish a parity between the games, we need to focus on statistics that offset or negate the individuality of a game.
Offensive and Defensive ratings break down the performance and efficiency of a team per 100 possessions. And here is where we start to see a bigger drop-off… Toronto’s offensive ratings (ORtg) of 97.1, 89.8 and 97.4, significantly fall behind their regular season ratings of 108.8, 111.0 and 110.0. So across all three games, the Raptors became less efficient on offence on their own court.
Backing up Toronto’s offensive struggles is the team’s effective field goal percentage which also drops below their season average in all three games.
It’s not quite the same on the other end of the floor though as the Raps' defensive efficiency was actually better than normal versus the Wizards in 2015 (104.9, 97.1 and 108.2 against 105.3 107.7 and 105.2). However, for 2014 and 2016 they were also less efficient than normal on D.
With the Wizards game in mind - that Toronto’s offensive efficiency dropped by so much, yet their defensive efficiency improved suggests that this was a bit of a slug fest – evidenced by a 93-86 final score after overtime.
Who’s to blame?
Of the current Raptors roster, only four players were part of the 2014 loss to Brooklyn. Three of the starting five in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, alongside Patrick Patterson coming off the bench. These are the stalwarts of the squad, two All-Stars, a promising big and an undervalued utility player.
The statistical measure known as Box Plus/Minus (BPM) works out a players points per possession over or under a league average player on a league average team. So let’s take a look at how they fair…
Vs. Brooklyn Nets 2013/14
Kyle Lowry: -12 +0.7
DeMar DeRozan: -10 +5.9
Jonas Valanciunas: -17 -1.4
Patrick Patterson: +5 +2.8
Vs. Washington Wizards 2014/15
Kyle Lowry: -9 + 3.6
DeMar DeRozan: -2 -1.6
Jonas Valanciunas: -1 -0.5
Patrick Patterson: -5 +3.2
Vs. Indiana Pacers 2015/16
Kyle Lowry: -10 +6.8
DeMar DeRozan: -11 +1.4
Jonas Valanciunas: -6 +1.1
Patrick Patterson: +1 +1
With the exception of Patterson versus Brooklyn and Indiana, each player failed to perform any better than their season average. In fact, it’s clear that on some occasions the level of underperformance was significant.
Lowry and DeRozan (and to a slightly lesser degree Valanciunas) are supposed to be the marquee players on this team. Their responsibility is to step up and lead the franchise to success. So far all three have failed to take the mantle when it has mattered the most.
Beyond the numbers
I appreciate that the stats aren’t the whole truth – as Warriors GM, Bob Meyers said: “Analytics are like a bikini, they show a lot, but they don’t show everything.” So how do we determine the underlying reason for the Raptors struggles in game ones?
Is it a lack of preparation? Is it complacency? Are the stars choking?
I can’t believe that a taskmaster like Dwane Casey would fail to prepare this team. This is not their first rodeo. Complacency? Perhaps, but what has this team got to be complacent about? They have never won a title and are not even the “best” team in the conference. So that leaves choking… I don’t believe that the leaders of this team are chokers. What I think may be the issue here is the parity between the roles of Lowry and DeRozan.
Their friendship and partnerships is both impressive and unusual. Undoubtedly, their unique bond is part of what makes this team so interesting. But can two stars co-exist without clarity as to who the dominant or better player is? I don’t believe they can.
Failing to establish whose team this is ultimately leads to an identity crisis. Who do you follow in crunch time? How do you ultimately look to, to put the team on their back? I can’t think of a champion that didn’t identify behind one particular player. Until the Raptors work out who their franchise player is, I fear they will continue to struggle to assert themselves in both this and future playoffs.