The Toronto Raptors certainly let one get away in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday. But there’s no going back and the Raptors can only hope to play better in Game 2 on Friday (8:30 ET, TNT).
The Raptors have been here before. They lost Game 1 of their first-round series with the Orlando Magic and trailed the Philadelphia 76ers, 2-1, in the conference semis.
In both cases, the Raptors responded with improved defense. In Game 2 vs. Orlando, the 87 points per 100 possessions allowed has stood up as the fourth-best defensive game (for any team) in these playoffs. And after allowing Philly to score 116 points on just 96 possessions of Game 3, they held the Sixers to just 96 per 100 over the next two games, both victories.
But after his team scored less than a point per possession for just the second time in this postseason, Raptors coach Nick Nurse is more concerned with his team’s offense.
“The offense is a real key to this series,” Nurse said on Thursday. “If they’re going to be playing with it off the rim, they’re going to be coming at you pretty hard, and obviously we went through a streak there [in the fourth quarter of Game 1] where we didn’t make some shots. And we had a couple critical turnovers, as well. I think we put our defense in a bind because of the offense.”
All was good in the first quarter, when the Raptors scored 34 points on 27 possessions. But things went downhill from there. They scored fewer points (and less efficiently) with each ensuing quarter. In the second half, the only Raptors bucket not scored by Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard was Pascal Siakam’s buzzer-beating 3 at the end of the third quarter.
Some of the struggles were just missed open shots. Siakam was 0-for-7 on corner 3s on Wednesday. Marc Gasol was 0-for-4 from beyond the arc in the second half. Both Danny Green and Norman Powell missed uncontested reverse layups.
But Nurse believes his team has to be sharper offensively, not just with their shooting, but with the player and ball movement that leads to the shots they get. The Raptors were able to create advantages by drawing extra defenders to the ball. The Bucks’ defense was No. 1 in the regular season in both preventing restricted-area shots (their opponents took a league-low 27 percent of their shots from the restricted area) and defending them (their opponents shot a league-low 58.0 percent in the restricted area).
In Game 1, the Raptors attempted just 17 shots in the restricted area, their lowest total in the playoffs. In the regular season, they had only four games in which they got fewer than 17 restricted-area attempts. One of those was Jan. 5 in Milwaukee.
To protect the rim, the Bucks will not hesitate to meet a drive with three or four defenders. and with the collapsing defense, there should be Raptors open. The goal of every offense is to draw multiple defenders to the ball and then get the defense in rotation. The ball should be able to move faster than the rotating defense and eventually find an open shooter with a path back to the basket.
But the Raptors just weren’t good enough in the second half on Wednesday. Leonard probably forced too much, having his shot blocked five times. Look at the crowd he tried to score through here in the third quarter…
Nurse said that, for Siakam, making the right play in a crowd is “the next step for him to take.” Still, after watching the film from Game 1, Nurse said the offensive issues weren’t just the players with the ball getting rid of it quickly enough, but also the players without the ball “relocating” to give the ball-handlers the right passing angles.
“I think we did a decent job of moving the basketball,” Nurse said. “Decent is probably not good enough this time of year. We’ve got to do a special job of it. We’ve got to do a good job of each time down, when you’ve drawn one or two or three defenders, you’ve done your job, right? Your job is to create them in rotations, and then your job becomes to get it to the next guy, and that guy’s job is to take the shot or swing it.
“So what we call our relocation needs to be a little bit better so when two or three guys converge on the ball, we can find those little alleyways a little more cleanly.”
Here’s Leonard in another crowd with Gasol not anywhere useful and Lowry stationary at an angle where Eric Bledsoe is in the path of a potential pass…
“You’re talking about 3-to-4 feet sometimes,” Nurse said. “The angle that they can’t see you is the fine line.”
Everything is easier said than done against what has been the league’s No. 1 defense, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. But this is the conference finals, and the Raptors simply have to be better.
* * *
John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.