Few would associate post-play with this version of the 2021-22 Toronto Raptors.
The “Length + Strength” Raptors, Oren Weisfeld so appropriately coined, invokes images of shooting, racing, jumping, slashing, and pressing not posting up.
Fair assumption. Toronto does do a lot of that too. A lot, a lot.
But, as we’ve seen, scoring can be difficult for the Raptors. Relying on Freddy or Gary Going Nuclear isn’t sustainable – or is it 🤔 – nor is watching Pascal whirl and twirl his way to 24/7/7, nor is depending upon the team’s elite offensive rebounding or transition scoring. Teams will adjust, Toronto must too.
I have a “more post entries please” template
— The Gentle Watch (@AdonMoss) February 1, 2022
Recognizing that, of late, Toronto has increased its pick and roll – of which Lou and Samson have both covered – and post-up rates. Both function as reliable, straightforward, and dynamic half-court options that accentuate the Raptors’ greatest advantage.
Prior to December 15th – ya, it’s a bit of an arbitrary date – Toronto was 11th in forward post-ups at 5 per game (only Khem Birch [0.2 post-ups/game] is considered a centre on NBA.com). Since then, they’re 2nd at 9 per game.
Filter down a bit more: if you exclude centres and the bigs NBA.com claims as “forwards” – Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo – Toronto posted up more than any other team the last two months. Without all those oversized “forwards”, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are 6th and 7th in post-ups per game respectively.
It’s counterintuitive to think Toronto would venture the post. Most times, the size differential at the “5” is significant. Survival brain says flight (transition + perimeter shooting) not fight.
Raptor bigs do flee. Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and even Khem Birch avoid the post; they either loiter on the perimeter or in the dunker spot or run on-ball or off-ball screens as counters. Most of their paint action stems from rebounds and lobs.
That’s intentional. Toronto’s goal is both to get a big trapped in the inner workings of perimeter play – as we’re seeing with the P&R and other “higher court” schemes (like the Spain Pick & Roll, double drag screens, and various horns sets) – and to empty the paint.
By “inverting” the half-court – “bigs” on the outside, “smalls” on the inside – the Raptors unearth a wealth of advantages. Opposing bigs must choose between forfeiting the comfort of the paint or remaining.
If they stay, Toronto thrives in the perimeter and in space – they’re an average long-mid-range shooting and 3-point shooting team. If they leave, the paint is freer for Raptor forwards to feast in the post and on the offensive glass.
Few teams can boast a starting 5 matching Toronto’s unique combination of size, quickness, strength, and finesse. The recent Toronto-Miami miniseries – they just played 3.5 games (including a 3OT) in 2 weeks – serves as the most recent example.
Despite Miami matching up quite well with Toronto’s forwards, the Raptors hunted Duncan Robinson to the point of obsolescence: D-Rob averages 27 minutes a game this season, against Toronto it dropped to 14/game.
That has a two-way effect. One, it’s easy money for the Raptors. Two, it disrupts Miami’s own offensive strategy. D-Rob’s tantamount to unlocking Miami’s sometimes chunky half-court offence. He zips and zooms around the court RIP Hamilton styles to give Bam and Jimmy room to operate. Without him, the court shrinks some.
Finding the Post
One way the Raptors have sought out the post is in transition. In doing so, defences don’t have time to help or to orchestrate other defensive counters. It’s a clear message from the Toronto coaching staff: if you have a small guy, run, seal, and score. Poor Josh Primo:
In the half court, Toronto searches out the post in isolation, off switches, and in high-low actions.
The high-low, especially, allows Toronto to leverage two of its forwards at once. If the ball is at the high post and the high-post defender does not sag, it’s an easy dump to the low post. If the defender sags, it’s an open 12-footer. If either side of the floor drops to help, it’s one pass to an open shooter or baseline cutter. I especially picture Scottie in the high-post who has the height, the vision, and the least accurate pull-up.
The Post Trident
Ultimately, the post is about unlocking Pascal, OG, and Scottie.
On any given night, at least one, if not all 3, have a mismatch: the big checking Pascal or Scottie and the “3” matched up on OG. It’s simply a matter of finding and exploiting it.
For Pascal Siakam, the post maximizes his isolation game. He’s ravenous for isolations ensnaring defenders in a tangle of crossovers, spins, and pivots. His face-up game is gnarsty; he also loves to back his victims down and hex them with a spell of footwork, handles, length, quickness, soft touch and physicality.
Two things of note. First, every one of Pascal’s defenders are smaller. If, when, those defenders are bigger, Pascal will pull them out and attack them in a face-up, zipping by them or pulling-up. Second, watch the actions away from the ball. While Pascal’s digging in, helpside defenders are forced to watch Pascal helplessly while monitoring their own assignments’ movement.
Pascal can literally do that every possession. What’s made him all the more dangerous, and likely why in those above clips you don’t see other defenders bumrushing Pascal, is his All-Star level playmaking (we saw a lot of this last year too, but it was less celebrated).
Leave him 1-on-1 and you see the damage he causes. Send a double and it’s just as problematic:
For OG and Scottie, the post-up has a little bit more of a utilitarian function.
Both are capable of attacking in isolation, but they’re much more threatening when on the move. That’s not always possible in the half-court – though, dribble-hand-offs and screens help. Once proximate to the hoop, they’re dynamically more threatening.
The post leverages Scottie and OG’s advantages without exposing their vulnerabilities.
Once OG is in the paint, for example, it’s nearly impossible to restrain his strength and power. He’s a stick of dynamite in the paint. (Sometimes he’s too powerful – you often see him lose his balance as he explodes towards the rim).
The post allows OG to settle, pound out a couple of hard dribbles, slam several mean shoulders and go up. Anyone giving up an iota of weight is mulch.
OG’s post-game still has room to grow. You can see his improved footwork and ability to read a defender. No longer does he just plow; he finds angles and spaces and exploits them. But OG still lacks the finesse and diversity in post moves; it’s sure to come. He is, though, improving as a passer.
OG has his head up in these clips. He’s feeling the defence’s presence and searching for release valves. That’s an encouraging sign from someone who operates in a more linear fashion while learning how to be a scorer and playmaker. I feel [hope] he’s on a similar trajectory – fingers crossed – as Pascal.
Scottie does not lack for vision. If OG’s post-game is primal and violent, Scottie’s is cerebral. He will attack when he has the opportunity:
But his natural inclination is to create for others. The post gives him the time and space to do so.
You can see how much more comfortable, natural, and enjoyable it is for Scottie to be a post-passer than scorer. One day, Scottie will be the hub of an offence. Run him in the high or low post – similar to Nikola Jokić or LeBron James – and he’ll pick apart a defence one feint or unexpected pass at a time.
More Post Please
Frankly, there’s not enough post-play in Toronto’s offence. Particularly, late in games where Toronto trying to score is like squeezing juice from a stone.
Punishing mismatches down low is a simple way to initiate a set. If defences fail to react, attack. If they send help, exploit the adjustment. Perhaps, there is a correlation between Toronto’s sudden rise in 3-point shooting accuracy (36% since December 15th) and its increased post presence.
Regardless, Toronto’s unlocked an essential element of its offence. The post provides more opportunity for OG and Scottie especially, but it also creates more space for Gary Trent Jr. and Freddy. Teams can’t compensate for both.
All of this is another reason why I don’t just want a “big” come the trade deadline. The advantages the Raptors toggle through down low would be limited with someone needing/restricted to playing in the post. Myles Turner and Mo Bamba stroke it, but do they want to be relegated to the perimeter? Myles certainly doesn’t.
I recognize that it’s not that simple. Defensive rebounding is a liability. All the same, Toronto’s recent success in the post makes me wary of Toronto committing itself to a “traditional” big.