Playoff basketball is very different from regular season basketball. The game becomes slower, fewer whistles, and more isolation (ISO) basketball. During the past few playoff appearances, it seems evident that the Toronto Raptors enjoy playing ISO basketball. In their 2016-17 playoff run, Raptors were just behind the Cavs for most points per possession (ppp) on isolations. The Cavs led the league with 0.99 ppp while the Raptors were just behind with 0.98 ppp. Last year the Raptors ranked third at 1.00 ppp.
Expect this to be the dominant offensive style of play for Nick Nurse this playoff season, only this time having immediacy from the front seat. Kawhi Leonard will be the beneficiary of these ISO possessions. I suspect he’ll bully his opponents and make it look comical. But on some occasions, teams will look to double team him. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if teams double team him on most ISO possessions because that’s been the trade-off some coaches have been willing to adopt. It’s a risk and reward proposition, whereby coaches are ecstatic when double teaming results in a turnover, and mystified when it results in giving up easy shots. Nurse needs to be prepared.
He will look to give Leonard the ball where he likes it – from the elbow, free throw line extended, and top of the circle. When he gets double teamed on the elbow and free throw line extended, he should look to break the double team (but of course depending on the situation). It’ll be huge for him to show teams that he’s capable of doing this so that they change their defensive strategy. This is not uncommon for superstar players. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James didn’t let the “double-team” defensive strategy take away from their stardom. They punished teams for not being risk averse. If Leonard can’t break the double team, I’m afraid his poor passing skills will be illuminated. Teams will force him to make the cross court pass which is a disaster in the playoffs because getting points off turnovers is hard to come by. This is what killed us for the past few seasons when DeRozan failed to effectively pass out of the double. To avoid the cross court pass, I presume getting the ball from the top of the circle could present some creative opportunities. More spacing. More time to anticipate the double. And less chances of a defensive shift being applied.
The Raptors, along with many other teams, will have a shortened roster. And within this shortened roster, only a few players will dominate. It follows the pareto principle witnessed in other domains in society. It suggests that a large percentage of results is due to a contribution of a small percentage of factors/people. Coaches pay close attention to the pareto principle effect in the playoffs. It’s for this reason why some elect to shut down the best player and let other members of the team beat them. Brad Stevens tried this with Lebron last year. So did Steve Kerr. We shouldn’t be afraid of coaches trying this on us because not only do we have Leonard who knows how to outsmart the opposition, but we also have a small percentage of players (Lowry, Siakam and Gasol) who are ready to make some noise. Let’s get this!
By Vinu Selvaratnam
The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent any institution.