TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz
February, 26, 2015
ATLANTA -- There's no fire drill more absurd than the metro Atlanta area bracing for winter precipitation. The region, which has grown exponentially since the Hawks moved to town, has little regard for tradition, so it's almost quaint to see that the afternoon before a forecasted dusting the scene at the Kroger hasn't changed in three decades. Grown adults storm the frozen-food aisle like it's the last chopper out of Saigon. The Storm Team from the local television affiliates are out in full force. By 3 p.m., major thoroughfares typically choking on traffic are deserted.
About that time on Wednesday, Hawks players were told the team's game against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. was off. The governor of Georgia had declared a state of emergency for 50 counties in North Georgia. And beyond any official order, Atlanta is still spooked by last January's Snowpocalypse, which snuck up on the city, stranded tens of thousands and became "Daily Show" gold. Unamused at being a national laughingstock, Atlantans have decided to play it safe this winter.
The city of Atlanta's paranoia notwithstanding, an NBA game isn't cancelled lightly, and about an hour later, Hawks players who were hunkering in to wait out the storm received word that the ball would be tipped, as scheduled. After a rough first quarter, the Hawks played some of their best basketball since January and pummeled the Mavericks 104-87.
Like any honest-to-goodness Atlantan, Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll went to the grocery store with his family when he learned that he needed to return to work.
"We thought we were going to get snowed in, and I was on Aisle 7 when I looked at my phone," Carroll said. "I told my fiancee, 'The game is back on.' So we had to rush, hurry up, get back and get here. I think that had a lot to do with it."
The "it" Carroll referred to was the Hawks' ragged start, during which they fell behind 14 to the Mavericks in the first quarter and finished the period down 34-22. Though coach Mike Budenholzer was quick to point out that Dallas was also waiting in basketball purgatory to see if the game was a go, Hawks center Al Horford allowed for the idea that the indecision didn't help the Hawks out of the gate.
AP Photo/John BazemoreA leaky roof delayed Hawks-Mavs for five minutes on Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
"It's hard mentally," Horford said. "You're preparing, then they tell you it's not, so you kind of let your guard down. Then, it's like, 'Wait. We are playing.' It definitely affected me. I'm not going to lie."
Truth be told, the defense wasn't as atrocious as Dallas' 34 points would suggest. Monta Ellis and J.J. Barea combined to shoot 7-for-8 in the quarter without a trip to the line, but six of those seven shots were long 2s off the dribble, largely contested. Yet, the Hawks felt like the Mavericks' backcourt was getting off a little too easy.
"We changed a few coverages," Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. "We were showing out, but we were focused in too much on Dirk [Nowitzki] and the bigs, and the guards were giving us problems, finding shots."
The Hawks' on-court personnel was just one piece of the dysfunction in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Toward the end of the quarter, a small leak in the arena's roof caused a five-minute delay. Three times in the period the official game clock froze, causing a stoppage in play as the hamster required resuscitation before being reinserted onto its wheel.
Out in the stands and up in the concourse, the Hawks and Philips Arena were working short-staffed, as the organization advised game-night staff with travel or family issues to stay at home. All but a couple of concession stands were open for business, and the Hawks' chief revenue officer was pouring beer.
Problem solving has been a Hawks trademark this season, and as the second quarter got underway, the defense addressed the first-quarter hemorrhaging. Hawks defenders didn't exactly neglect Nowitzki, who finished with only four points, but they refocused their efforts of their pick-and-roll coverage onto the Mavericks' platoon of quick guards, which did not include Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
"They're a pretty good defensive team," Nowitzki said. "Their bigs are very mobile. They show on the pick-and-rolls hard. They corral our ball handlers. They rotate around on the perimeter. They have quick hands."
After notching 34 points in the first quarter, the Mavericks managed only 67 over the 53 possessions of the final three quarters -- an anemic 79.1 offensive efficiency rating. On the other end, it was the usual Hawks blueprint: Six players in double digits but none with more than 17.
The Mavericks were also under the impression the game would likely be canceled. They were loading up their luggage in an effort to try to beat the weather out of town when they learned they'd need to be in uniform for the national anthem at 7:30 p.m.
"The afternoon was weird," Nowitzki said. "I don't think the NBA handled it pretty good. They screwed this one up pretty good. They kept telling us, 'We're waiting to hear from the NBA.' The next thing you know, we're all kind of sitting around. We didn't know if we should go to our meeting or not, so I thought they played that pretty poorly. We fought through it and I thought we were ready to play."
Carroll ultimately left Aisle 7, but not before loading up on Little Debbie cakes in the event the Atlanta storm obliterated glucose from the area.
"That's my aisle," Carroll said.
As of publication, the temperature had not yet dropped below freezing at Philips Arena.
February, 22, 2015
MILWAUKEE -- Everything you’ve heard about the Atlanta Hawks’ appealing style of play -- the elegant motion, the silky shooting touch, the sharing of the basketball, the beautiful choreography -- not much of that was on display the first three quarters on Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. What’s been less discussed this season, though, is the Hawks’ solid No. 6-ranked defense, behind which they locked down the Bucks for a 97-86 win.
“It was a complete turnaround [defensively], a lot better than the past few games,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “The aggression was there. The discipline was there.”
Millsap made a distinction between effort and discipline, a variation on the old John Wooden trope, “Never mistake activity and achievement.” The Hawks aren’t a team predisposed to phoning it in. But in their recent spate of ugly losses, there’s been a lack of precision, which is death for a scheme that relies on being in the right place at the right time, Exhibit A being their 105-80 hemorrhaging at the hands of Toronto on Friday night.
“Last game we felt like there was no discipline,” Millsap said. “We have to have help. We have to have our big -- he’s got to be back there. We got to have guys rotating. We have to have guys boxing out.”
The Hawks nailed their coverages on Sunday and, even better, applied their smarts to shore up what could’ve been some real vulnerabilities. Case in point: One of the better defensive sequences of the night for Atlanta came in the second quarter when the Hawks left Dennis Schroder out on the floor to guard the bigger O.J. Mayo.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesAl Horford and the Hawks applied enough defense to keep the East front-runners 6 1/2 games in the lead.
Sniffing the mismatch, the Bucks dumped the ball in to Mayo in the post against Schroder. In an instant, Hawks center Al Horford blitzed Mayo, pinning the Bucks guard against the end line. The Bucks aren’t dummies, and they did what any team worth its salt would do in that situation -- send the guy Horford was guarding, in this case beloved former Hawk Zaza Pachulia, on a basket cut.
But there was Mike Scott, hardly a nominee for defensive player of the year, sliding over from his assignment on the weak side to wedge himself between Pachulia and the rim. After Mayo kicked the ball out of the double-team to the perimeter, the grenade landed back in his hands with the shot clock expiring. Another Horford trap, with Mayo losing the ball out of bounds against the pressure.
The Hawks don’t run a lot of traps, which is why I asked Horford if that was a new coverage scheme triggered when Schroder was matched up against a bigger shooting guard. Turns out that was entirely Horford’s call.
“I saw an opportunity, and we can do that because I know my teammates will cover for me,” Horford said. “There’s a lot of trust.”
Just as the Hawks run a good amount of read-and-react offense, they're given the same kind of freedom to make intuitive, opportunistic decisions on the defensive end as they are in their vaunted offense. Most coaching staffs in the league won’t vest that kind of trust in their team, either because the sense is there isn’t a collective wherewithal to manage those kinds of decisions, or because they’re control freaks who prefer schemes with no room for errors in interpretation. Not so with the Hawks.
“That’s the beauty of our team -- trusting each other, not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end,” Hawks defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll said. “Our defense is just like our offense. Coach allows freedom.”
With freedom comes responsibility, and for the first time in a good while on Sunday, the Hawks played on a string -- “like Muppets,” said Carroll -- and accountability is fundamental to that process. Otherwise, for example, Pachulia is left alone under the basket, where Mayo finds him for an easy two. Therein lies the difference between good and bad defensive teams.
Even at 44-12, the Hawks aren’t without weaknesses. They struggle on the boards, ranking dead last in offensive rebounding percentage -- though, admittedly, Mike Budenholzer subscribes to the coaching school that preaches transition defense, even at the expense of the second-chance opportunities. But the Hawks rank only 23rd on the defensive glass, which is a cause for concern.
On Sunday, the Muppet Show cleaned up, collecting 77 percent of the Bucks’ misses and gobbling up more than a third of its own. In a game in which Atlanta was outshot from the field and equaled at the free throw line, the margin was crucial, as were the 24 Milwaukee turnovers the Hawks forced with plays like the Horford-Schroder trap.
After the game, the visitors locker room at the Bradley Center was cheery, as the Hawks rushed to catch a flight back to Atlanta, where they’ll take on Dallas on Wednesday night. In front of the locker of Kyle Korver, whose three 3-pointers during the first 150 seconds of the fourth quarter stretched a 2-point lead to 11, sat a large pizza. This for a fitness freak who carries boulders across the floor of the ocean during the offseason?
“Sometimes you just need the calories,” Korver said.
February, 20, 2015
ATLANTA -- The fear with any streak is that it’s nothing more than an outlier, a torrid affair that doesn’t represent reality so much as an idealized version of it. This is the worry that’s threatening to creep into Atlanta, where the Hawks dropped their fourth game in seven outings since their historic 19-game run with a 105-80 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday.
It’s not in the Hawks’ character to panic, nor should they. Stinkbombs are inevitable over an 82-game season and there’s no shame in falling to a Raptors team that may have played its most complete defensive performance of the season. The Raptors wanted to neutralize the Hawks by accelerating their perimeter rotations and chasing the Hawks off the 3-point line. Mission accomplished.
“You have to give Toronto a lot of credit,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They gave it to us good tonight. There are a lot of reason we didn’t play well. They were a big part of that.”
Another reason: crisp Raptors rotations aside, the Hawks shot horrendously. Kyle Korver missed 9 of 11 from beyond the arc, far and away his most missed attempts of the season. Only Shelvin Mack shot better than 50 percent from the field for Atlanta, and those buckets were firmly in the time o’ garbage. There’s a certain comfort in the ugliness because nobody in the Hawks' locker room believes for an instant that these numbers are any more sustainable than the ungodly shot charts they posted during January.
“Missing shots, you can’t [be concerned],” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said. “The shots we took were good shots. We just missed them. We had a week off. We just have to get back in the lab, get to the film.”
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPero Antic and the Hawks came out of the All-Star break with a thud against the visiting Raptors.
This is a team of basketball cinephiles, as film study was cited by Budenholzer, Carroll, Korver and Al Horford as required viewing Saturday before the Hawks take off for Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Sunday afternoon. Though nobody would explicitly lay the loss on the Hawks’ heavy presence at All-Star weekend in New York, Korver allowed for the possibility that a group so reliant on rhythm, timing and routine probably didn’t benefit from the disruption and demands of the festivities.
Still, the Hawks now face realities they knew to be true but until recently hadn’t had to confront. As selfless and appealing as they play on both ends of the floor, those systems have vulnerabilities. For one, pass-happy teams produce beautiful basketball, but passes present a greater risk of turnovers than dull iso sets. On Friday, their classical ballet turned into a game of Twister. The Hawks turned the ball over on almost a quarter of their possessions, which netted the Raps 30 points.
“We were just sloppy,” Horford said. “We were throwing the ball all over the place. Bad turnovers.”
On the other end, the Hawks rely on smart, situational coverages that require trust and decisiveness. Apart from Carroll and possibly Horford (who routinely has to match up against larger centers), they lack the personnel to fall back on lockdown, one-on-one defense. And on Friday, they suffered an unusual number of breakdowns.
“You have to rely on defense when you don’t make shots, and I don’t think we were good on the defensive end of the court,” Budenholzer said. “I’m more concerned with the shots [the Raptors] were getting.”
There’s a popular perception that the Atlanta’s Achilles' heel resides in its lack of a volume scorer, but that’s not really it. The Hawks didn’t fail on Friday night -- or in their excruciating loss at Boston just before the break -- because there wasn’t a superstar to take over. They lost because when you operate a system, you commit to a process, and right now that process looks gummed up.
Fortunately for the Hawks, an exquisite version of that system won them 19 games in a row and bought them some breathing room at the top of the Eastern Conference. Let the FilmFest begin.
January, 26, 2015
AP Photo/Brandon DillAfter five years together, the Grizzlies' core is hoping to rise beyond their rough-and-tough identity.MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- This past Thursday morning, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was live on ESPN Radio’s Memphis affiliate while driving into work. In an effort not to lose the signal, Joerger pulled a U-turn on low-traffic Fourth Street along the eastern wall of the arena as he approached the subterranean garage to FedEx Forum.
Cue police siren.
Joerger politely told host Geoff Calkins and the listening audience he needed to end the interview so that his moving violation could be adjudicated. Concerned about any appearance of preferential treatment for a VIP, Joerger said he insisted to the arresting officer he receive a ticket. A non-issue, Joerger said, because the officer, who had just returned to the United States from abroad, had never heard of Joerger, and knew virtually nothing about the Grizzlies.
Judging from the vibe around town, the patrolman is the exception in greater Memphis. A city that has blanketed itself in "growl towels" the past four playoff runs is now a regular-season NBA hotbed. In a region where pro basketball franchises have to scrap for their share of the market, Memphis’ relationship with its team feels a lot like Portland Trail Blazers South. Grizzly Love is more than just fandom; it’s an expression of urban identity.
In the trendy Cooper Young district, it’s yoga pants and Grizzlies tees. The hub of East Memphis’ stellar culinary scene, Andrew Michael, opened its new bar area over the weekend, in part because its proprietors feel its customers shouldn’t have to choose between haute cuisine and watching the Griz. Local TV ratings are up 30 percent over last season and the average home attendance of 17,200 is the highest in Grizzlies history.
On Monday night at FedEx Forum, the Grizzlies closed out a 4-1 homestand with a 103-94 win over Orlando. The Grizzlies now stand at 32-12, second place in the Western Conference. Around the team, there’s a collective -- if cautious -- recognition that there’s a chance for the Griz to rise beyond the Grit 'n' Grind novelty act, that if they suspend personal agendas and shore up their weaknesses, something special awaits.
It's the year. Everybody feels it. We feel it. We've been in the Western Conference finals. We've been that close.- Zach Randolph
“It’s the year,” Zach Randolph said after Monday’s shootaround. “Everybody feels it. We feel it. We’ve been in the Western Conference finals. We’ve been that close.”
A few hours after Joerger was tagged as a public nuisance, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was named an All-Star starter. For a franchise that’s rarely booked for national broadcast, Gasol’s selection is a huge affirmation -- and a signal that a star doesn’t necessarily need to look to the coasts during free agency to find broad appeal.
Point guard Mike Conley might not make the cut as a reserve, but he has established himself as everyone’s favorite unheralded playmaker. The Grizzlies compiled five of their 12 losses this season during an 18-day stretch when Randolph was sidelined with swelling in his right knee. He’s enjoying his best season in five years as the team’s bellwether. At 33, Tony Allen is the league’s top-ranked perimeter defender in real plus-minus.
This core, which has been together for five seasons, can rightly claim the mantle of “continuity,” which is holy water for teams with championships aspirations, as fashioned by the Spurs. Memphis’ core understands how to play together, and where each guy’s strengths and weaknesses lie. But after four seasons of hanging tough through mid-May, the Grizzlies are now set on figuring out what more they can be.
The arrival of Jeff Green from Boston has been a catalyst for this current self-examination. When a group has been together as long as the Grizzlies’ core has, staleness can seep into the practice gym. What more can we learn about each other? After nearly five seasons, is there really any magic to getting Z-Bo the ball on the right block or finding driving lanes for Conley from the left slot? At a certain point, preparation becomes rote and a team can resemble an old married couple.
“We’ve been through it so long that we know how each other is going to react and that we can trust each other,” Gasol said. “But the game is evolving and we as players and as a team have to evolve. You have to change things and adjust. We’re the same players and we run the same sets, but -- it’s like the Spurs -- they need tweaks and changes and counters from game to game and year to year in order to evolve.”
So Green’s introduction gives Memphis occasion to re-learn its schemes. Over the lengthy homestand, the Grizzlies held a mini-minicamp of sorts, with the intention of reviewing Grizzly best practices and getting Green up to speed. Because as rosy as things have been in Memphis, the defense has slipped out of the top 10, and the team can run into roadblocks offensively against strong hard shows that cut Conley off from his lanes and second-side options. The Grizzlies know they need to get more aggressive about attacking those coverages -- and avoiding them altogether with early post-ups and drag screens. That’s where the reorientation can help.
AP Photo/Brandon DillThe Grizzlies are working former Celtic forward Jeff Green into a core with strong continuity.
Still, Green gives the Grizzlies something they haven’t had since Rudy Gay left town -- a big wing who can create. In a perfect world, Green will get into the lane a dozen times a game and work his way to the line for more than half a dozen attempts. Though Green has always lagged as a rebounding forward, he’s a guy who, theoretically, could work the glass, then push the ball up in transition. Gasol noted on Monday that the Grizzlies have been polishing off some of the better sets they used to run for Gay.
The live integration of Green began last Wednesday against Toronto when he made his first start as a Grizzly, supplanting Courtney Lee. Lee was shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc and laying out defensively virtually every night, often against bigger competition on the wing. He ultimately played 29 minutes against the Raptors, more than either Green or Allen, but there’s personal satisfaction that comes with starting, and for Lee it was a tough beat. But that’s the rub for the Grizzlies -- Lee is essentially a shooting guard disguised as a small forward.
Truth is, no matter who gets the call on the wings for Memphis, there’s always a compromise. Allen is essential to what the Grizzlies want to accomplish defensively each night, but his presence in the half-court offense cramps their spacing. For every wily baseline cut behind the defense, there are possessions in which opponents have insta-help from Allen’s guy. And Green is hardly the second coming. He shoots 30 percent from 3-point range and inefficiently from midrange, rebounds like a shooting guard and his size might be his only real asset as a defender.
In sum, this is still a team with imperfections, whose style bucks league trends and whose roster features a lot of guys who excel at their positions but doesn’t have a ton of versatility (e.g. the Grizz can’t switch defensively). Apart from Conley, Memphis is an emotional group, with live wires (Allen) and slow boilers (Gasol), among others.
Yet in some sense, that’s the NBA. There are no perfect teams, because the salary cap prevents it. The ones who win are those that excel at grappling with those imperfections, that can reduce those weaknesses to small blemishes.
When you observe the Grizzlies, they seem like a team that has become expert at the management of those weaknesses. Since their competitive advantage offensively exists down low and their Achilles heel on the perimeter, they’ve mastered the swing-swing-post entry. Since their shortcoming defensively is a lack of size on the perimeter, Conley, Allen and Lee fly around with abandon. The staff handles individual sensitivities delicately and with trust.
Once they fully incorporate Green into their schemes and culture, they should be at peak self-awareness -- Grit, Grind, with a little more Glow. And there are few things more dangerous in spring than an NBA team that knows what it is.
January, 6, 2015
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe camaraderie is authentic for the East-leading Hawks, who finished a 3-0 road trip out West.LOS ANGELES -- A few moments after the Atlanta Hawks dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers 107-98 to complete a 3-0 Western swing, coach Mike Budenholzer beelined to the locker of DeMarre Carroll.
As the stampede of foreign press filed in (no one from Atlanta’s media outlets made the trip to cover the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks), Budenholzer stood over the seated Carroll and delivered a kind message to his lockdown defender. As Budenholzer finished, he laid his hands on either side of Carroll’s head, as an emotional punctuation mark, then disappeared into the visiting coach’s office.
Carroll was clearly moved by his coach's gesture. When asked what Budenholzer had told him, Carroll demured. It’s just not in the DNA of the Hawks to share a private moment between player and coach, even after said player racked up 17 points on eight shots from the field, collected eight rebounds, dished out with four assists, performed his usual custodial work on the defensive end of the floor and took a nasty spill in the second half that kept him on the ground well into a timeout.
These are the Atlanta Hawks, who are every bit as measured off the court as they are on it. These are grown men who go about the business of surgically dissecting two Western Conference contenders, then go en masse to a non-mandatory team dinner, something they do routinely after both wins and losses. The camaraderie is authentic, even if the personalities are, with a few exceptions, pretty mellow.
“The reason it’s authentic is that everyone has bought in,” Al Horford said. “We enjoy working with each other.”
Working isn't an idle word choice. Locker rooms come in any number of shapes and sizes. A giddy one doesn’t mean the players inside aren't serious about winning basketball games, but spend time with the Hawks and there’s a distinct air of buttoned-up professionalism -- an office populated by mature adults who understand work-life balance and the division of labor.
“We have guys who don’t play, who have guaranteed contracts beyond this year and they work their asses off because they want us to be better and want to contribute,” veteran big man Elton Brand said.
One thing that often gets lost in the discussion about culture and chemistry -- the system installed in Atlanta by way of San Antonio demands a strict selflessness. Break off from the sequence of actions in the half court and the stuff falls apart. Everyone on the floor devotes himself to the idea that if you stay in motion, the ball will work its way to the logical recipient before the shot clock expires.
So when guys spend practices, shootarounds, walk-throughs and film sessions preaching the gospel of sharing the ball, it’s not at all weird or cultish to spend time together around a dinner table: “Breaking bread is what coach calls it,” Carroll said.
In his 17th season now, Brand has a counterintuitive theory for the Hawks’ success -- namely, that it’s the absence of superstars that makes the enterprise work in Atlanta, which is now 26-8.
“Not to dump on any specific team, but when you play against a superstar, you know exactly where the ball is going,” Brand said. “Certain guys are going to get the ball at certain times at certain spots. They're running their sets.”
It’s not as if the Hawks don’t have a well-formed foundation -- just about every player in the league who has read a scouting report has been versed in the choreography of the Spurs-style motion deployed by Atlanta, but the system is predicated on intelligent players making intelligent decisions based largely on the behavior of the defense. So when opponents show out Kyle Korver as he comes off a pin-down, Korver can dish the ball to Horford or Pero Antic, who after pinning Korver’s guy has slipped to the basket.
This works on the other end of the floor too, where the Hawks have climbed from the bottom half of the league to No. 6 overall in defensive efficiency. Though it’s not an extraordinarily gifted group of individual defenders, the Hawks are versatile and, more than that, heady. They've made a habit of switching up coverages multiple times per night, as they did in their win over Portland on Saturday, keeping the Trail Blazers off balance. Sounds obvious, but asking a team to master multiple coverages for a single matchup is a difficult proposition … unless the team has the collective smarts and trust to make guerrilla warfare its overriding strategy.
Absent a dynamic creator, the Hawks are banking on their intelligence to carry them out of the Eastern Conference, which they currently lead by 1½ games. Rather than fly home to Atlanta on a red-eye charter, the Hawks opted to stay in Los Angeles for the night, where a majority of the team broke bread at the quaint Italian joint Piccolo, just off Venice Beach.
Leave it to the Hawks to choose the one restaurant in town that begged to be left out of the encyclopedic Zagat restaurant guide, even though it received quality reviews.
November, 27, 2014
ATLANTA -- The Toronto Raptors won’t accept your compliments. Marvel at the 126 points they dropped on the Atlanta Hawks on Thanksgiving eve, and they’ll squawk about the 115 they gave up at the other end. There’s even a cognitive dissonance to the Raptors’ language, as head coach Dwane Casey twice said after the game that his team “kept grinding it out.”
Coach Casey, we just witnessed your team leave burn marks on the floor at Philips Arena. There was nothing remotely grind-ish about it. Your guys got whatever they wanted on the night. They produced clean looks out of thin air and looked great doing it. Overall, your Raps have posted nearly five points more per 100 possessions than the second-ranked offense in the East. So when you say “grind” -- twice! -- I do not think it means what you think it means.
The Raptors’ reluctance to bask in the glow of their gaudy offensive numbers is understandable. This core in Toronto has come of age with team defense as its hallmark. During his decades in the coaching ranks, Casey has developed a reputation as one of the most imaginative defensive minds in the game. In Dallas, he fashioned a scheme in which the Mavs floated from man-to-man and zone in the same possession. In Toronto, his team goes against the grain, as defenders force ball handlers to help rather than pushing them sideline and down, the prevailing trend in the league.
It’s not as if Toronto wasn’t offense oriented -- we’re talking about a team whose primary threats in recent years were Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan -- but the Raptors never won many style points when they had the ball. Kyle Lowry bowled his way to the rim, or a wing found a mismatch and went to work -- low-risk, low-turnover and, yes, grind-it-out offensive basketball.
Know what? The Raptors still run a guard-oriented offense that’s programmed to get good looks for their perimeter guys, with the ball in Lowry’s hands for the bulk of the possession. Sure, they’ll put the blossoming 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas or backup forward Patrick Patterson on the move to run interference, but this is still a straightforward scheme. But, man, it runs like clockwork.
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Amir Johnson,Kyle Lowry and guard Lou Williams celebrate their team's sixth straight win.
Wanting to better understand how the Raptors have built one of the league’s most prolific offenses, I hit up Raptors reserve othersized big man Chuck Hayes after the game. A longtime Rocket whose first two coaches in the league were Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, Hayes typically has interesting stuff to share about the inner workings of a team.
“It’s nothing like what we ran under [Adelman] and it’s nothing like what we ran under Jeff Van Gundy, a lot of left-right, work both sides of the floor,” Hayes said. “We’re going to run sets where our guys can get to their sweet spots for high-percentage shots. We’re going to get DeMar a shot he works on constantly -- he’s a killer from 17 or 18 feet. His footwork is unbelievable, so we get him the ball in space.”
To better illustrate this the-right-shot-at-the-right-spot-for-the-right-guy offense, Hayes cited a moment when Toronto led by 10 with a little more than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. With their reserves on the floor, the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll -- the kind of action you see a few dozen times a game from each side, but this one served a specific purpose.
“This gentleman didn’t score all game, but then we run a play for him,” Hayes said, intentionally withholding the name of the player in question. “It was James Johnson. He had Kyle Korver on him. So we play to [Johnson’s] strengths. At his size, he gets the ball at the free throw line. Our spacing allowed him to make that Eurostep and beat the help. He hadn’t scored the entire game until we called that play. He’s not in rhythm, he’s got the flu, he hasn’t put up many shots. But we’re going to give him a shot at his sweet spot. That’s a high-percentage shot for us.”
This play call doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. The Raptors had examined the matchups on the floor and made note of what was available. Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams were both unconscious, which had prompted the Hawks to tighten up their perimeter defense. They threw a trap at Vasquez and, just like Hayes said, the Raps leveraged the coverage.
There’s nothing specifically novel about this strategy. If a defense moves outside, then you move inside. If it pressures one side of the floor, you reverse the ball to the other. This is what NBA teams do on a nightly basis.
But as the first month of the season comes to a close, the Raptors have elevated pragmatism to an art form. They’ve taken several imperfect offensive pieces, identified what each one does best, and tripled-down on that skill. “Everyone stays in their lane,” as Casey likes to say. That might lack the flair of his innovative defenses, but discipline is its own kind of creativity. And right now, the Raptors have created something beautiful in its simplicity.