The Toronto Raptors narrowly avoided disaster Thursday when they escaped with a 96-92 overtime win to tie their playoffs series with the Miami Heat at 1-1.
For the Raptors, it’s the fourth playoff series in a row, dating back to 2014, when they have ceded home-court advantage to their opponents by losing Game 1.
While the Raptors pulled out the win in Game 2, there’s still great concern over the play of their All-Star back-court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The two guards are shooting 30.8% and 33.7% from the field in the postseason, respectively. In Game 2, they combined to shoot 16-46 (25%) from the field.
Their struggles have been so evident, that during Game 2, ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jon Barry noted that the Raptors appear to have the “yips” — the mental syndrome that plagues golfers when they can’t seem to hit routine shots. It appears to be a consensus in the NBA world that Lowry and DeRozan’s struggles are not simply physical.
“I think we’ve crossed that threshold,” TNT analyst and former NBA player Brent Barry told Business Insider.
The Raptors face a unique pressure. This year was the first the team won a best-of-seven series in franchise history when they knocked off the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the first round. This came after they flamed out in the first round as the upper seed in each of the last two years. The franchise has only been out of the first round once in its 21-year history. Barry said that pressure can put a player in “a real, deep, dark place.”
“Players who played a long time can look at a guy’s body language, which is really where it’s most transparent and obvious, about where a guy is in terms of his head space and confidence and aggressiveness in his play. And for both Kyle and DeMar, they have been in this spot before in the playoffs where they have struggled before. It seems like each year when Toronto has failed to get to the point where they are now… [Lowry and DeRozan] have taken on the weight of the world in this responsibility [to win], and in doing so, have struggled to find their games in each of the successive years they have been involved in the playoffs.”
For J.E. Skeets, host of NBA TV’s “The Starters” and a Raptors fan as a Toronto native, he became convinced that these struggles were mental, particularly for Lowry, after Lowry took practice shots in the Raptors’ empty arena after a Game 1 loss to the Heat. There was speculation that Lowry’s elbow was injured after he had it drained.
“If you had an injured elbow and it was hurting you every time you shot, then I think the last thing you’d wanna do is jump in the gym after playing 48 minutes of a professional basketball game and get up more shots on that hypothetically injured elbow. I thought that sort of confirmed that it really is mental,” Skeets told Business Insider.
What also stood out to Skeets was DeRozan’s struggles at the free throw line in Game 2. An 85% free throw shooter in the regular season, DeRozan went 2-of-8 from the line in Game 2, essentially creating needless drama for the Raptors.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Skeets, “because he’s like an 85% free throw shooter. That’s different — the defence is not there, they’re not closing out. That’s just you, right there, as he’s probably done millions of times in his career, in his life, just lining up a free throw. What’s weird there is you shouldn’t be thinking at the free throw line. That’s just mechanics. Whatever your routine is, knock it down. And he’s a great free throw shooter. So of course that’s mental.”
Tactically, the Raptors aren’t doing much to help out these struggles, either. A major problem for the Raptors’ starting guards have been over-dribbling, with little offensive action, then forcing up tough, awkward shots.
“I think the thing that’s tough to watch in both of the cases… is that guys are missing shots from the same spot over and over,” Barry said, “It’s as if they’re putting the needle on the record and hoping they get to the beginning of the track. And what is — and I hate to say it this way — what is lacking is creative ways is to get them other opportunities.” Barry said the Raptors need to introduce more action to their offensive sets.
Skeets noted that this is essentially how the Raptors won 56 games in the regular season — “heavy, heavy, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan isolation basketball” — but that it’s worsened in the playoffs.
“It’s when they do this — which they have been doing the last couple of games now — this unbelievable, just kill the clock for 10, 12 seconds at times, they haven’t even done anything,” Skeets said. “There’s been no movement, there’s no off-the-ball screens, there’s no off-the-ball movement; it’s literally one of them just sort of pounding ball up top, almost waiting for what, I don’t know… It’s just a lot of wasted time.”
“When you dribble more, it gives the defence more time to get themselves in position to guard you better,” Barry noted. He added that if a player is playing without confidence or aggressiveness, the longer they dribble, then make their move, defences can key in on them, and cut off their path.
“And the lower you get in the shot clock, the defence knows, they know in their head, they have a mental clock: ‘OK, there’s not a lot of time left in this possession, he’s probably not passing the ball, he’s probably gonna shoot.’ And they can be ready for that.”
The second round has just begun, and a win in Games 3 or 4 in Miami could drastically change the tune around the Raptors. Nonetheless, these struggles for the last three years have raised questions about the team’s future with a core back-court of Lowry and DeRozan. DeRozan will be a free agent this offseason, and will likely command a max-level contract. Are these gradual steps to success, despite the consistent struggles, enough to warrant paying DeRozan over $20 million per year to keep the team in tact.
“Hopefully, he has a breakout game and that would be huge, but I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t,” Skeets said.
“Your question is great: is that backcourt enough against the elite teams, the way it is that they play, to make it to the next level?” Barry said. “It’s a very interesting question. It’s one that, thank goodness, you or I will not have to answer.”
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