The return of Tall Ball won the Toronto Raptors Game 4, but can it win them the series?

The return of Tall Ball won the Toronto Raptors Game 4, but can it win them the series?

As Kirk Goldsberry noted on our exclusive interview with him, the League has gone three-point mad.

The Houston Rockets became the first team to shoot more than 50% of their shots from beyond the arc last season, and  they did it again this year. To accelerate three-point volume, teams have moved away from more traditional power forwards such as Taj Gibson, to rangier stretch bigs who would have been threes a decade ago such as Jerami Grant.

Part of this is a desire to have more mobility, create more screening opportunities and have better spacing. The second part is that the inclusion of three-point shooting bigs meant there was a requirement to have speedy and mobile defenders who can get out to the perimeter quickly. Essentially, teams wanted defensive versatility in order to be able to aggressively attack the three-point line and force mid-range jumpers and pump fakes.

The Raptors-Sixers series in this year’s Playoffs has been one of the more memorable in recent years. It has had everything from individual offense to great ball movement and outside shooting. However, it has been fascinating for other reasons, as an unlikely factor has become huge in this series.

Size.

There have been occasions where a big man has swung a series. I always look back to the old Celtics-Cavaliers series where Tristan Thompson absolutely dominated the boards and gave the isolation-heavy Cavaliers extra possessions. But in an era where these more traditional four-five combinations with two bigs as opposed to one big and a swingman are rarely effective, it has been surprising to see height be a relevant factor.

Toronto and Philadelphia have the capability of being built around size, something that many other teams cannot do without seriously sacrificing skill and defensive versatility.

Game 3 was horrible for Toronto. They were outplayed in every aspect of the game, and Pascal Siakam’s constant abandonment of set plays meant that Philadelphia kept forcing turnovers, and they played the game at their own pace. The lack of offensive rhythm affected them at the other end, with Philadelphia getting whatever they wanted.

The Raptors three-guard lineup of Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Fred van Vleet posted a net rating of -86.3 in their nine minutes together. Against Philadelphia, which runs its offense from the posts and attempts to create mismatches, three-guard lineups are suicidal.

Strategically, Philadelphia’s roster construction is quite genius. More often than not, they force teams to play bigger. In an NBA that is moving in one direction, forcing an opponent to turn back and go back to where they came from is really advantageous. Most teams seriously sacrifice skill when they opt for size. Philadelphia does not.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia though, Nick Nurse was up to the challenge and it allowed the Raptors to equal the series. The Marc Gasol-Serge Ibaka pairing changed the game and allowed the Raptors to disrupt Philadelphia’s well-designed post game. There was also more structure to their plays, as Pascal Siakam is at his best being direct and going to work on a mismatch. To put it as simply as possible, Gasol and Ibaka meant that the team freestyled less and stuck to their sets.

It must be noted that there were other factors that gave Toronto the win. Kawhi Leonard was hitting crazy shots and Tobias Harris had his worst game of the playoffs. But the Ibaka-Gasol pairing was a calming influence and it deserves to be mentioned as a mid-level factor at worst.

After Toronto was butchered in game three, the Gasol-Ibaka pairing posted a defensive rating of 90.9 together in game four. The offensive rating was 102.2, which was comfortably lower than the offensive rating that Gasol and Siakam posted together (119.5). But the net rating was a lot better with Gasol and Ibaka, as Gasol’s minutes with the Cameroonian saw Toronto give up 112.2 points per 100 possessions.

The most telling statistic is the assist percentage. Ibaka and Gasol being on the floor together saw 61.1% of the buckets be assisted. Gasol and Siakam’s minutes together saw an assist percentage of just 47.1%. This largely supports the theory that Toronto got into more sets with Ibaka in there over Siakam, and played with better structure.

The play below is an example of what this pairing can bring.

High-low action is not original , but it’s a scarcely seen anymore because a lot of fours are not a huge threat underneath the basket. This is a good way of attacking Philadelphia’s famed drop coverage, where the big responds to a pick and roll action by sagging into the paint to stop a drive. Philadelphia does it more than anyone. On this play, Embiid has to recover to Gasol who is a capable, if not always willing, three-point shooter. While Embiid is recovering, it gives an easy pass to Ibaka, who has the size advantage over Jimmy Butler. Ben Simmons is also going to be on Leonard, and the Sixers don’t really have another guy who can trouble a big man like Ibaka.

The play below is another textbook example of what this pairing can do.

The Raptors run a double-screen high pick and roll. Both of the screens are excellent, which is really important in understanding how effective this pairing can be. Marc Gasol pops for a three-point opportunity, Ibaka then attacks downhill and gets good post position on Tobias Harris. This is a better matchup than Butler was from Philadelphia’s perspective, but it’s another example of a big lineup beating a small one from game four.

The Raptors made the game a slugfest. They battered Philadelphia and Harris in particular. He looked wholly uncomfortable. While Harris’ struggles are concerning from beyond the arc, he remains the key to beating these tall ball lineups that Toronto Head Coach Nick Nurse will lean on in Game 5. The Raptors made tough shots, but they appeared to suck the life out of the stadium with how physically dominating they tried to be. If Harris shoots more efficiently than 2-13 from beyond the arc then the next game could be a different story. While the tall ball lineups impressed and won the Raptors this particular game, it will be interesting to see how much of an influence they have in the remainder of the series.

Philadelphia won’t be panicking. An adjustment would be to design specific set plays to get Harris going when that Ibaka-Gasol pairing is in the game. If you can force one of them to come out and attack Harris if he gets hot, it changes everything. The Raptors won the game with this particular adjustment, but it might not win them the series.

Philadelphia’s size was attacked in this game, but Toronto can match the skill level of the 76er bigs. Ibaka and Gasol played well together but there were occasions when the floor spacing looked like a throwback game. Below is an example, as Lowry has nowhere to go because his entire team is clogging the lane.

These are basics, and Ibaka and Gasol must avoid doing this or the structure and rhythm they seek to create from running screen-heavy half-court sets won’t come to fruition.

The setting of good screens and the repetition of sets definitely helped Kyle Lowry. He’s not a freestyle guard in the way that someone like Damian Lillard is, he plays well within structures and is not going to win you a game by constantly pulling up.

Essentially, this series can go one of two ways. Philadelphia can get Harris going and play Ibaka off the floor. Or Toronto can make this an ugly game with their throwback lineups and continue to ride a more comfortable lookin Lowry and a more decisive Gasol as the ‘out’ man in their sets. It is going to get interesting whatever way it goes.


Feature photo –  Frank Gunn / Canadian Press / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington