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In the NBA playoffs, teams are forced to face the uncomfortable. All that they do will be challenged by opponents trained to their tendencies and honed by dedicated practice time. It’s amazing how a matchup can shift under that singular focus; while the regular season may test a team with its broad repetition, the postseason brings with it the rigor of specificity. Go–to sets are snuffed out through scouting. Normally competent players are exploited, their every limitation laid bare.
DeMar DeRozan is still grappling with that altered dynamic. In two playoff games against the Pacers, DeRozan has managed 24 total points, shot 27% from the field, attempted just six free throws, and registered nearly as many turnovers (five) as assists (six). Questions about his poor play were met with assurance. "I don't mind having bad shooting nights,” DeRozan said (via ESPN.com). “You have to be able to take the good with the bad. I had a great season, the season is over with and I've had two rough shooting nights.”
All of this is true. It’s also oversimplified, and—in typical NBA fashion—detatched from the influence of effective defense. When J.J. Redick misses too many open threes, that’s a bad shooting night. When DeRozan can’t even get open in the first place because of the way he’s blanketed by Paul George and the Pacers defense, that’s something else entirely. Rarely is DeRozan able to get to the spots on the floor he intends because George, at a lanky 6'9", is always in his path. When Toronto attempts to free DeRozan with off-ball screens, George skirts under them to claim favorable position. When the Raptors look to pry DeRozan loose through the pick-and-roll, a Pacer big man stalls him until George recovers to form a trap.
This isn’t entirely DeRozan’s fault. Watch here how the Pacers instantly contain both DeRozan and his roll man (Jonas Valanciunas) by ignoring Luis Scola completely:
Indiana has done a marvelous job in the first two games of eating up the space around DeRozan to deny him access to the rim. Still DeRozan drives, but more of those drives are ending with passes, turnovers, and doomed attempts than was the case in the regular season. Credit the Pacers for applying the clamps. Crowding DeRozan with multiple defenders denies him as a scorer and challenges him as a playmaker—the ideal scenario for a Raptors opponent. Try as he might to facilitate, DeRozan is faced with a long, active defense that always seems to be in his way. Look at how much trouble DeRozan has to go through just to execute a drop-off pass to Valanciunas:
All of this has occasionally sent DeRozan searching for the comfort of the post, where the Pacers refuse to bail him out. Shooting over George, who keeps his feet and maintains great defensive position, is a lost cause. Even the occasional defensive switch has offered little: George Hill is no mismatch at all and Monta Ellis, in a testament to Indiana’s scouting, stayed down through an assortment of DeRozan fakes. Every point DeRozan gets will be hard–earned.
The same goes for the Raptors on the whole whenever DeRozan is on the floor. George deserves note both for the way he’s guarded DeRozan in this series and the way he hasn’t; Indiana has taken full advantage of DeRozan’s lack of three–point range by allowing George to roam, influencing action all over the floor. Consider this moment:
That’s five Pacers filling the lane opposite three Raptors. At the free throw line is Lavoy Allen, who—as noted above—pays little regard to Luis Scola beyond the arc. George is on the weak–side block, coming over to double Norman Powell’s cut down the lane. He’s able to do this because DeRozan is up near the hash mark, standing at a range that does Toronto no good. George looms just the same on this later pick-and-roll, pre–rotated high into coverage before the screen is even set:
On this possession, George is free to chase after a steal in the post with no penalty at all—and then use his gambling position to beat DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll down the floor on a fast break:
Even when Toronto tried to use DeRozan as one part of a double screen, George simply floated off DeRozan to help contain the roll man (Bismack Biyombo), as he would have done anyway:
George and the Pacers respect DeRozan, clearly, but recognize that his floor spacing is a bit of a sham. Most smart defenses will wander against the Raptors in the same way, daring them to pass over the top and encouraging DeRozan to take a shot he’s not comfortable with. When he puts the ball on the floor, the paint–clogging Pacers are already in position to rotate and contest. Toronto’s leading scorer is short on preferable options. The way that verticality has been officiated in this series has favored Indiana’s rim protectors and, in the process, denied DeRozan the chance to draw fouls. A runner or step–in jumper might do, but thus far George and his teammates have generally recovered in time to take away those options.
There are ways that Toronto can attempt to push through this kind of coverage; in Game 2, for example, we saw the Raptors use staggered screens and a 1–2 pick-and-roll leading into a 1–5 pick-and-roll that would keep George occupied. Yet in a larger sense, this also marks the third straight year in which DeRozan has stalled in the playoffs and the third straight year in which the Raptors offense—in tiny, first–round samples—has performed better with him on the bench. Not every opponent will have Paul George. But high-level defenses will prey on DeRozan’s lack of three-point range and somewhat narrow (if improved) court vision so long as they’re allowed. Every series will revisit this same puzzle until the Raptors prove that they have the solution.
DeRozan is too important to the fabric of this particular team to decrease his role, leaving it to him and Toronto’s coaching staff to make his moves less predictable. The series could be theirs regardless, if only because Indiana’s offense is so erratic. A bigger issue, however, echoes in every possession complicated by DeRozan’s presence. This 26–year–old wing is an accomplished scorer in line for a max contract come July. There are many compelling reasons why you would want DeRozan, both as a person and a player, to be a part of your organization for the long haul. He’s a worker and leader who very clearly made the Raptors better. The quirks of his game, meanwhile, might also create an artificial ceiling for what this team could be at its best.