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How Raptors are using post-up mismatches to fill offensive gaps

TORONTO — In a season where the Toronto Raptors are emphasizing quick decisions and significant movement, their greatest success has come from a play generally considered the antithesis of those ideals: The post-up.

With the Raptors trailing the Washington Wizards and their shaky defence by 23 points on Monday, Pascal Siakam took it upon himself to leverage that play. Over the course of under three minutes, Siakam bullied Kyle Kuzma in the paint for a basket in the post, drew free throws against Deni Avdija attempting to establish a post-up attempt, and got early position against Bilal Coulibaly in semi-transition, opening a baseline spin he finished on a second attempt.

The sequence was part of a 22-point third quarter for Siakam and a run that cut the lead to 10 heading into the fourth quarter. The Raptors ultimately came back to win the game, and the threat of Siakam’s post-play was a big factor in eventually breaking an extremely happy-to-bend defence.

In theory, the Raptors don’t want their offence to look like this too often. New head coach Darko Rajakovic is preaching a more pass-happy, free-flowing offensive system, one that uses the high post for dribble-handoffs more than the low post for one-on-one scoring. The returns there have been slow — the Raptors rank dead last in halfcourt offence despite ranking second in passes and first in shots that immediately follow a pass — and that’s necessitated occasionally doing what all teams do and letting their best players go to work.

Freelancing outside of the overall offensive system can be a good thing. No team runs the same offence for a full 48 minutes, and the NBA is the land of star players making star-player plays. Rajakovic’s philosophy is an important foundational building block as the Raptors try to build new habits and rehabilitate their on-court culture, but it’s a positive that Rajakovic has been flexible when the situation gets dire, turning to his best players in ways that play to their strengths.

For Toronto, that usually means one of three things: Scottie Barnes aggressively attacking the paint, Siakam operating out of the post, or a quick pick-and-roll to get a switch that probably results in Barnes or Siakam attacking a mismatch.

It’s no surprise that the Raptors have gone to the post heavily in only three games: Monday when they needed to spark a big comeback against a bad defence, against Dallas’s undersized defence in a narrow win last week, and against the Bulls and undersized guard Coby White. The Raptors are 2-1 in those games and should be 3-0, and all except the Bucks game required that mismatch-attacking to keep the score close.

Armed with three strong wing players in their starting lineup, the Raptors should usually be able to find a mismatch in the opposing defence to attack. In situations where the point-five motion approach is not producing results, or in a close-game scenario, Rajakovic can have his team — particularly his top players in Siakam and Barnes — attack that soft spot, whether in transition or with a quick action to spotlight the mismatch.

The Raptors have mostly done a good job of only going to the post when they need it. They are tied for eighth in the NBA in plays finished via post-up or a pass out of a post-up, and they’re 13th with 1.021 points per possession. This is not too different from last year, when they were seventh in volume but a far less effective 23rd in efficiency. This year’s numbers would be even better if the team weren’t shooting an unsightly 33.3 per cent on threes (and, coincidentally, exactly 33.3 per cent on threes that come on a post kick-out).

I should note here that different sites categorize a post-up differently. Second Spectrum, for example, sees the Raptors as less post-oriented, as they classify post-ups more on the definition of whether a team cleared out for a post-entry pass. I’m citing Synergy numbers, which include scenarios where a player takes a one-on-one matchup into the post, a move of which Siakam is one of the league’s foremost purveyors.

We can call that a drive-to-post action, and it has a few benefits over a rote post-up. For one, it keeps Siakam’s options open longer, giving him the chance to drive into the paint or find a teammate for a pass while face-up. It also makes defending the post entry more difficult, as teams often have help principles established for post scorers on the catch — disguising the intent keeps the defence on their toes longer. The Raptors are also the best transition offence in the league, allowing them to hunt mismatches and enter these drive-to-post actions quickly, the speed of which stays closer to the team’s new philosophy than clearing out for a 12-second post play.

That the Raptors are succeeding through the post is a testament to Siakam and, sometimes, Barnes. Toronto has very difficult spacing in their offence, and that doesn’t get any better in post-up situations.

A defence has a few options once they recognize the post-threat. They can send a hard double-team, as the Raptors sometimes do for, say, Joel Embiid. They can send help from the strong corner (the one nearest the post-up), where a defender can swipe in at the hands while still being within distance of their man. They can also send help from the top, like how Fred VanVleet would often “dig down” once a big put the ball on the floor in the post. Every team will also have principles in place for what to do when a player goes toward the middle of the floor or the baseline.

Siakam is better suited to handle this extra defensive attention in the post than he is elsewhere, when it can sometimes deter him from getting into the paint. Siakam reads passing angles and defender intent really well in the post, which is how he continues to unleash his spin move despite it being a well-known part of his game for years. He can change shoulder direction quickly and has excellent footwork, allowing him to manipulate a defence to react one way while he slips the other, or trick a defender with an up-and-under. Having a good fadeaway move is important, too, even if it’s not your preferred outcome every time down.

Siakam ranks seventh in the NBA in possessions finished via post-up or a post-kick-out, and the 1.176 points per possession the Raptors score on those plays is excellent, nearly as high as the points per possession on post-ups for LeBron James and just a shade below the elite class of Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Alperen Sengun. (Kristaps Porzingis is in a super-elite class of his own this year.) Even if that regresses to some degree, the Raptors saw good results on Siakam post-ups last year, too, and it’s been more fruitful than most of their other actions.

As Toronto gets better with Rajakovic’s system, they should be able to help Siakam make these post-ups even more effective. Shooting better would be a major first step, but let’s not hold our breath.

Even without better three-point shooting, the Raptors can create off-ball actions to distract a defence — preventing help or opening up a passing opportunity — or empty out the strong-side corner to remove a help defender.

Split cuts (two players screening for each other above the post-up) should be useful to engage the help defender when Gary Trent Jr., Gradey Dick or even Malachi Flynn are involved. Cuts from the weak side, if timed properly, can also engage help defenders or give the post player a passing option. The Raptors are dead last in scoring off of cuts, but they have at least been emphasizing the need for more cutting; if results come, it should make post-play easier.

Even simple things like lifting out of or filling to the corner with good timing, to stay in Siakam’s eye line or when a help defender turns their head, can go a long way. Siakam is a good post passer and Barnes and Jakob Poeltl are very good two-pass-away connectors.

There’s also whatever this is, a Russian nesting doll post-up sequence.

These plays shouldn’t come at the expense of the primary offence. Laying that foundation and building those habits are important. But the post-up hasn’t actually gone away in the modern NBA, it’s just being used differently, in a way that fits a more fast-paced and spacing-oriented league. Siakam is an effective example of how teams can utilize a traditionally mechanical area of the game as part of a larger offensive shift.

As they build a long-term identity, the Raptors still want to win. Recognizing things like Barnes’s ability to take over as an attacker or Siakam’s ability to hunt mismatches off of switches in the post can help bridge the divide between long-term development and short-term successes.

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