The Toronto Raptors should have one of the most stagnant offenses in the NBA. They lead the league in dribbles per touch, average fewer passes per game than the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers, and hold the ball longer per touch than 25 other teams. The team from the Great North should be slow, plodding, and inefficient. Instead, due in large part to DeMar DeRozan's deliberate brilliance with the basketball, they are a top-five offense.
Consider this: Toronto's All-Star shooting guard has attempted more two-point field goals than DeMarcus Cousins, gotten to the free throw line more frequently than LeBron James, attacked the basket more efficiently than James Harden, and scored more points off drives than every other player in the league.
As evidenced by these numbers, DeRozan's nearly unparalleled ability to beat opponents off the dribble, dominate the paint, and draw contact makes guarding him in the half court an absolute nightmare for opponents. There's no denying that he's been lethal against the Pacers. No player attempted more free throws against Indiana's top-three defense this season than Toronto's relentless driver.
"We've got to be smart against offense-initiated contact," Frank Vogel told the Indy Star's Nate Taylor ahead of his team's final regular season meeting with the Raptors. "It's something that the league has got to look at in terms of the James Hardens and the DeMar DeRozans of the world that are going to swing their arms through defenders. If you don't have discipline with their hands and you don't make an effort to pull your arms out of those situations, they're going to rightfully go to the free-throw line. We haven't done a good job of that."
Instead of focusing on how to better defend without fouling, it might be more prudent for the Pacers to consider (stay with me) abandoning close defense all together. To his credit, DeRozan is shooting a career-best 33.8 percent on three-pointers, but he's attempted fewer shots from distance this season than Rajon Rondo (as well as every other guard who played at least 2500 total minutes). Being devastatingly good off the dribble has clearly reduced his incentive to let the ball fly from behind the arc. More tellingly though, is that his field-goal percentage declines with increased space between himself and his defender.
With those figures in mind, here are a few reasons why sagging off DeMar DeRozan might be worth the risk for the Indiana Pacers.
Less than 30 percent of Toronto's starting shooting guard's made field goals are assisted. As was further expounded upon above, that's because he is masterful with the basketball in his hands, leading the league in points per drive and ranking in the 93rd percentile as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. He is decidedly less threatening when he doesn't get to pound the ball, shooting below 37 percent off the catch.
Given this disparity, prodding DeRozan to make the switch from his team's chaffeur to passenger should be a no-brainer.
Paul George scores or assists on 31.5 percent of Indiana's offense. If he plays opposite DeRozan (dependent upon how Toronto reintegrates DeMarre Carroll), the Pacers can't afford for their franchise player to be in foul trouble; or, perhaps worse, exhausted from the rigors of guarding the crashing waves of dribble-drives.
The same goes for Ian Mahinmi, who will be anchoring Indiana's second-line of defense. Because Indiana's starting center is tasked with cleaning up the mess left behind by whichever close defender Toronto's All-Star gets the step on, Mahinmi averaged more fouls per game against the Raptors than any other opponent. The Pacers allow a team-worst 102.0 points per 100 possessions with Mahinmi on the bench.
Should the Pacers decide to give DeRozan more space to shoot, there would, by nature, be less opportunity for him to draw offense-initiated contact.
Fewer Free Throws:
Attempting 8.4 free throws per game, Toronto's starting shooting guard only trails James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins in average trips to the charity stripe. The Raptors are 23-8 when he attempts nine or more. He's averaged 9.3 against the Pacers.
The third game in the season series between the two teams was ultimately determined at the free throw line, where the Raptors connected on 30-of-38 free throw attempts and Indiana missed seven gimmes including a go-ahead freebie on the team's final possession of regulation, resulting in a seven-point overtime loss for the Pacers.
"It comes down to discipline," Ian Mahinmi said of that contest to the Indy Star's Nate Taylor. "You want to play hard and play tough, but you also want play smart. There's no point to play hard and then foul them and put them to the line, you know, 40 or 30 times. We felt very disappointed after the last time we played them. Hopefully we learned from the mistakes we made."
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Baiting DeRozan into settling for jumpers is, of course, easier theorized than done. Hanging back in the paint brings with it the hazard that the crafty shooting guard could catch fire as an uncontested shooter. Additionally, the possibility looms that the Pacers, by going under on Toronto's flare or ball screens, could just be giving him a head of steam to the basket. Still, those unintended consequences would be easier for Indiana to adjust to than either Paul George or Ian Mahinmi spending extended time on the bench while the Raptors make a steady parade to the free throw line.
"Even though at the end of the day I know I can shoot threes," DeRozan told SI.com's DeAntae Prince, "I feel comfortable in the style I like playing, and until I'm proven otherwise when I'm out there on the court, I'm going to stick to it."
Being brave enough to call that bluff is the stuff by which post-season wrinkles are made.