Raptors Weekly: All about chemistry

The Toronto Raptors are at their best when they play as a team.

The best moments of this era of Raptors basketball — those being the post-Rudy Gay run and the 2016 playoffs — were characterized by cohesion. The players rallied around each other and exceeded expectations despite the absence of elite talent. Their stars made them competitive, but those teams were great because role players stepped up during important moments.

Conversely, their flame outs in 2015 and 2017 mainly came down to a lack of trust and a perversion for isolation basketball when things got tough. Once the primary options were neutralized, there were no secondary creators that had the reps, the ability, nor the confidence to make a play, and the results were downright ugly.

Their main initiative after last year was to install a more egalitarian offense, which made sense after they finished with the worst assist rate in decades. The results have been overwhelmingly positive: They rank third in offensive rating, fifth in effective field-goal percentage, and they’ve climbed to being middle of the pack in assists and threes.

Some subtle partnerships have began to blossom as a result of their new style. Teammates have slowly developed their own pet plays, and their chemistry is evident on a nightly basis.

Lowry and DeRozan — Made for each other

You couldn’t ask for better parents to lead the family.

Lowry and DeRozan are that perfect couple that sets an example for how the kids should act. They tease each other when times are good, they support each other when it’s not, and no matter what happens they’re always together. Now in their sixth season as teammates, the two know each other inside out.

They bring the best out of one another and it’s beautiful to watch. Lowry and DeRozan exchange 28.5 passes per game, and they’re both each other’s favorite targets. Lowry throws 34.0 percent of his passes to DeRozan, while it’s 24.6 percent going the other way.

Pet play: 1–2 Pick and Roll

The Raptors run some variation of this action at least a dozen times per game.

Lowry sets a ball screen for DeRozan with the intent of creating a mismatch. The play works because Lowry is a phenomenal screener and a prolific catch-and-shoot option, and because DeRozan bullies smaller players in the post.

It’s usually just a single screen to produce a switch, but sometimes Lowry lines up in a stack to give DeRozan more options to work with. Lowry usually sticks his man on the first try, but they’ll run the play as many times as needed to get the intended result.

Dwane Casey goes to this play all the time in crunch scenarios when the Raptors want to slow the pace, kill clock, and get a good shot. Lowry gets a point guard on DeRozan, and the result is usually a post-up or a pull-up jumper over a smaller player.

Pet play: Transition trailer

This play is a product of trust. Lowry is crafty when he slashes to the rim, but he has a habit of darting into traffic with nowhere to go, especially since recent rule changes have made it nearly impossible to draw fouls at the rim.

DeRozan understands this, which is why he always cuts to the rim when Lowry drives, especially when he’s going baseline. Lowry draws plenty of attention, and so does the trailing big, but he’ll often wait everyone out until DeRozan can swoop in and capitalize.

Lowry knows to wait for DeRozan, and he will often hang in the air as a literal leap of faith before DeRozan comes to his rescue. We saw it in the Bucks game and in the Wizards game. Most notably, we saw this play in 2014 during a dramatic road win over the Celtics.

Pet play: Alley-oop

They make this move once every two weeks. DeRozan catches the defense sleeping and creeps backdoor around a brush screen from Serge Ibaka. The play usually goes to Ibaka at the high post, but once in a while, DeRozan will lose his man and Lowry will find him at the rim.

Siakam and Poeltl — Yak & Skills

You’ll find examples of Siakam and Poeltl all over Toronto.

Two FOB-y immigrants from opposite sides of the world shared a common understanding and became best friends. They were drafted together, rose through the ranks together, wasted way too many hours on FIFA, and now they’re living the dream.

Pet play: Drive and dump

They work together in perfect harmony. Siakam operates as a tertiary playmaker by attacking a scrambling defense, and he’s always looking to draw a crowd in order to slip a pass to Poeltl under the rim. Most of this relies upon whether or not Siakam can get his defender to bite on a pump fake, but Poeltl makes the most of it by always repositioning himself to receive the pass.

Helping to make each other’s lives better — it’s the immigrant way.

DeRozan and Ibaka — Halfcourt game

Having a big who can shoot makes everything easier.

DeRozan immediately recognized the value of Ibaka after he joined them last season, and has consistently shown confidence in him. DeRozan throws 21.7 percent of his passes to Ibaka and they combine for 1.3 assists per game. Establishing the threat of Ibaka helps create more space for DeRozan to work with.

Pet play: Pick-and-Pop

Defenses are always weary of the drive from DeRozan, so they tend to overplay him and use Ibaka’s man to cut off the paint. Ibaka is adept at playing in space, relocating to open spots, and is never short of confidence with the jumper.

They switch it up once in a while, as Ibaka surprises defenders by going hard to the hole instead of hanging around the perimeter. It also helps that Ibaka is hitting 71.7 percent of his shots in the restricted area.

Lowry and any athletic big — Dare to pass

Lowry thrives on chaos.

He can’t rely on any physical endowments, which means he must be opportunistic. Lowry’s gift is that he thinks the game faster than everyone else, so he pushes the pace to maximize this advantage. But in order for this strategy to work, he needs athletes to run with him.

Pet play: Touchdown pass

Pairing him with Pascal Siakam made all the sense in the world. Siakam runs the floor faster than any forward in the league, and Lowry is always looking for him, especially when he collects the rebound.

They don’t share the floor often, but 22 percent of Lowry’s passes to Siakam become assists, which makes him Lowry’s most prolific target.

Pet play: Throw it to the sky

Lowry shares effortless chemistry with Bebe Nogueira for the same reason. He runs the floor and is able to play above the rim.

In 843 minutes together dating back to last season, the Raptors are scoring an absurd 1.17 points per play when Lowry plays with Nogueira. During that time, Nogueira holds an absurd true-shooting percentage of 71.3.

Most of that offense is generated off lobs. Again, Lowry often gets stuck when he’s driving to the basket, so having a massive 7-foot outlet ready to flush everything is a useful option.