Duncan Robinson's Playoff Preview

The Toronto Raptors Lock In On Miami's Elite Shooter
Duncan Robinson
by Couper Moorhead

A few minutes into the first quarter of the first game since entering the Orlando Bubble, Jimmy Butler spun baseline into the paint drawing multiple Sacramento Kings defenders. Seconds later, Duncan Robinson found himself all by himself in the weakside corner, catching Butler’s pass with enough time to test the wind and leaf through a 1980 issue of Uncanny X-Men before launching the first of his five threes that day.

After four months off, the Kings had momentarily forgotten who Robinson was.

Monday, the Toronto Raptors didn’t make the same mistake. They locked onto one of the league’s best shooters in a manner that portends the attention he’ll be getting when the playoff begin in a couple weeks.

Robinson’s rise to the elite tier of role player may have been historically sudden, going from an unknown to posting, by volume and efficiency, maybe the best shooting season anyone not named Steph Curry has had. But teams have had ample time to catch up. He’s long since passed being a secret. Every opponent is well aware that Miami is 14.3 points per 100 possessions better with Robinson on the floor, the best impact mark in the entire league. You don’t have to tell Nick Nurse that Robinson is on-command lightning in a bottle.

So Nurse, who had plenty of time to scheme shooters during last season’s championship run, set his team to work making sure Robinson couldn’t do what he does so well. By game’s end, Robinson had taken just four threes.

“We got so caught up in the game that we didn’t even realize that Duncan had only taken (four shots),” Bam Adebayo said. “That can’t happen too often. We have to lock in and figure out schemes and ways to feed off each other but also make sure Duncan also has to get at least open looks.”

What the Raptors did wasn’t complicated, but it was intentional. If Robinson was a threat to catch and pull, they removed the threat. Even if the defender was typically in a spot that would provide help, where Kyle Lowry may have typically chucked Adebayo off his roll here below, the clamps stayed on.

Lowry On Duncan

If Miami’s ball movement – typically excellent but often jammed up in this one due to Toronto’s switching defenders – sprung an unexpected passing lane, the closeout was coming while the ball was in the air. All that defensive length cast a shadow on Robinson’s shooting motion.

Those labyrinthine screens the HEAT use to free up their shooters? The Raptors were pointing and communicating through them all. Free yourself from one magnet, find another one attached to your chest.

Most cleverly, OG Anunoby was assigned the job of defending Adebayo and what Anunoby gave up in size he made up for with his mobility. When Adebayo and Robinson tried to run one of their dribble handoffs, which may be the single deadliest action in the team’s arsenal and a combo that leads the league in handoff threes, Anunoby would jump out onto Robinson and blow things up before they got going.

Robinson’s one three did come off one of Adebayo’s handoffs, but it was made with Anunoby’s hand firmly in face. Miami’s pair ran just two of those actions all game.

Here’s the question, then: Is all of this a bad thing?

Extra attention sent Robinson’s way can be a boon for an offense. Granted if your spacing isn’t right then you can effectively be funneling the same traffic down a highway with the express lane shut down. But if help isn’t coming where it usually comes from, that means there is space where there usually isn’t. Space means driving and passing lanes, and driving and passing lanes typically means there’s an open shot to find. With Robinson improving by the game at utilizing his own floor gravity, it makes sense to utilize the 4-on-4 or 4-on-3 situations that you’re afforded.

“Duncan, he works at it and he tends to figure it out,” Erik Spoelstra said. “The gameplans are in bold with him and I think that’s great. It ultimately helps our offense.”

On the other hand, this can be easier said than done. Against Denver the other day, the HEAT looked like the 2015 Golden State Warriors as they Curry-to-Green’d their way to one open three after another. But Toronto did a much better job of gunking up the machine. If they make every pass 10 percent tougher, and you need three passes to find the open man, then the right play is 30 percent more difficult to execute. The math checks out. Just trust it.

In the most basic sense, using Robinson as a gravity well means creating shots for players who are decidedly not Duncan Robinson. It’s logical if you’re getting wide open looks, especially with the shooting personnel available to Spoelstra, but there’s something to be said for the defense accomplishing its goal of limiting opportunities for one of the league’s absolute best.

“We have built-in actions to shake him free” Spoelstra said. “They defended those very well. We put the ball on the floor, and you have to constantly move and relocated and get into open spots and Toronto did a good job with Duncan.”

Before the team got going during a second-half comeback, they were 5-of-23 from deep in the first half. At that point, Robinson had attempted one lonely three.

“We were just missing shots,” Adebayo said. “We were getting good looks, we were just missing shots. That’s the bottom line. We weren’t making open shots.”

Not every team has a Lowry or Anunoby or Fred Van Vleet with which to hound Robinson, but they all have someone. The good defenses do, at least, and there aren’t many weak defenses left in the postseason– which is what we’re really talking about here. What works against a base, regular-season scheme doesn’t always work when the looks become tailor made.

If it’s not what Toronto did showing up in a couple weeks, it’ll be something similar. There won’t be any gameplan that doesn’t involve Robinson front and center. How Miami solves that problem when the time comes will play a huge part in deciding their playoff fate.

Shooting matters, as much if not more to Miami as to anyone else. The HEAT may have lost Monday, but at least they were given a glimpse of what’s to come.

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