TORONTO – The first round of the 2014-15 playoffs hung over the start of this year’s rematch between the Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors. In the earlier edition, the Wizards swept the Raptors, sending them to large-scale changes and setting up a narrative that will persist at least until the end of the current rematch, depending on how things go: The Raptors can’t win in the playoffs, because their perennially excellent regular-season offense dries up there.
That probably wasn’t fair or predictive given the roster churn for both sides since then, but that narrative won’t be shaken until the Raptors fulfill the full promise of their roster in the postseason. There was a subplot from that earlier series that maybe didn’t carry enough weight entering this one, though: The 2015 playoffs were essentially the education of Otto Porter, a trial-by-fire defensive test in the form of four games opposite DeMar DeRozan.
To that point, Porter had yet to consistently deliver on the promise of his 6’9 frame with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, strong block, steal, and rebound rates for a wing, and the second-best WARP projection in the class that made him the No. 3 pick in 2013. He was just a sophomore, after all, and after playing sparingly as a rookie, his second season provided occasional, if irregular, flashes. In the playoffs, though, Porter would be paramount.
“That was my first time really being out on the court in the playoffs,” Porter told Dime at shootaround Tuesday. “I was just trying to do whatever it takes to stay out there on the court. And then I had to guard an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, which was hard. Like, nothing was easy about it. He’s an All-Star for a reason, and he’s only gotten better since then. He’s gotten way better since then. But it was just a great experience to play against a top-notch player like that in a time where everything counts. Like, this is what you’ve been playing for. This is what you worked for. Playing against him really helped me out, to develop.”
Porter averaged 31.9 minutes over the four games (a big spike from 19.4 in the regular season), the bulk of them spent guarding DeRozan. DeRozan wasn’t yet the multifaceted player then that he is now. In 2015, he was still largely a midrange jump-shooter with a strong in-between game but a nascent left hand and only decent playmaking instincts. Still, he was an All-Star the year prior, had the ball a ton, and had averaged over 20 points for a second consecutive year.
For four games, Porter helped frustrate DeRozan with his size and length. For the series, he shot 40 percent on 20 attempts per game, staying in line with his season scoring average and bumping his assists rate but at a notable cost to his scoring efficiency. He made life hard for DeRozan, and he got the ball out of his hands – DeRozan posted a 41-percent true-shooting mark with Porter on the court in the series and the Wizards outscored Toronto by 38 in those 93 minutes.
Porter did his job as well as any sophomore could be asked, and he picked up a wealth of experience in the process. The playoffs are an entirely different beast for learning on the fly, and that’s especially true for a defender tasked almost singularly with stopping an All-Star. Possession after possession, a scorer shows the defender something, and while the offensive player always has the benefit of his own will and creativity, a defender can prepare better and better each successive time out.
He was still developing as a defender when tasked with the DeRozan assignment, and young players take time to turn defensive tools into production. It wasn’t until the next season that Porter became a defensive positive based on Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus metric, and over the last three years, he’s been worth between 1.4 and 2.2 points per-100 defensive possessions, good enough to grade out as a top-50 defender in the league through that multi-year lens.
In other words, Porter has made good on that experience and DeRozan’s noticed.
“Long, got great awareness, and a guy like that over the years of experience of guarding the best players in the league, you gain that confidence of feeling like you a great defender,” DeRozan said before the series. “Over the years of playing him, you seem him getting better and better, with his hands, his awareness, all the small things that it takes to be a good defender, he has.”