Raptors’ big off-season gamble rests on defensive improvement

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse says he embraces the high expectations placed on his club, and says the number of wins doesn’t really matter to him, it’s more about how they perform in the playoffs.

They were only two quarters in two meaningless exhibition games but they provided a window into the thinking behind turning a very successful NBA franchise inside out, a pivot unlike anything the Toronto Raptors have experienced in their 23-year history.

A 59-win team was remade in the space of a few weeks, ideally improved and presented with a suitcase of potential going tick, tick, tick.

Leverage that potential, win the big bet Raptors president Masai Ujiri made on the club’s off-season reboot and there could be an unprecedented jackpot — an NBA Finals appearance, and maybe something more.

Fall short, stumble, go splat? See team go boom.

The Raptors’ days as an Eastern Conference power will be over. It will be time to begin again.

It’s the gamble Masai Ujiri made when he decided to replace NBA coach of the year Dwane Casey — the most successful coach the franchise has ever had and DeMar DeRozan — its iconic all-time leading scorer in the NBA’s boldest summer remake.

In very short order we’ll find out if it might work. If hiring Nick Nurse and trading for Kawhi Leonard were moves that could put the Raptors over the top.

Wednesday night Toronto hosts the ghosts of the past, the Cleveland Cavaliers, sans LeBron and Friday it gets a glimpse of the East’s next (projected) beasts: the Boston Celtics.

Few Raptors openers have been this highly anticipated. After five playoff years marked by continuity and consistency and ultimately disappointment what happens next is a mystery.

“Inherently there’s a newness with Nick and obviously Kawhi,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “Over the past few years we’ve had the same core and we’ve had a lot of the same pieces coming back every year so there’s always a newness as far as what to expect, what are we looking for.”

Two 12-minute segments of pre-season basketball offered the best window yet into why the bold moves were made and what could happen — what needs to happen — for them to be successful.

On Oct. 2 in Utah the Raptors lost 105-90 to an emerging Western Conference heavyweight. But the final score didn’t matter. They won the game within the game by knockout.

In the second quarter with the two teams playing all their key rotation pieces, the Raptors ran the Jazz off the floor, winning the period 33-15.

They were dominant, holding Utah to just six field goals and finishing up defensive possessions by limiting the Jazz to just two offensive rebounds, and that was if they got a shot off at all, as the Raptors forced nine turnovers. Toronto outshot Utah 24-19.

Toronto sprinted to the attack off turnovers and defensive rebounds with nearly anyone licensed to lead the break and anyone not with the ball with the green light to step into wide-open threes, be it point guard Fred VanVleet feeding trailing centre Serge Ibaka or power forward Pascal Siakam forcing the ball into the throat of the defence only to find shooting guard Danny Green open on the wing.

There was more of the same in the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 10 in Montreal as they shredded the game by forcing an astounding 12 turnovers in the period.

The shot totals looked like something from a lopsided hockey game as the Raptors had 24 field-goal attempts to the Nets’ 16. Green and Leonard combined for six steals which were converted into a steady stream of fast-break dunks and transition threes, while the Nets made just four shots to the Raptors’ 12. The only thing that prevented the game being even more out of hand was Toronto somehow whiffing on eight layups.

Two quarters of exhibition play don’t make a season, but it’s hard not to watch moments within them — Leonard swallowing ball-handlers whole or second-year Leonard understudy OG Anunoby forcing shooters into awkward, off-balance shots, or the newly acquired Green digging at the ball and coming up with steals — and not envision what could happen.

“I like the potential,” said Green, who made the NBA’s all-defensive team in 2016-17. “Obviously we know our offence is good, we can score, we can get up and down. But defensively is where we’re going to be dangerous … we have so many guys who can switch down the line [in pick-and-roll coverage], we just have to communicate, rotate and be active.”

Afterwards, holding court in the hallway outside the Raptors dressing room at Bell Centre, Nurse was beaming like a proud papa. If he had a cigar box, it would have been quickly emptied.

“We have been working on turning up the aggressiveness a little bit and we had 14 deflections in the third quarter, which is a humongous number,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to do. We’ve got a team that can be more aggressive and we want to play more aggressive and we didn’t really let them for a while [in training camp] because we were trying to put in more foundational principles. [Now] we’re trying to get closer to the way we want to play.”

This wasn’t necessarily what was first anticipated when the Raptors fired Casey and hired Nurse, whose reputation was built on sparking up-tempo, free-flowing offence.

He received lots of credit for the changes the Raptors integrated offensively a year ago — jumping from 22nd to third in three-pointers attempted and to 11th from 30th in the percentage of baskets that were assisted — enough to earn the Raptors the third-ranked offence in the NBA.

Defensively — a portfolio overseen by former assistant Rex Kalamian, now with the Los Angeles Clippers — Toronto was no slouch either, finishing fifth in the league in defensive rating, allowing 105.1 points per 100 possessions.

It just couldn’t stop good teams when it mattered.

The symptoms of the disease that killed Toronto’s season were there. It was NBA.com stats guru John Schumann who quantified what many could see with the naked eye — the Raptors struggled to contain the best offensive teams in the league, even during their franchise-best regular season.

In 62 games against the NBA’s bottom 20 offences, the Raptors had the second-best defensive rating in the league at 99.5, per Schumann — a big reason the Raptors were a league-best 35-2 against sub-.500 teams.

Against the top 10 offences? They allowed a sieve-like 115.4, the second-worst mark in the league.

Even in their six-game first-round win against the Wizards the Raptors defence was bent, if not broken — allowing the Wizards to score 106.7 points per 100 possessions, just a hair below their season average — not what you would expect of top seed against No. 8 in the conference.

Against the Cavaliers, the dam broke as Cleveland scored 121.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be an all-time regular-season record. What made it look worse was that the Cavs only had a 103.4 rating in the first round against the Indiana Pacers as they were pushed to seven games, and 104 as they squeaked by Boston in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals.

Maybe the Raptors didn’t have a LeBron problem. Maybe they just had problems.

“I think there is some digging to do on actually how good our team was defensively last year,” said Nurse. “This is a task. I know everybody talks about me and my offence, but we’ve spent 85 per cent of the last 10 days [of practice] digging in here on the defensive end. It’s going to be something we really pride ourselves in … I think we’re going to be aggressive and dial it up … we want to be aggressive and disruptive and get our hands on balls. I want blocked shots, [and to] protect the rim.”

Not only does Nurse have a much deeper pool of defensively capable personnel, he’s also relieved of having to try and figure out how to hide DeRozan, who was a consistent target of other teams trying to find a weakness to exploit, an elephant in the room that no one was comfortable talking about.

Instead of trying to attack DeRozan, teams this year will be trying to avoid Leonard, only to find themselves trying to attack Green, Anunoby, Siakam or Delon Wright. By having Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas split the minutes at centre, Nurse can run schemes that fit their strengths too.

There was a recognition that Toronto needed to change the way it defended against better teams and with the addition of Leonard and Green, it can.

“We saw it with some of the talent we had, that our team was dynamic enough to be an aggressive defensive team,” said Ujiri. “That’s the way the game is now, and then we added two big-time defenders.”

Leonard may be a man of few words but he’s on board. Even as he’s shaking the rust off after playing just nine games last season, he’s shown defensive acumen that is eye-popping at times.

His first defensive possession in pre-season resulted in a deflection. On one possession against Utah, he broke up a dribble hand-off at the top of the three-point line, killing the primary play and then slid back to the wing like a free safety reading a desperate quarterback and picked off the wobbly pass he’d just caused. It was defence as offence. He had seven steals against the Nets and at times seemed to inhale his man in one piece.

“That’s how you win games, that’s how you get your winning streaks going and fuel your offence,” Leonard said. “So we want to get our hands in the passing lanes, get deflections, get out in the open court and get easy layups and just keep moving from there.”

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

The Raptors will score. They’ve been a fixture among the NBA’s top four offences for four seasons. They may have lost their leading point producer in DeRozan, but a healthy Leonard more than offsets that. There is no reason to expect their young core to regress. Green gives them another proven shooter.

But this season isn’t about being able to grind out regular season wins like clockwork, an admirable legacy of the Casey-DeRozan era Raptors. There is no sugarcoating it. When a 59-win team fires the coach of the year and a two-time All-NBA player, the goal is to do something different, something new, something better.

“If you want to lay it right out there, I don’t think 59, or 54 or 52, or 48 or 62 [wins] means anything to this organization right now,” said Nurse. “It’s going to be how our team performs in the playoffs, and what kind of a run we make.”

It’s a big gamble, any way you analyze it. Now we get to see if it was worth it.

But for two quarters in the pre-season, the Raptors defended like something different, something new, something better.

Do that, and their big bet just might pay off.

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