TORONTO – When you hear outside discussions about the Toronto Raptors they’re regularly spoken with a general tone of confusion.
Oftentimes they sound like the following:
If anyone would actually bother to tune into the Raptors for more than just the two-minute highlight pack this season, the answer to this question would be as plain as day.
No, the Raptors no longer have a gravitational, top-five superstar-like player like Leonard on their roster, but they still have a large part of the championship core that won that title with Leonard last season, and — most importantly — that championship-level defence these guys played through all of last year’s title run not only translated to this season, it improved.
So, to anyone who wants to know how the Raptors have remained as dangerous a championship threat as ever, just take a look at what they do on the defensive end — with their latest contest against the Orlando Magic serving as a good example, in particular.
On a night when no one Toronto player, in particular, stood out offensively — although six Raptors players finished the evening in double-digit scoring and Fred VanVleet finished with a 21-point, 10-assist double-double — it was the Raptors’ defence that spoke loudest in their 109-99 victory Wednesday night.
In total, the Raptors held the Magic to only 40.2 per cent shooting, including an abysmal 11-of-41 from three-point range.
If nothing else, Magic all-star Nikola Vucevic won’t soon forget about the stifling defence the Raptors are capable of, as it was a familiarly unproductive Wednesday evening for him against Toronto.
The Raptors have had Vucevic’s number since the post-season last year when the Magic star only average 11.2 points on 36.2 per cent shooting and it only got worse for him from there.
The combination of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have held Vucevic to just four points per game on 10 per cent shooting against the Raptors this season and on Wednesday he didn’t fare much better, only managing 12 points and going 4-for-10 from the field.
“Marc and Serge are two really, really good defensive bigs,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after the game. “You gotta kinda divide the game up, 24 minutes apiece, for both of ‘em and it gives them a chance to put great effort into the game and go after him.”
It’s a little more complicated than that but, essentially, with the ability to throw two plus-defenders onto Vucevic, the Raptors have a luxury that most other teams simply don’t have.
“I think its great,” Norman Powell said of the benefits having both Gasol and Ibaka. “I think Marc does a great job of using his body, being big and leading the defence, of being back, talking in coverages, making sure we are getting the rotations and stuff down. He’s a big body down there. It’s really hard for guys to score over and finish over him.
“Serge does a great job as well. With that, moving his feet, being able to switch and do different coverages with those guys really make us really deadly you know to be able to change our defence possession-by-possession if we have to.”
The defensive acumen Powell spoke about regarding Gasol, Ibaka and the rest of the Raptors was best seen in the first half of Wednesday’s game when Toronto held Orlando to 30 per cent shooting from the floor and carried a 55-35 lead at the break.
Toronto’s defence did take a bit of a dive in the second half — with the Magic managing 64 points on 48.9 per cent shooting — but the work the Raptors did to put the clamps on Orlando in the first half was more than enough.
“We obviously weren’t as energetic and alert, etc., in the second half but I was super impressed with the first half. I ain’t tripping about the second half,” said Nurse.
With the Raptors all but indentured into the No. 2 seed, knowing they can still lock up Vucevic and the Magic is good information to have. There’s a chance they could see Orlando in the first round of the playoffs and, honestly, it would probably be a welcome sight.
Toronto has not lost to the Magic since D.J. Augustin exploded in the Game 1 of these two clubs’ first-round series last year.
Simply put, as is the case for most of the league, the Raptors’ defence is just too stifling for the Magic to do anything about it.
And if you can’t put a dent in this Raptors fortress you just aren’t going to win.