Raptors’ deep-rooted defensive culture key to championship aspirations

Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) scores against Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka (9) and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors had an internal goal after the NBA season went on hiatus on March 11: Win the pause.

That was the focus for the organization, from team president Masai Ujiri on down — find ways to use the time at hand to prepare, analyze and improve.

Through the first three games of the schedule since play resumed in the league’s quarantine bubble on the campus of Walt Disney World Resort, the Raptors seem to have nailed it.

Not only are the defending NBA champions 3-0 in their eight-game reseeding schedule after their 109-99 win over the Orlando Magic, a potential first-round playoff opponent, it’s the way they’ve done it that is serving notice that they are serious contenders to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals — and significant threats to do some damage to whichever superstar-driven team ends up emerging from the West.

Toronto was already either the first- or second-best defensive team in the league before the hiatus, and now? They are somehow better, having barely played for five months.

In the 142 days they went between games, the Raptors have gone from being really, really good at keeping other teams from scoring to being really, really good at making other teams look around at each other and wonder what the point was of even trying.

They are a better team, defensively, than they were last season when they had two all-defensive team starters in their lineup — including Kawhi Leonard, arguably one of the greatest defenders the league has ever seen.

They believe they are a good enough team, defensively, to repeat as NBA champions.

Three games isn’t the largest of sample sizes, but tell that to the Magic, who were held to 25 per cent shooting in the first quarter Wednesday night, and then 35 per cent in the second quarter and found themselves trailing 55-35 at half.

The Raptors took their foot of the gas a little in the second half, but never enough to give up control of their victim. The Magic were going down and the Raptors would decide when they would be allowed up.

Then again, the Magic don’t need much convincing. They’ve now lost eight straight games to Toronto going back to their first-round playoff series last season, while scoring an average of 91.25 points a game.

But the Magic shouldn’t feel too badly. The Raptors held LeBron James and Anthony Davis and their Los Angeles Lakers to 92 points in their first seeding game, so.

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It’s becoming clear that this is who the Raptors are — an amorphous blob of bodies and limbs that operates with a single, shared defensive brain. Opponents don’t get the luxury of beating one Raptor at a time, they have to beat all five, and more often than not, it’s not going to happen.

“It’s a matter of will,” said Marc Gasol after helping limit Magic All-Star centre Nikola Vucevic to an ineffectual 12 points on 10 shots, a Raptors tradition. “Defensively, it’s like believing in what the coaches are telling you, and everybody having each other’s backs. It’s a matter of continuous effort. It’s not one effort that’s going to stop the play. It’s not two, it’s not three. We’ll continue to make efforts and make it as tough as possible for the other team and continuing possessions with rebounding.

“It’s a matter of will, right? And I think, in our locker room, if you don’t have the will, or the discipline, to play defence, it is going to be really hard for you to see the floor, and that gives the coaches a lot of credit …they have high standards defensively, and I think that’s what separates the good teams from the great teams.

“I think that’s who we are.”

They are a coach’s dream, in other words.

While the appetite for defence in the NBA is far undersold by the general public — anyone who has had the privilege to see even regular-season games played up close would be shocked at the overall intensity on both sides of the ball – it is something that doesn’t come naturally to all teams, and not all teams want to make the sacrifices necessary to play great team defence all the time.

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The Raptors don’t have that problem.

“Before a pass is ever made you’ve got to have some desire, you have to have some readiness, you got to have some anticipation, you’ve got to have some IQ before the ball’s even started in an offensive sequence,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are locked in on that.

“They pay attention to the game plans, they’re basketball guys, they watch the other teams, they study them, they like stopping them, it’s kind of an interesting thing that they got going. They come to the game and they start figuring out how we’re going to stop them. They really try to make adjustments, there’s communication amongst them, each other.

“[It] kind of feeds it from there.”

The current buzzword for it is ‘culture’ – where habits and expectations are in place almost without anyone being aware of them. There are no longer rules and demands but an understanding of how things are done that gets passed on within the group, organically.

The Raptors have that in many ways and right now it’s manifesting itself in their defensive approach. The results are remarkable. Toronto had a defensive rating of 104.9 before the hiatus, which was good for second in the NBA.

Over their past three games they’ve dropped that to 96.1, which is first by a mile. They held teams to 106 points a game before the season was stopped, tops in the league, and now they’re holding opponents to 98.9 points a game, best again. Through three games teams are shooting just 39.5 per cent from the floor, compared to 42.7 before March 11, which was second in the league at the time.

The Raptors have high standards for themselves, and they’re exceeding them.

“I think it just starts from the top down, obviously Nick kind of sets the tone, and the coaching staff sets the tone and then it’s just a collection of what kind of guys you’ve got, like what is your character like?” said Fred VanVleet, who leads the NBA in deflections and is among the league leaders in steals. “Do you have defensive-minded guys? Do you have guys who are pissed off when they get scored on?

“That’s kind of the beginning of it, and then it gets to the point — once you’ve got enough of that — [where] you look bad when you don’t play defence. Like you stick out like a sore thumb. So when guys are watching the game you can tell when a guy’s not on the same page as everybody else, it looks bad, and guys feel that, and you don’t want to be that guy — ever — on the court.

“So, I think we’re just learning and growing and pulling some of the new guys along with this. Obviously to win a championship you have to play extremely great defence for a long time and we did that. And that just gave us even more confidence on that end of the floor that what we’re doing is working.”

You want some culture? The Raptors have some culture, and their culture is about stopping other teams in their tracks, about making the game very unenjoyable for them, and they’re very good at it.

The Raptors look like they may well have ‘won the pause,’ and more importantly have the look of a team that’s ready to win much more than that.

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