TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors ‘LeBron problem’ of recent years was really a team defence problem.
The Raptors were the worst defensive team in last year’s post-season, allowing 116.1 points per 100 possessions, a mighty tumble for a team ranked fifth in regular season defensive rating at 105.1.
And yes, the Raptors got LeBronned in the second round – the Cavaliers scored an unfathomable 126.7/100 against Toronto in their sweep – but even a fairly average Washington Wizards club was able to run up the score in the first round on what was supposed to be a solid defensive lineup.
Last year was the third consecutive time the Raptors defensive rating was worse in the playoffs than the regular season. A bad sign given that increased familiarity, game-planning and focus on things like easy scores in transition should favour defences, rather than offence.
Unless you simply don’t have the horses. It’s no coincidence the roster makeover Raptors president Masai Ujiri triggered last summer and continued at the trade deadline was – at heart – a defence for offence move.
Last year at this time the Raptors were starting DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas – both of whom will play their entire careers without getting an all-defensive team vote – and OG Anunoby, who one day might be an all-NBA defender but wasn’t at that level as a 20-year-old rookie.
When the Raptors hit the floor for Game 3 of their opening-round series against the Orlando Magic they’ll be doing it with the best roster of defenders they’ve ever had.
There is Marc Gasol at centre – the 2013 defensive player of the year and a three-time all-NBA defender and Danny Green at shooting guard, who was an all-NBA defender in 2016-17 and deserved consideration this season. The centre piece is Kawhi Leonard who has been recognized as the league’s DPOY twice and has a reputation that influences opponents, game plans and referees.
Pascal Siakam could get some all-defence votes this year for his uncanny ability to guard four positions and sometimes five, while Kyle Lowry leads the NBA in charges, is one of the toughest guards in the league to post-up after he switches onto a big and is among the smartest players in the league when it comes to recognizing and blowing up other team’s offensive sets. On the bench, Serge Ibaka has been a first-team all-NBA defender three times and Fred VanVleet is acknowledged as the team’s best on-ball cover man.
The Raptors were a very good defensive team in the regular season – ranking fifth in defensive rating – despite having to manoeuvre around 22 different starting lineups and a major mid-season trade.
The plan in the post-season is to become a great one.
So far so good. The Raptors were solid in Game 1 against Orlando in a tight loss and simply superb in a blowout win in Game 2.
“I think it was a total team effort, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “On the ball, off the ball, disruption on the ball, breakdowns were getting covered up quickly, transition defence was better. Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Who are you?’ That’s who we need to be.”
The bodies were littered all over the Magic’s side of the box score. DJ Augustin, who exploded for a career playoff-high 25 points in Game 1, was stripped off the ball on the first possession of Game 2 and managed one field goal for the game.
Nikola Vucevic came into the series averaging 20.8 points a game as one of the NBA’s most versatile offensive big men. In two games spent being harassed by Gasol, Ibaka and various pesky helpers, he’s averaging 8.5 points on 28.6 per cent shooting. Terrence Ross is one of the NBA’s most dangerous bench scorers but is shooting 33 per cent against his old team even after a 15-point second quarter outburst in Game 2.
It’s a formula the Raptors should be able to repeat and, if they do, the series should be a short one, even with Toronto dropping Game 1. Orlando had the NBA’s 22nd-ranked offence during the regular season and even as they finished the campaign on a 22-9 roll it wasn’t because they were out-scoring teams, although they were 12th on offence over that stretch. Their surge was driven by their top-ranked defence.
The question is: Can the Raptors keep growing as a defensive force as the competition gets tougher?
There is reason for optimism. This is the most consistency they’ve had with their roster all season, and they will be getting even more defensive versatility back on Friday when Patrick McCaw is expected to returns from sprained thumb. The jury remains out on Anunoby who can also turn games defensively as he spent the weekend and then some in hospital after an emergency appendectomy on Thursday night. The common wisdom is he’s weeks away.
But simply having a healthy eight or nine-man rotation from game-to-game and consecutive practice days to focus on a single opponent and their tendencies should allow the Raptors to fine-tune their defence even more.
“It shouldn’t be any other way,” said Gasol who had four steals in Game 2. “Especially after the first one, when you lose your home court advantage after the first game of a series, you understand that sense of urgency and that fire.”
Orlando will try to have their say. The franchise will be hosting their first playoff game in seven years on Friday night. The Amway Center should be energized and the Magic will be motivated.
“I would imagine they’re extremely pissed off this morning. And I imagine they’re going to be pissed off for the next 48 hours until the ball goes up,” Nurse said of the Magic after the Raptors practised at the OVO Centre Wednesday.
“That’s playoff basketball. Can you not get too happy after a win? Can you understand how determined the team is going to be after a loss and bring the energy you need to bring?”
That’s the Raptors challenge in Game 3, but it’s clear after two playoff games that if the Raptors bring their energy defensively they should be able to handle anything the Magic can offer.
The question is what the Raptors will be able do after that.