In ever-evolving NBA, Raptors' length and athleticism opens doors on defence

Philadelphia 76ers' Shaquille Harrison (8) goes up for a shot against Toronto Raptors' Justin Champagnie (11) and Dalano Banton (45) during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Under head coach Nick Nurse, the Toronto Raptors have always worked to stay abreast of league trends, or even push the envelope on what might be next.

As an assistant coach, Nurse received a considerable amount of credit for overseeing an effort to inject more spacing, ball movement and player movement into an offensive approach that had grown too reliant on DeMar DeRozan’s mid-range isolations. The result was a team-record 59-win season in 2017-18. Nurse also had his fingerprints on the "bench mob" – the high-tempo, aggressive defence-first group that was a big part of the Raptors' regular-season success.

Since becoming head coach in 2019-19, Nurse’s defensive focus has been more apparent, with the Raptors embracing liberal switching on the perimeter as well as a growing reliance on zone defences – tactics that were less common across the league than they quickly became.

But basketball’s pace of change hasn’t stalled. You can only pay so much attention to games that don’t matter, but it’s hard not to notice that in pre-season play the Golden State Warriors are putting up an astounding 55 three-point shots a game. Four other teams – Sacramento, Denver, Utah and Oklahoma City are averaging 45 three-point attempts.

For context the only teams in league history to average 45 three-point shots a game were the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Houston Rockets, with James Harden at his gun-slinging peak. A decade ago NBA teams averaged 20 three-point attempts a game. Last season it was 34 and still climbing apparently.

“I don’t know if any of us sat here at some point and said the amount of threes are going to be double … or whatever the number is,” said Nurse. “… It does evolve pretty quickly though.”

Given the value of those shots, a team that wants to be effective defensively must have a plan to discourage them being taken, or at least make them more difficult.

One of the benefits of a roster rounded out with so many players in the six-foot-six to six-foot-nine range – the Raptors only have four players in training camp shorter – is the pressure they can put on perimeter shooters.

The Raptors got a taste of it last season, when six-foot-nine Chris Boucher led the NBA with .84 blocked three-pointers a game and was ranked fourth in the league in the percentage that opponents shot when he was the closest defender. Pascal Siakam ranked second in the league in the number of three-pointers contested after leading that category in 2019-20.

As a whole, the Raptors weren’t especially good at defending the three-point line – opponents shot 37.9 per cent from deep, which was above league average and ranked them 24th overall – but given the range of mitigating circumstances they faced last season it’s probably not something to dwell on. The Raptors led the NBA in that category in 2019-20 when the set a franchise record for winning percentage.

This is a different team with plenty of new faces, but maybe having a roster full of athletic, agile guys in the mould of Boucher and Siakam could pay dividends in a league where it looks like more teams are going to be hoisting threes than ever before.

Raptors rookie Dalano Banton has certainly had the importance of getting to three-point shooters impressed upon him in his weeks-old NBA career, and as a nimble six-foot-nine guard, he can play the part.

“Shot contesting is one of our pillars that we go off of on defence as well as pressuring the ball so guys don’t get easy shots so, running them off the line,” said Banton after practice Friday. “In this league guys make shots and they make it at a high clip so I feel like just doing the best you can to run out at every shot that gets put up by the other team is big for us and being in our defensive stance, just showing length and just discouraging them from making plays they’d make if we weren’t in our right spots.

"...Just being in the right spot is just the biggest part of the battle and showing your hands. Once you’re there, it puts your whole team in a better position to play defence.”

Selling out on three-point shooters takes trust. Actually blocking a shot is rare and smart teams and players will look to pump fake on careless closeouts and look for a side-step three, a chance to penetrate the paint for layups, generate kick-outs to open shooters or simply swing the ball to take advantage of a scrambling defence.

It’s not enough to run at a shooter, it has to be done properly.

“Just playing the game the way you practice -- running guys off lines and the next guy helping and making the next play,” says Banton. “So, it’s just about the offence having to make the next play, not giving them that shot or that layup, having to make them make that extra pass. The guy behind you is gonna help, we’re all playing defence in one line together so we’re all trying to work in a tandem and move where we have to move and rotate to the right spots.”

It's music to Nurse’s ears. The goal of his scheme, he says, it to challenge every shot, everywhere.

“It’s kind of icing on the cake when we get a block [on a three-pointer],” he said. “I think I’m really more concerned that we’re making a heavy contest. Obviously the block is the heaviest of all contests. We just want to make sure we make it contested. It goes to hustle and hard play: You’ve got to keep playing the whole possession. Sometimes you’ve got to fire out, fire out, fire out.

"Every now and then you get put in rotations and some teams are really good in making you do it. But you’ve got to do it. That’s just an effort and hustle thing that we want the heavy contest. Chris [Boucher] has certainly got a knack, incredible timing on that stuff. I’m not sure it’s teachable or transferable … What we teach and what we drill every day is heavy contesting.”

Changing times call for changing measures – and maybe a lot of long, athletic guys flying around at the three-point line like never before.

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