If Raptors can't rediscover defensive identity, playoff hopes will fade fast

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam protests a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

What happens when a team designed to win games defensively suddenly stops defending?

Well, they lose a lot of games.

The Toronto Raptors are that team right now. Losers of five out of six and two straight, the collection of long-armed, multi-positional defenders who are on a mission to disrupt and smother and cause chaos are nowhere to be found.

On Monday night they kicked off their six-game road trip by allowing the Portland Trail Blazers to shoot 56 per cent from the floor on the second night of a back-to-back. On Saturday they were present – more as spectators than anything – when the Detroit Pistons shot 54 per cent from the floor and scored 127 points. The Pistons came to Toronto as the league’s lowest-rated offence. In their next game, the lowly Sacramento Kings held Detroit to 40 per cent shooting and forced them into 17 turnovers.

Against the Raptors? The Pistons looked like the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors.

Meanwhile, the Raptors' identity is shapeshifting before our very eyes.

After nine games the Raptors could boast a five-game winning streak and the NBA’s sixth-rated defence, as they allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions. They held Boston to 83 points in their first win of the season. It was their anemic half-court offence that seemed to be the problem, but now that that their offence has found some footing – they rank seventh in offence over their 1-5 stretch – it’s the defence that’s the issue.

Over the past six games, the Raptors have been the worst defensive team in the NBA, allowing 118.6 points a game.

It’s a greatest hits of sub-par defending as Toronto ranks:

• 27th in defensive rebounding
• 29th in second chance points given up
• 30th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage
• 24th in opponents points in the paint.

The Raptors remain effective in generating turnovers over the past stretch – Toronto is fifth in steals, for example – but otherwise they’ve been a team that surrenders too many good shots too easily.

The first step in fixing a problem is diagnosing it, and after the Raptors wrapped up practice at the University of Portland on Tuesday in advance of their game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City on Thursday, head coach Nick Nurse said that in itself was part of the challenge.

Scheme? Personnel? Maybe both:

“I don’t know. I know we’re missing people. It doesn’t seem like we operate that great missing two or three guys,” said Nurse, referring to the Raptors having been without Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa for two games each in the past six; Fred VanVleet for one and Pascal Siakam being available for just four of them. “It seems like it’s switching [game to game].

“The continuity and chemistry, this team hasn’t handled it as well as we probably need to. That’s a fact of life in this league,” Nurse continued. “Guys are gonna be in and guys are gonna be out, and you’ve got to keep some consistency. It feels to me that’s where it gets a little sticky: on offence and special situations. There just isn’t the comfort of knowing exactly where the pieces are supposed to be. That’s all I can say there.”

It's a fair assessment, but there are some other possibilities, too. One might simply be that the way Nurse wants the Raptors to defend is very difficult. Typically, pursuing one kind of advantage defensively means giving up something somewhere else. Teams that pack the paint to help defend the rim at all costs are sometimes vulnerable to giving up too many comfortable looks from three. Teams that want to pressure the ball all over the floor are vulnerable in the paint and at the rim or can get caught in rotations and leave shooters wide open when a team moves the ball well.

Nurse’s answer to these conundrums has generally been: “do both.”

He wants his teams to be able to react quickly to help on dribble penetration or otherwise collapse to the ball but also make the second and third efforts needed to challenge high-value three-point shots.

But it’s hard. Exhausting even. And harder still on nights like Monday when Nurse played his starters between 39 and 41 minutes, played Khem Birch 21 minutes off the bench and then played everyone else 20 minutes combined.

“I’d like to say I’m OK. What’d I play, 40 minutes last night?” said Siakam, who appeared in just his fourth game after missing the start of the season while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. “There are some plays where it’s like, ‘Oh damn.’ But at the end of the day that’s what it’s gonna be. I’m the type of person, I like to get to the point where I’m exhausted. I think I’m better that way. If I’m not tired, that means I’m just going through the motions.”

So was he exhausted last night?

“I was exhausted,” said Siakam, who has averaged 22.5 points, 6.5 assists and nine rebounds on 55 per cent shooting over his last two outings. “I was tired. I think that’s good for me, especially trying to get my wind back. It’s tough, but you’ve got to do it.”

But players aren’t robots. Something has to give. It could be that on a team where VanVleet leads the NBA in minutes per game, OG Anunoby is second and rookie Scottie Barnes is 12th and on pace to surpass his minutes totals for his entire college career before his first NBA season has reached the 20-game mark, the demands of playing one of the NBA’s most aggressive, frenetic defences is already taking a toll.

“Especially with the way we’re playing and how hard [we] guard, we can’t make mistakes,” said Siakam. “We have to be focused on the game plan and execute to the highest level.

“[But] when you play good teams — [Portland has] Dame out there, you have CJ [McCollum], you have Norm [Powell], you have shooters around — it’s tough to consistently trap or have pressure,” he continued. “There are gonna be drives and there is gonna be help.

“If other people are making shots, then all of a sudden it looks like we’re playing bad defence. But the way we play dictates it. If we ball pressure, a good player in the league is gonna drive you, we’re gonna help and somebody’s gonna be open for a shot.

“We’ve got to contest it harder probably. That’s what it is.”

It could well be as simple as that. But doing it is the tricky part and doing it for the next 65 games is harder still if Nurse sticks to playing such a tight rotation.

There were plenty of examples of the Raptors struggling to contain the ball at the point of attack, the foundation of any sound defence, and plenty when the help was slow or too passive and the next rotation similarly sluggish.

Siakam was as guilty as anyone, be it allowing Lillard an easy route to the point to generate a kick-out three for McCollum:

Or earlier, making a poor close out on Robert Covington that allowed the Blazers forward to drive and find Josef Nurkic after drawing the next level of help:

Nurse had no interest in singling out Siakam or anyone else. “He’s doing okay [defensively],” he said. “I think it looks to me like he's getting more in tune and better shapes and more in rhythm and all those kinds of things I thought he had maybe an average night against Detroit. I thought he got out of prison a little bit but I thought he was much better last night and and that just comes with getting in shape.”

But in the broad sense, there is plenty of blame to go around and there is no question of one thing: if the Raptors are going to defend this season the way they have the past six games, any hopes of making the playoffs or even the play-in tournament will have to be readjusted quickly.

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