Raptors' defensive acumen key to overcoming offensive limitations

Norman Powell posted a game-high 23 points with three rebounds as the Toronto Raptors win big over the Miami Heat 101-81.

You may have noticed and, if not, it’s becoming more apparent as the season unfolds — the Toronto Raptors are operating at somewhat of a talent deficit relative to other teams in the NBA’s high-rent district.

Whereas last year at centre Toronto boasted arguably the most well-rounded tandem in the league, this year — in the absence of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol — they don’t.

Whereas two years ago the Raptors could rely on Kawhi Leonard for MVP-level production and Danny Green for elite three-point shooting and all-NBA quality defence, now they can’t.

It doesn’t mean all is hopeless. It isn't like there was no point in Toronto showing up to its second consecutive meeting with the Miami Heat. It just means the margin for error is much slimmer than it’s been in recent years, and they need to compensate by playing their butts off.

Their 101-81 win over the Heat was an example. There were long stretches when Toronto couldn’t score and many more when it treated the basketball like it was covered in vegetable oil — 22 turnovers is not typically a winning ingredient.

But there was never a point when the defensive effort and the accompanying smarts weren’t on display in abundance. It’s how you win a game when your best player — Kyle Lowry — isn’t available and how you blow out a team that kicked you around the floor two nights before.

The effort, intensity and attention to detail was missing on Wednesday and it was there in abundance Friday, and in the opinion of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, that was the difference. Having been burned, Nurse hopes they won’t have to touch the stove too many more times this season.

“I think it’s a good two-game scenario that you got to learn a lesson,” said Nurse. “In the NBA if you don’t come out and play, you’re going to get beat; happens all over the league. You can throw records out the window a lot. If you don’t come out and play, you’re going to get beat. And hopefully we learned a lesson.”

The lesson might be that defence can overcome a lot of other problems. The Raptors gave up a 21-point first-quarter lead by the mid-point of the third quarter and led by just six with 10:18 to play, but then held Miami to two field goals over the next six minutes to push the lead back to 20 and the game out of reach.

The Raptors were led by Norman Powell with 23, while OG Anunoby was 5-of-6 from distance on his way to 21 points and Pascal Siakam had 15 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Toronto held Miami to 42.9 per cent from the floor and 7-of-31 from three, more than making up for its high turnover total.

But even in a victory, what is becoming evident is the Raptors are susceptible to high-level defensive efforts. Lowry was out for Toronto with an infected toe, but the Heat — the defending Eastern Conference champions — were without four rotation players including Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro due to injuries and health and safety protocols related to COVID-19.

Yet Miami turned the Raptors' 21-point first-quarter lead into a 14-point halftime edge with Toronto shooting just 28 per cent in the second quarter. The third quarter was just as bad as the Raptors gave up a 19-5 run in the first half of the period, making more turnovers than field goals. But the defence held — a theme for the night — and Toronto led 74-63 to start the fourth before ultimately bringing home the win, improving its record to 6-9.

It’s not that this edition of the Raptors doesn’t have talent. Their ability to find replacements in-house remains remarkable: Fred VanVleet became a starter, Powell quickly made doubters forget Green and Siakam made all-NBA last season after soaking up the touches Leonard left behind. The emergence of Chris Boucher proves, at the very least, the rail-thin Montreal native deserves a prominent place in this season’s big man rotation and would have no matter who Toronto was hoping to bring back.

But having limped out of the gate — the Raptors were 11-4 this time last year — they need more people pulling in the same direction more often to be as competitive as they’ve been year-over-year since 2013-14.

What happens when they don’t was on display in the first half of Toronto’s double-bill against the short-handed Heat when they were swept away in most of the major categories and — as it followed — on the scoreboard.

There were technical reasons at work — namely Toronto’s inability to solve the zone defence Miami relied on to limit the Raptors to four field goals in the pivotal fourth quarter — but as the Friday night rematch loomed, Nurse felt the need to remind his team that the nuances don’t matter if the basics aren’t in place. Nurse let his team know about it in the film session on Thursday and again before the game Friday.

“I think we looked at the film, some tough conversations [were] had and that’s what it takes to get better sometimes,” said VanVleet. “You’ve got to tell each other the truth, get to the truth, your coach has got to tell you the truth, and that's part of growing and getting better is accountability and, kind of, rebounding from that and not doing it again. So, I was happy to see our effort and intensity and all the above rise today to the level that we know we're capable of.”

Nurse tends to pick his spots when levelling his team publicly, but clearly it was time to use a bullet.

He seemed to hit the bullseye early as his club came out like it was down 0-1 in a playoff series rather than coming off a loss in the 14th game of a wacky regular season.

Powell got the start in place of Lowry, who is expected to be back in the lineup on Sunday against Indiana. Powell was perhaps the Raptors' most glaring passenger against the Heat on Wednesday as he had seven points on eight shots and not another measurable contribution in 18 minutes — he fixed that fast.

Powell made his first six shots and had 14 points in the game’s first nine minutes as the Raptors sprinted out to a 34-13 lead.

But the response Nurse was hoping for or expecting was even more evident in the next block. As the Raptors went to their bench, the Heat flipped to their zone and got exactly the results they wanted. As it turns out, a bench group containing some combination of Malachi Flynn, Boucher, Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe is easily flummoxed by a defence they're not used to playing against.

It wasn’t pretty as Toronto made eight turnovers in the next seven minutes, a stretch of incompetence offset only by a pair of threes from Davis and layup by Anunoby.

But it was what happened on the other end that mattered. Even with the benefit of the turnovers and wasted possessions, the Heat couldn’t fully overcome the Raptors' defensive effort. They trimmed the lead from 21 to 14, but Toronto still held them to 15 points over the offending eight minutes — more than acceptable.

The result was — rather than completely squandering their red-hot start — Toronto taking a 56-42 lead into the half. The situation repeated itself at the start of the third quarter and the Raptors eventually found themselves tied, only to win the final 18 minutes of the game 40-20.

The Raptors needed to be better, their coach made sure they knew it and they responded.

“Watching the film [from the loss Wednesday], especially defensively, and how we all were, top to bottom, I felt that the multiple efforts that we usually normally make, being tied-in, helping one another, wasn't there,” said Powell. “It wasn't there when we were watching it on film as a team. It was bad. It looked bad. It felt bad [but] we gotta go out there and do it and execute, and I thought we were able to do that today.”

They bent many times over the course of the game, but they never broke. They didn’t always play well, but they always played hard, on defence especially. It’s a formula that won’t win them every game, but they’ll be lost without it.

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