Raptors piecing together former greatness after finding defensive identity

Nick Nurse talked about how the Raptors are constantly learning about themselves as a team and what they're experimenting with to find their identity.

TORONTO -- Winners of three straight and having lost their last two defeats by a combined total of two measly points, something’s changed in the Toronto Raptors over their last five games played.

But what, exactly, has changed, you may be asking?

It’s not a precise answer as the situation, of course, is still fluid, but it would appear the Raptors have finally figured out what they are this season.

Head coach Nick Nurse has appeared to have landed on an eight-to-nine-man rotation that he’s comfortable enough with and, in his view, has allowed the Raptors to play more to their potential.

For those who may not be paying attention as closely, this rotation of players that Nurse has settled on appears to be Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Chris Boucher, Stanley Johnson, Yuta Watanabe and Aron Baynes.

This mix of players, according to Nurse, allows the Raptors to play small and quick, but still big enough defensively they that they aren’t giving up too much on the defensive glass.

“I think, to understand where we’re going, I think we’ve, again, got some versatility there,” said the Raptors coach after practice Tuesday. “We’re obviously playing small for a lot of the game but, again, we can stay a little bit bigger at the wings, with a Stanley, OG, Pascal -- two of the three out there - Chris, three of the four out there. I think it gives us a better chance so that has helped. Yuta, again with a little bit of size, so there’s five guys that are shuffling between those three positions.

“Aron gets his hopefully 15-18 minutes a night there, too, and we should be able to handle a lot of different situations that way.”

Having played just a little over 23 minutes in his last three games, it’s hard to say how much of a role Baynes has on the Raptors despite being the starting centre on the team. Still, with word coming down from the team that Alex Len was waived, the kind of big, space-filling, physical presence at the five falls solely on Baynes now and, depending on the matchup, he could still be a valuable piece for the Raptors.

“It kinda depends, too, on who we’re playing,” said Nurse of Baynes.

Specifically, when Nurse is talking about matchups, it’s almost always in regards to how his team can match up defensively.

The calling card of the Raptors during their past two seasons has been their defence and it’s been something that’s been oddly missing for most of this season, but that’s for good reason.

Given the relative newness of this season’s team compared to the one of the past two seasons, it’s taken a while for the Raptors to figure out what they can do defensively and who can fit in doing which role.

It’s taken a lot of trial and error, resulting in the poor start to the season the team had, but it looks like Nurse may have finally figured out some of the right combinations at last.

“It's just a process really of, you know, a little bit experimentation,” said Nurse. “I mean that might be too strong a word but you're, you know, we're going out there and we're playing many schemes, many matchups, many coverages, and then you kind of start seeing, ‘OK that fits our group.’ Or ‘that fits a certain guy.’

"Or, I don't know, like pick-and-roll is such a good thing to analyze because it's happening so much and some guys are our best at what they call showing on a pick-and-roll, being really aggressive and jamming the ball and then getting back to their own, and they're not as good at what they call a drop defence for whatever reason. They're just more comfortable executing that and sometimes it takes a little while to learn who those guys are and what they can do.”

Nurse later expanded on this point: “I think, again, it's just been part of the process. There's been some games early on that were glaring that we weren't guarding the way we wanted to, right? So we had to try something else and I think we're getting to a point where we're getting closer to guarding the way we want to.

“I mean, the part of us guarding the way we want to has always been pretty aggressive in nature. It's taking care of the basketball in the paint and the problems first and then firing out from there and rotating out from there and we just weren't really controlling the initial thrust of the attack. So we've had to change a few things to get that under control and then that's gotten us back to being able to do some of the things we're accustomed to doing I think.”

On the season, the Raptors own a middle-of-the-pack defensive rating of 109.8, but over their last five games are only allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would make them a top-10 ranked defence in the league over a whole season.

So while there’s obviously still quite a bit of work to do with the team still in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, it’s clear the Raptors have figured things out about themselves they didn’t know at the start of the season, and as a result have begun to piece back together parts of what made them great once before.

“I think the biggest thing is we understand is there's still a lot of basketball to be played,” said Nurse. “And, you know, you can't throw the records out the window, because that's what we're being judged on and how we're gonna play in the post-season or not, but I do think that you take the game in front of you and continue to learn.

“I think the team is learning some things quickly now and we'll see. I mean, there's going to be ups and downs as we go here, too, but we had a really rough patch, a really unfortunate patch, I think. Again, we played some good basketball and ended up on the wrong side of the score, but fortunately we've stuck with it. I think the spirit’s been good and we've got on the right side of the score a few times here.”

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