Raptors Notebook: Focus on defensive communication, hustle with team 0–2

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam, left, looks to pass as he is defended by San Antonio Spurs' Rudy Gay during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Darren Abate/AP)

TORONTO — Sitting an uninspiring 19th in the league in defensive rating with a 111.5 mark, the Toronto Raptors know they need to do better on that end of the floor if they’re going to make this 0-2 start nothing more than a blip on the radar of a 72-game season.

Speaking after Toronto’s 119-114 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Boxing Day, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet identified communication on the defensive end as something the team is lacking at the moment, a statement that head coach Nick Nurse would agree with.

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“I think that there’s some mistakes there, you know. I go back and watch the film — gosh, there were so many rebounding kick-out threes, rebounding put-backs,” said Nurse after the Raptors practiced in Philadelphia Monday. “I’m a little more concerned with the missed block-outs on that. Gotta do a better job of putting [guys] in position to communicate; from my standpoint, the rotation and the schemes and a few things, they need a little refresher on some of that stuff. And I think that’ll clear a lot of it up.

“But I’m a little more concerned with just some more hustle, and hustle plays, 50-50 balls, defensive rebounding, etc. Communication’s always way at the top of our priority list as far as if we’re gonna be good defensively, that’s for sure.”

Being in each other’s ears, constantly letting your team know where everyone is on the floor is an important part of defence in basketball, and while Toronto does have the logical explanation that it’s still trying to incorporate new pieces into the fold, one of the new guys believes that isn’t reason enough for the defensive miscues there have been in the first two games because of the environment everyone’s playing in.

“It probably should be easier to talk and get your message across,” said Toronto centre Aron Baynes. “There’s not as much crowd noise so, in terms of that, we don’t really have any excuses with people can’t hear us, it’s just on us.”

But while playing in empty or mostly-empty arenas will certainly make it easier to talk to teammates, the emotional spark that a crowd — home or away — can bring to the game is lost as a tradeoff. And though it’s hard to say what actual tangible impact having fans in the arena might have on performance, there’s no denying an amped up crowd does bring energy to a game that isn’t there right now.

And, according to Nurse, the Raptors could use more energy themselves on the defensive end.

“I think defence always starts with alertness and readiness,” said Nurse. “We’ve been caught not being ready a few times. Energy is also kind of next in line on that kinda stuff. There have just been a few too many breakdowns and, yeah, it’s just probably getting a new group a little more in sync.”

To be clear, Nurse doesn’t think his club hasn’t been trying or not playing hard, but would like to see more from his secondary units — the ones that traditionally provide energy to teams — in terms of being locked into the game.

“I don’t want to sit here and say we haven’t played with great energy,” said Nurse. “We do make it a point to talk about it with our guys coming off the bench, right? Like they’ve got to hit the game with the pedal down, you know what I mean? And they’ve got to be able to sustain it. Their stints are fairly short, right, and it’s not going to be 35-40 minutes, it’s going to be 15-22 or something like that and just constant energy plays from those guys: Loose balls, long rebounds, cutting with some pace on offence and those kinds of things.

“And I’m going to add one more time, they’ve got to execute the defensive schemes. Like always, no lapses or mistakes there.”

A tried and true method to give any team life when it’s been sagging is to string together stops, and in two games played this season that’s been a rare sight for the Raptors. It’s also a reason, perhaps, why we’ve seen the team appear sapped during stretches, looking as though they’re unable to score a basket nor prevent their opponent from scoring.

“I think, obviously, defence definitely helps — getting stops, stopping the other team from scoring, I think that’s what we gotta pride ourselves on, that’s the way we gotta get energy because sometimes the shot’s not gonna go in so we need to find other ways to provide energy and I think defence is one of those [ways],” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam.

Energy and defensive responsibility were never things you had to worry about with the Raptors over the past two seasons, and while it’s still very early it is odd and a bit worrisome to hear about it as a focus for the team right now.

On the other hand, it’s encouraging to hear that Nurse and Co. have already identified the problem and are actively looking to solve it. Better yet, a stiff-looking test in their next game with the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday may just be what the doctor ordered. When faced with adversity, this team has proven many times before it knows how to overcome.

Quick dribbles

Norman Powell has been off to a poor start, combining for just 12 points on 2-of-16 shooting from the field in the Raptors’ first two games.

The issues that Nurse was talking about with his bench units can mostly be related back to Powell’s struggles, who just a season ago was the image of consistent sixth-man production — when he was healthy.

Nurse, of course, is aware of this and levied some criticism against Powell, perhaps in an effort to light a fire under him.

“I would say that Norm hasn’t got on track really at all, let’s be honest. He hasn’t shown anything since the pre-season or the regular season,” said Nurse. “But I think we know he’s a veteran guy for us, he’s usually 15 points a game off the bench, which we need. Again, he’s one of our best scorers, a guy that can vault up and get a shot when we need one, when a shot clock’s running down, things like that.”

• Siakam has already racked up 14 total assists, a good early sign for the Raptors.

Recognizing double-teams and when and where to kick out of them was one of the biggest holes in Siakam’s game last season, and it looks like he may have shored up that particular weakness.

“I just think that with me I always pride myself on being able to make the right basketball play,” said Siakam. “Every time I go out there on the floor that’s what I try to do, again, some of them you gotta be more aggressive or whatever, but I just feel like I have to make the right play, the right basketball play. And if that’s a pass and they’re packing the paint, two or three people around the rim when you drive, you just have to make that play.”

• Given the size the 76ers boast with the likes of Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard at centre, Nurse mentioned we’re likely to see Alex Len make his regular-season Raptors debut Tuesday against Philadelphia.

He’ll likely take Chris Boucher’s spot in the rotation as the matchup just looks better for the bulkier Len.

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