Raptors just aren’t the defensive team they thought they’d be

Raptors just aren’t the defensive team they thought they’d be



TORONTO — Halfway through the second quarter, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, who was the lone star for his team with Jayson Tatum out, re-entered the game. A minute later, at the next timeout, O.G. Anunoby was back in the game.

It checked out. Brown was the Celtics’ best available scoring threat, and Anunoby is the best one-on-one defender any night he is available for the Raptors. Anunoby had just spent a long stint on the bench. He didn’t need any more rest.

The Raptors weren’t built with the idea that their defence would be this reliant on any one player, though. They have enough long, athletic defenders that they shouldn’t need to have any single player on the floor for perimeter defence — at least in the regular season. It hasn’t worked out that way, which was evident in another of a lengthening line of dubious defeats, a 106-104 loss. The Celtics took pains to get Brown away from Anunoby. Once Anunoby left the game with an ankle injury, the Celtics made similar efforts to avoid the Brown-Precious Achiuwa matchup. When they managed to do that, Brown had a lot more success than when they didn’t.

The absences of Tatum and, eventually, Marcus Smart had a lot to do with it, but this was the Raptors’ most solid defensive performance in ages. Boston shot just 44.7 percent, and that was including its almost 46 percent from 3. The Raptors held the Celtics significantly below their season averages for offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Anunoby and Achiuwa were monsters, and it raises the possibility that Achiuwa should be elevated to the starting lineup permanently to help the team’s wayward defence — either for Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. With the trade deadline looming, the point could very well be moot, as the two guards will be discussed in moves.

Achiuwa, who missed almost two months with an ankle injury, has been showing how important he is to the Raptors over the last few games. After Anunoby, he’s their best one-on-one defender. Of their rotation players, he is also the best rim protector, and it’s not especially close.

His fingerprints — or wingspan shadow? — were all over this one. On one play in the fourth quarter, Achiuwa stayed on the ground despite a bevy of moves from Brown. Once the Celtics star gave it up, Achiuwa slid over, drawing a charge on Grant Williams. Not all of his moments were that spectacular. There was just solid individual defence on the ball and fair use of the principle of verticality.

When the Celtics had success getting Brown away from Anunoby or Achiuwa, he had more success. On the whole, 27 points on 10-for-23 shooting, six assists and five turnovers isn’t the type of super-efficient basketball that destroys a team.

In the fourth quarter, the Celtics went on a 9-0 run with Achiuwa (and Pascal Siakam, it must be noted) on the bench. Both played all but 105 seconds of the second half. It was a similar story with Anunoby in the first half.

Anunoby remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but it feels like opponents are scheming offensively to make life difficult for him, unafraid of the alternatives. Early on, the Celtics were running Brown off screens to try to get Anunoby off the assignment. One of those screens opened up Brown for a 3, but more than that, the strategy forced switches. That is really what the Celtics were trying to accomplish.

That is the point: The Raptors’ defensive versatility has not come to fruition because being able to switch assignments does not matter if you end up being roasted in the new matchups. The Raptors just aren’t as switchable as they thought coming into the season, which is part of why they have been so leaky in containing dribble penetration. VanVleet, who missed the game with a rib injury, has had his worst on-ball year of his career, while Scottie Barnes is better served as a weakside helper. Ideally, so is Siakam. All three can defend well on the ball, but they haven’t for long enough stretches this season. Trent, who rounds out the starting five, is very good at getting into passing lanes, but he can be bullied physically.

Raptors starting lineup, defence

Season Def Rtg Opp TOV% Opp eFG% Opp FTA rate

2021-22

106.8

16.9

54.2

0.2

2022-23, first 10

113.5

16.9

57.3

0.252

2022-23, last 36

115.2

16.1

58.1

0.314

(Raptors’ defensive numbers with the lineup of VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, Siakam and Barnes)

There is mounting evidence that this quintet, no matter what last year’s numbers show, isn’t up to the challenge defensively this year. The Raptors ranked fourth in defensive rating in the second half of last season. They played their share of opponents who were missing important players, but that’s not that different from what they’ve been up against recently. They mostly accomplished that by forcing turnovers, leading the league, but they were middle of the pack in opponent field goal percentage. That has always been the path to this team putting together a good defence.

They remain the best team at forcing turnovers, but they are better than only San Antonio at causing misses. The Raptors force turnovers on 17 percent of possessions while Milwaukee, 30th in the league, forces them just 12.1 percent of the time. It’s more important how you perform over 80-plus possessions a game when the opponent gets a shot off than in the 17 or fewer when you hold a team without one. It turns out their early season high-risk, right-reward profile wasn’t a small-sample blip; it was an identity.

“We’re not defending nearly well enough or near where we’re capable of,” Nick Nurse said before the game. “We know that for a fact because this same group was about as good as it gets defensively. … From about this time onwards, we were about as good as it gets. I’d say probably top five. Maybe fourth? That’s what I remember. It hasn’t been good enough. We’ve got multiple things we’ve been trying to work out, and that’s still on the list.”

The why is the question, and part of that is clearly the lack of rim protection. One needs only look at the defensive ratings of the individual Raptors to understand that: They have a 104.6 defensive rating when Christian Koloko, the only true rim protector, plays. No other regular has a defensive rating below Chris Boucher’s 111.6.

However, the Raptors didn’t have better rim protection last year, save for a healthier Achiuwa. There are several other possible factors that could be playing a part: fatigue, teams getting used to the Raptors’ oft-trap-heavy schemes from film, not to mention those schemes becoming a bit more regularly used throughout the league — making playing the Raptors less jarring.

Mostly, it just looks like they are overmatched on the perimeter and don’t have the interior presence to compensate. Achiuwa could be part of the answer, but in the long term, it has to be a lot more holistic than just him.

On the timeouts

The Raptors forced a pair of turnovers in the final seconds, including a push-off from the Celtics when Boston was inbounding. That gave the Raptors a final chance, trailing by two points, to tie the game. Unfortunately, with 3.8 seconds remaining, they had no timeouts left. Accordingly, they had to inbound the ball from their side of half court. Siakam ultimately turned the ball over, and the Raptors lost.

Nurse called two timeouts in the final 14.1 seconds, and they were both regrettable. The first was off a scramble after Trent missed a layup that would have tied the game. The Raptors trapped Payton Pritchard in the backcourt, and the Boston guard passed it ahead, into Trent’s hands. The Raptors appeared to have an advantage in transition, but Nurse called timeout to set up a play.

It was a bizarre scramble situation, and one cannot blame Nurse for defaulting to getting his team organized. Ultimately, being able to go forward in transition, with the ball in Trent’s hands, would have been the right decision.

The second timeout was even stranger. Siakam drove to his right, and the ball was semi-stripped by Al Horford. The ball appeared to be jarred loose before Siakam collected it again, but a jump ball, meaning the officials ruled on the court that Siakam went up and came down without letting go of the ball, was called. Horford won a pair of jump balls — the first over Siakam, which led to another tie-up, and the second over Barnes — to set up the finale.

Nurse said he called timeout only after being told by referee Michael Smith that he would be able to challenge the jump ball call if he did so. After the timeout was called, Ed Malloy said the call could not be challenged. In a pool report after the game, Malloy said no member of the officiating crew heard Nurse ask about whether the play could be challenged until after he called timeout.

“It turned into a jump ball strategy timeout, but it was meant to be a challenge,” Nurse said. “Very disappointing administering of that at the end.”

It’s a he-said, he-said situation. Eric Smith and Paul Jones of the Raptors radio broadcast sided with Nurse. It’s also on the coaches to know the rules surrounding challenging calls.

Completely coincidentally, when Nurse was asked before the game if he could change any rules, he said he would get rid of the coach’s challenge.

(Photo of Thaddeus Young, Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes contesting a shot by Al Horford: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via AP)





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