The Raptors’ Title Defense starts on… Defense

By Andrew Lawlor

After charming the hearts of NBA fans everywhere (except in the Bay Area) with their championship run, the Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason. They were expected to take a step back. So far, they haven’t: after winning their first two games since the restart, the Raptors are 48–18, in second place in the Eastern Conference. How have they stayed successful? It starts on defense.

Toronto gives up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 2nd in the NBA this season. They give up 41.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions (second), and are holding opposing offenses to just 42.8% from the field (second) and 33.6% from three-point range (first). They force 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions (second). They harass you into turnovers, and do not give up clean looks at the basket.

Like the ones in Jurassic Park, the Toronto Raptors are a pack of long, athletic players who can cover a lot of ground quickly. They are smart and do a great job of switching and providing help defense. When you watch them, it looks like they are all moving together on a string. This allows them to take a lot of risks on defense while avoiding breakdowns. The star of the team has been Pascal Siakam, who’s equally capable of harassing ball-handlers on the perimeter (1.4 steals per 100 possessions) and protecting the rim (1.3 blocks per 100) (BBall Ref)

On top of their talent, the Raptors have an innovative coach in Nick Nurse. Last year, he brought out a funky box-and-one defense in the Finals to defend Stephen Curry. He has taken it to another level this season. Nurse regularly dials up wildly different defensive schemes based on the opponent; Toronto has frequently used zones, full-court presses, and box-and-ones this season.

No matter the scheme, Toronto looks to pressure shooters. Any time it looks like someone might get off a clean shot, defenders fly out to contest. Rushing out so quickly leaves them susceptible to pump fakes and driving shooters, but Toronto’s help defense is excellent. Defenders know exactly where they need to be and move into position immediately. Driving lanes evaporate instantly, and offenses are forced to repeatedly rotate the ball to create an opening, which the Raptors regularly convert into turnovers or contested shots. It’s a really aggressive defense that requires nonstop effort and perfect synchronization.

Getting a clean look at the rim against the Raptors is nearly impossible; opponents attempt 28.5 shots per game inside six feet, which is the fourth-least in the NBA. On the rare occasion an opposing player does get inside, Toronto’s frontcourt is overflowing with rim-protectors like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, and Pascal Siakam. All told, the team holds opponents to just 57.3% shooting within that distance, the second-best mark in the league.

Here, the Raptors execute multiple switches to prevent the Lakers from getting good shots. Then when LeBron James finds Kentavious Caldwell-Pope open at the rim, Ibaka closes quickly to block the shot. It’s textbook defense:

Due to their aggressiveness, Toronto actually gives up a lot of three-pointers. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Raptors give up 38.3 three-point attempts per game (second-most frequent in the league), which constitutes 43.7% of their opponents’ shots (highest in the league). In particular, a lot of these shots come from the corners, where the shooter is closer to the basket. But because the Raptors fly out to defend shooters, they also contest the second-most three-pointers per game (28.3) hold opponents to the lowest conversion rate (33.6%).

Image by Andrew Lawlor

Oftentimes, teams aren’t able to maintain low opponent field goal percentages—they can control where the shots come from and how open they are, but beyond that, it’s largely up to the offense. But Toronto could be the exception here. For one, they do contest a lot of shots. In addition, the threat of a close out is always there. Like when Sam Darnold was seeing ghosts against the Patriots, Raptors’ opponents often rush their shots, even when they’re open. Toronto has given up below-average three-point percentages in both seasons under Nurse. This is too little data to tell for sure, but if there is a way to sustain it, the Raptors may have found it.

Here, the Raptors harass Anthony Davis and James into passing the ball, before giving up a shot to Davis. Siakam still manages to get over to contest, forcing a miss. Here, Danny Green does manage to get an open look, but it comes after he is forced to pump fake Kyle Lowry. It’s a shot you’d expect him to make, but Toronto does not make it easy to find.

Interestingly, while Toronto does force opponents into poor shooting, the Raptors have struggled to rebound the ball: they grab just 71.7% of opponents’ misses, the sixth-lowest rate in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. This may be a side effect of their aggressive close-out strategy. It hasn’t hurt them that much so far, but it is something to monitor.

Toronto inspires panic in opponents. They throw tons of different looks at opponents and have great defensive players. They give up nothing at the rim, and force a lot of turnovers. They do give up a lot of three-pointers, particularly in the corners, but opponents have struggled to make those shots against the Raptors. Even without Kawhi Leonard, this team is a force to be reckoned with. They are a major threat in the East.

FOUNDER’S NOTE – Welcome Andrew to The Playgrounder team! He is a wonderful addition and we look forward to the bevy of visualizations and articles he will provide!

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