Over the next three weeks, we’ll be preparing for the NBA’s long-awaited restart by attempting to answer the single most important question facing every franchise that will be present and accounted for in Orlando. This is 22 Questions.
When Kawhi Leonard became a Clipper, the the Toronto Raptors’ championship window should have ended. Instead, the Raptors have remained a steamroller, rampaging to a 46-18 record, the third best in the NBA. In fact, the Raptors’ 71.9 % win percentage is better than the number they posted last year en route to an NBA title. More, Nick Nurse, their guitar-shredding, custom-hat-wearing leader, is no longer just the league’s most stylish coach — he’s its best.
From a personnel standpoint, the Raptors are proof that solidity is akin excellency. During the regular season, the Raptors played 11 guys regularly. All of them are good. To a man, pretty much every single meaningful Raptor can fluently shoot, pass, dribble and defend, albeit none of them quite at Leonard’s level. Still, this all-around goodness has allowed the Raptors to maintain the same offensive infrastructure as last season, with Pascal Siakam assuming much of Leonard’s voided scoring load.
Like a pandemic, Siakam has grown exponentially in his fourth season. Over the course of his NBA career, Siakam has upped his scoring each year, increasing it from 4.2 to 7.3 to 16.9 to now 23.6 points per game. Dribbling with the syncopated rhythm of a marionette, he’s become the Eastern Conference’s most prolific isolation scorer, a tangle of wild limbs that defenders can’t track as he drives to the rim.
Although Siakam is having an All-NBA caliber season, he’s more of a finisher than an initiator; he ably creates offense for himself, but probably couldn’t carry the team on his own. Luckily, the Nurse and the Raptors’ supporting mixture of veterans and youngsters provide ample help. From this idiosyncratic group of veterans and developmental projects, Nurse has voltroned together an elite scoring attack.
Thanks to his team’s near uniformly competent shooting, Nurse arrays the team in a humming, five-out offense that mitigates each player’s flaws and maximizes their strengths. Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry bring an overflow of chutzpah to the backcourt, nailing gutsy pull-up threes and keeping the offense purring even if they don’t generate as much rim pressure as other great point guards. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are mostly embalmed by this point in their respective careers, but are key contributors as Toronto’s two-headed stretch five — Ibaka is having the best shooting and scoring season of his career, while Gasol functions as a switchboard, pinging the ball to his teammates. Breakout young guards like Norm Powell and Terence Davis aren’t yet trusted to break down defenders on their own, but they’re major threats without the ball because they each buzz with the hyperactivity of a hummingbird.
Nurse may be a very good offensive coach, but he’s the most innovative defensive mind of the last decade. The Raptors are the perfect marriage of coach and team; there probably isn’t another roster with the collective brainpower to handle Nurse’s scheme, and there probably isn’t another coach who builds such a devastating defense. Nurse is the NBA’s Bill Belichick, constantly changing and adapting his defense. They’ve bullied stars as disparate as Damian Lillard, LeBron James and Joel Embiid with the same dutiful ease.
Most NBA defenses are fairly routine, built upon a set of basic principles, whether that’s protecting the rim or running shooters off the three-point line or hoovering up defensive rebounds. The Raptors’ main principle: disrespect. They ignore bad shooters because they know that scattershot players can’t punish them. They harass ball-handlers and lunge at passes because they know that they can rotate faster than the offense can process what’s going on. They can get away with playing undersized guards because they’re tougher than you and geriatric bigs because they’re smarter. With their mix of zones, double-teams and presses, they’re confident in knowing that no other team has prepared as thoroughly as they have. Other NBA teams make concessions to their opponent because no team can truly lockdown the entire court; the Raptors force offenses to concede to them.
Toronto’s malleability first became evident during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks, Nurse rejiggered Toronto’s defense, double teaming Giannis Antetokounmpo and forming a wall of bodies in the paint; they won the next four games. Last year’s Finals were a larger harbinger of things to come, with Nurse debuting a box-and-one defense (a four person zone with the fifth defender glued to the other team’s best player) against Stephen Curry and the undermanned Warriors.
This year, they’ve played the second most zone in the league, relying on their collective smarts to compensate for the loss of Leonard’s all-world individual defense. More than just playing zone, though, the Raptors choose from a rich menu of zones: at various points this season, they’ve aligned themselves in a 2-3, a 3-2, a box-and-one, a triangle-and-two and a 1-2-1-1 full-court press. What’s more, they can morph from defense to defense within a single possession, which seems straight up mean to do to already overmatched offenses.
If this all sounds like a hardo dad pretending to be John Wooden during his kids’ little league game, it’s because it is, but in the best way possible. To be sure, none of these zones are the Raptors’ primary defense — the Raptors play man-to-man the majority of the time because NBA players and coaches are too good to be beaten by gimmicks alone. But there’s also a reason that nobody has been able to figure out the Raptors’ defense, no matter how “janky” it may be. Nurse eliminates a lot of the rote rhythms of a basketball game, forcing offenses to continuously map and remap the geometry of the court to account for the Raptors’ versatility.
Even beyond their famous zones, Raptors’ man-to-man defense isn’t static, with Nurse adjusting the intensity and frequency of their traps, switches, hedges and digs. Nothing that the Raptors do is that novel on its own, but in composite, they represent the hardest, most panic-inducing pop quiz that the NBA has seen in a long time.
As a result, for two straight years, Nurse and the Raptors have throttled every challenger with their amoebic, shapeshifting defense. They’re the league’s stingiest three-point defense and the third stingiest at the rim; they force more turnovers than any other team in the bubble, which then fuels the Raptors’ league-best transition game. Without a true lockdown stopper (although O.G. Anunoby could argue) or a dominant rim protector, they win with creativity and cohesion. In Canada, Nurse has built a team of Patriots. The Raptors do their job.