Toronto Raptors bring a beautiful weirdness to NBA Playoffs
It’s often said that the first game in a best seven series is a feel out game. In the case of the Raptors — who were blasted by Philadelphia in Game 1 — they’ll likely need to have that to be the case.
In Toronto’s series opener, there was a Murphy’s Law-type performance on defense. Just about everything that could go wrong did wrong.
- The Raptors’ intricate web on D, like the countless inner parts of a pricey wristwatch, accomplished its main objective, holding scoring champ Joel Embiid and future Hall of Famer James Harden to just 11-of-32 from the field combined.
- But in throwing so much attention at that duo to suppress its scoring, the Sixers’ other players had a field day, with guard Tyrese Maxey logging a playoff-career-high 38 points and Tobias Harris having 26 points on just 14 shots.
- Philadelphia, which hit 16 of its 32 triples on the afternoon, finished with 29 assists and didn’t commit a single turnover until the third period.
- Adding to Toronto’s misery: Versatile Rookie of the Year candidate Scottie Barnes (sprained ankle), veteran forward Thaddeus Young (sprained thumb) and sharpshooting guard Gary Trent Jr. (non-COVID-19 illness) are doubtful for Game 2.
But between the lopsided nature of their 131-111 Game 1 loss and the strong possibility that the Raptors will be shorthanded heading into Game 2, it could be enough to obscure the fact that Toronto is perhaps the most strange, experimental club in the league. The Raptors may have no choice but to lean on their unique, experimental defense to avoid playoff elimination.
There’s a bit of irony at play with this basketball franchise, which drew its name from a fan vote in 1994, less than a year after the release of the enormously popular film Jurassic Park. Raptor dinosaurs, which roamed the earth approximately 75 million years ago, were thought to have had disproportionately short arms. By contrast, the Toronto Raptors in 2022 are the exact opposite, standing out because of their never-ending arms. Take their January performance against Bradley Beal (and the Wizards) for example. The three-time All-Star was hounded by Toronto’s defense, resulting in a record nine turnovers.
“It’s not like I was just throwing that b—- all over the floor,” Beal said in explaining the miscues the Raptors forced. “They were swiping at me while I was driving. There were many men with their hands in there. They were shrinking the floor. They were able to get steals. They were able to get their hands on a lot of them.”
Almost nothing with this Toronto team is typical. Because of their arm lengths, routine passes are nearly impossible for opponents. They deflect more passes than any NBA team and force turnovers at the highest rate in the league. According to data site Inpredictable, it’s a major reason why opponents take longer to find shot attempts against Toronto. This team is long-limbed, which makes passers and shooters think differently about each play.
Of the 14 players who’ve logged at least 200 minutes for the Raptors this season, just two–point guards Fred VanVleet and backup guard Malachi Flynn–are shorter than 6’5″. Most are at least 6’7″ and have wingspans that generally surpass the 7-foot mark. Yes, teams have made investments in lineups boasting ridiculous athleticism and length before. During its controversial “Process” era, led by Sam Hinkie, the Sixers made a point to prioritize wingspan, utilizing 6’5″ Michael Carter-Williams at point guard before eventually landing 6’11” point forward Ben Simmons. The Bucks also considered acquiring length an organizational priority for a few years closer to the beginning of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s time in the league before winning it all in 2021. In between those phases, the Warriors had its utterly dominant Death Lineup–and, later, The Hamptons Five group–smothering offenses with four switchy defenders that each stood at least 6’6″ with massive wingspans.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that any club has ever been this committed to having length advantages virtually all the time. Even if Fred VanVleet, All-Defensive Team candidate, is beaten at the point-of-attack on his way to the paint the dribbler must then pass through one, two, or three help defenders–think 6’7” OG Anunoby and 6’8” Pascal Siakam–all of whom have a reach of 7 to 7 feet.
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Hell, even calling for a standard pick-and-roll set is complicated. VanVleet is an enormous challenge. Despite standing just 6’1″, he was second in the league in deflections and has forced double-digit turnovers in games by himself. If VanVleet is screened out, a ballhandler must figure out how to get a taller, more agile, yet physically strong wing to play with him. It’s like being trapped in a carnival with five funhouse mirrors and five trick doors to pass through. Most of the decisions you make against this defense will be wrong.
“There is no other team like us,” Anunoby stated. “It would be difficult to play against us, as we run all over the place throwing a lot of stuff at each other. We are energetic. I don’t believe there is another team like us. It’s fun to play this way .”
. This is the brainchild Masai Ujiri, Raptors president. Toronto already had more defensive length than average when it won the NBA title in 2019. The Raptors have been doubling down on their efforts to build a roster of skilled, interchangeable wing players, despite Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent departure and Kyle Lowry’s joining the Heat this year. It’s a lot the same as when I was at Florida State. There were a lot long, athletic players who could switch between 1 and 5,” Barnes stated. This is likely why Barnes was a popular choice for the Raptors with the No. 4 selection in the 2021 draft. “Getting our hands into the gaps and being in a position to get those deflections helps us to run in transition.” With its tallest players at 6’9″, Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe, and Khhem Birch, Toronto doesn’t have a traditional center. The Raptors are left with a huge, Embiid-sized problem for a playoff series such as this.
It’d be easy for the Raptors to assume that their blowout performance in Game 1 and Toronto’s key absences from the rotation for Game 2 have left them behind the eight ball. They might have.
But, if you have been paying attention to Toronto’s season so far, you will see that the Raptors have relied heavily on their clone defense because they had to. Coach Nick Nurse had to take some of his youngest players out of the fray because of injuries. Barnes, a rookie forward, gained a lot of experience running the offense during the campaign. VanVleet, Flynn, and both Siakam were absent for a few games. So did Siakam.
“We did that out of necessity, but hopefully it translates into making them better players and making them more all-around type players, to help them improve in different skills and situations,” Nurse said. “That’s the real goal: to be able move pieces around and choose matchups that are more favorable. It can be difficult to organize and sometimes feels strange. But it does get itself smoothed out a lot of the time and look O.K.”
Toronto looked better than O.K. to finish the campaign, going 33-17 over its final 50 contests after a 15-17 start. The Raptors had the NBA’s stingiest defense in the final 12 games, giving up just 108 points per 100 possessions in that span. Interestingly, they also finished with a 10-5 mark against the other top-five clubs in the East, the best record of the entire group. At the beginning of the season, Raptors seemed a bit lost. There weren’t always defensive rotations. People were playing with energy but didn’t always know what the goal was. Wings would pursue steals and end up making poor gambling decisions as a result.
By year’s end, there was cohesion. Purpose. “There has been a lot growth. “Guys are more comfortable with what they’re doing, so I think we’ve fully adopted our style,” Anunoby said. He missed large portions of the season and returned just in time to watch the playoffs. Playing without Barnes, Trent & Young throw an indisputable wrench into things for this series – especially with Barnes, who brings so much to the table. But even before his injury in the fourth quarter Saturday, it was fair to wonder whether some tweaks were going to be necessary for Toronto ahead of Game 2.
If the prehistoric raptors desperately needed meat to survive, the 2022 Raptors cannot survive without forcing turnovers. Forcing the Sixers into just four won’t work, given that Toronto tied for the league lead in points scored off turnovers per 100 possessions during the season. (Another problem: The Raps scored just seven second-chance points Saturday night–far below their average of 16.5 points per game, which ranked second in the NBA this season. After watching Harris and Maxey ignite, it’s understandable that Embiid would want to play more. However, Toronto doesn’t have the player to cover the MVP candidate for long periods of time. It would be asking for trouble to attempt to take that route against one the league’s elite foul-drawers, as there are fewer bodies available. Harden is a whistle-drawer. To a certain extent, it’s the same.
Nurse does have a lengthy track record of trying just about anything to confuse an opposing offense. A few years back, as Harden was in the midst of a ridiculous hot streak scoring-wise, Nurse had multiple defenders sprint at the lefty to force the ball out of his hands before crossing half court. “That didn’t turn out so well, if I remember correctly,” Nurse smiled. “A big, fat L, I think.”) During the 2019 Finals, he trotted out a box-and-one zone defense against Stephen Curry and the Warriors that just about worked to perfection. The Raptors, which fluctuate defensive schemes from night to night more than any team in basketball, are among the five clubs who’ve utilized a zone most this season, according to Synergy Sports. The changing defenses are part and parcel of who we are. They help us overcome some of the things that we’re trying improve on. We do it to cover the stuff we’re still working out the kinks of, I suppose,” Nurse stated, just days before Game 1. An experimental club like this will have its kinks occasionally. Nurse and the Raptors are a unique club. It’s always going be different next time. This is the beauty and strangeness of this club.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.