The Toronto Raptors used to have an answer for the NBA’s best bigs. Whenever Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic, or another superstar centre came to town Raptors coach Nick Nurse knew exactly what to do: stick Marc Gasol on him and let the 7-foot Spaniard do his thing. It was almost taken for granted. Even when Gasol’s offence began to sputter toward the end of his Toronto tenure Gasol remained one of the league’s best defensive bigs.
Now, with Gasol playing in Los Angeles, the Raptors have learned just how important having a centre stopper really is.
Take Friday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings for example. Hassan Whiteside is by no means an elite NBA big these days and yet he recorded a season’s best 16 points with nine rebounds in just 19 minutes against Toronto. His presence on the court forced the Raptors to use Aron Baynes for 23:26 minutes on Friday, the second most this season.
“They ran Whiteside in every time we checked in Chris [Boucher] and that’s just too big a body for Chris,” Nurse said following the 126-124 loss to the Kings. “He’s not going to be able to handle that, that’s not fair to him to try to have to wrestle with that guy.”
That’s been the issue for the Raptors this season. You never want to be the team that’s forced to match up against your opponent. When the Raptors are at their best they’re playing small with OG Anunoby, Boucher, or Stanley Johnson taking on undersized centres. The problem is Toronto’s undersized small-ball centres can’t hang with traditional 7-foot centres and instead of forcing their opponents to adapt the Raptors have had the game dictated to them.
Now things are about to get even tougher with the Orlando Magic and Vucevic scheduled for a pair of games in Tampa. The 6-foot-11 Vucevic is having the best season of his career, averaging 23 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He’s a pick-and-roll nightmare for teams because of his versatility. If you play the roll, he can pop behind the arc where he’s shooting 45% on the season, but if you defend the pop, you’re leaving the rim open for easy layups.
With Anunoby out for Sunday, the Raptors don’t have much of a choice against Vucevic. They’re going to have to play the Magic’s game and give Baynes significant playing time. It should be a winnable game for the Raptors, but if Orlando can dictate the style of play, Toronto could be in for another long night.