Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Toronto Raptors defense is a living, breathing, artistic masterpiece.
Head coach Nick Nurse has the ability to squeeze excellence out of his players and has the bravery to try just about anything. One through 15 on the roster understand the ask, trust one another and execute every call. The Raptors defensive unit is up to something special, especially considering they lost two of the league’s best defenders.
One might assume that losing a two-time Defensive Player of the Year would cause a team’s defense to bottom out. That’s what happened to the Spurs after trading Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green following the 2017-18 season—they went from the fourth-ranked defense to the 20th-ranked defense.
No, not the defending champion Raptors. Somehow, some way, they got better.
“No one in this locker room is surprised by what we’ve done so far,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told Bleacher Report.
“We didn’t know what it would look like, but I know we weren’t forecasting the losses to be what everybody else thought it would be like,” VanVleet continued. “I mean come on, Kawhi is Kawhi and Danny is a huge, huge piece of what we did last year, but we knew we had enough.”
Enough would be one thing. The Raptors are absolutely suffocating. They’re long, fast, switchable, aggressive, disciplined and incredibly smart. They’ll full-court press, switch all screens, trap or drop or hedge against pick-and-rolls, or throw any different kind of zone at you. Their toolbox is filled with different options for disrupting the opposing offense and forcing it to react to the Raptors’ pressure. Their depth has allowed them to succeed despite an inordinate amount of injuries. They thrive in the chaos they create.
“We scramble,” wing Stanley Johnson said. “We have a lot of really good communication. We have a really good game plan every game. It gives us a distinctive edge going into every game. Our game plans are really, really good. We don’t accept ‘not good enough.’ We don’t accept guys getting open shots.”
Understanding the basic principles of what the Raptors want to do to achieve such greatness isn’t always easily identifiable because they don’t live and die by one system. Instead, Nurse has equipped his team with the tools to play any style and devises a plan that may vary ahead of every game. He’ll even call audibles as he feels out each game.
“I think more often than not, we just like to be aggressive and dictate what we want instead of just letting teams do what they want to do,” VanVleet added. “We try to be very disruptive. We really take each game individually versus just saying this is our game plan no matter who we’re playing. We adjust on the fly.”
There are through-lines that help provide context to how they have been so effective despite their willingness to try something different going into, and sometimes within, each game. At a baseline level, that is to control the tempo of the game by being the aggressor. How that takes shape from game to game is oftentimes quite different.
“Ideally we’d like to do both. We’d like to pressure the ball and protect the rim,” Nurse told reporters. “I believe that defense starts with kind of being the aggressor and getting up into the ball. It really helps you with passing angles and fighting through screen-and-rolls when you’re up pressuring the ball.”
The Raptors players get their tentacles on everything. And that usually forces the handler into giving up the ball if not turning it over. But if the ball-handler moves the ball, the Raptors have to react, and sometimes that comes with consequences. Typically, when teams sell out pressuring, they sacrifice something else: primarily shots at the rim or from the corners. So, to pull this off, the Raptors have to be everywhere.
And they are.
“I think it’s just our philosophy is to disrupt rhythm and take away what they want to do,” VanVleet said. “I know we give up a lot of threes. We’ve got a certain shot spectrum that we want to stick to offensively and defensively, so there’s certain things that we give up and certain things that we don’t.”
Pressuring the ball doesn’t come at the expense of defending the paint, and eliminating shots at the rim is paramount for the Raptors. They protect the rim at a high level, allowing the eighth-highest frequency of shots at the rim and holding teams to the second-lowest field-goal percentage.
Because the Raptors press up, they force opponents to put the ball on the ground and attack. The Raptors scramble into position, taking turns cutting off drives and flying out to defend kick-outs. They swarm to the ball so you can’t even get a shot up at the rim.
“We do usually force those guys to put it on the deck a little more and hit driving lanes,” Nurse continued. “We’ve got to use other people and bring some help, and sometimes that gets us into a lot of rotations, but we know that and we are in rotations a lot. It’s not maybe something you would build your philosophy on, wanting to be in rotations a lot, but we do that pretty well too. We rotate and fly back out to the shooters pretty good.”
The Raptors allow the highest frequency of corner three-point attempts, which doesn’t seem like a trait of one of the league’s premier defenses. To make this work, they contest the second-highest number of three-pointers per game, which helps them hold opponents to the fifth-lowest percentage on those shots.
Raptors highlights don’t always come in the form of a logo-three or spectacular dunk. It’s any old possession in the first quarter of a Sunday afternoon game when they take away multiple looks, get their hands in passing lanes and force offenses into tough mid-range shots. It’s hard to constantly be in rotation, but the Raptors have the foundation to make that reality less of a problem than it would be for most teams.
“if you make a mistake, there’s another man that’s there to help you out,” forward Chris Boucher said. “Knowing who has to go and what’s the drill if somebody goes, that really helps.”
The trust Nurse has built in his locker room along with the philosophy of using pressure to dictate how the offense plays allows the Raptors to try just about anything on the floor.
“Trust in personnel. We’ve got the trust to believe in whatever it is they’re asking us to do, whether it’s right, wrong or silly,” VanVleet said. “It wasn’t always like that. Now it’s easy. We’ve had some time together. But there were times last year where we lost games and struggled at times defensively because we were trying different things. That’s the hard part. But when you win a championship, it erases all your sins.”
There is a “different” level of confidence that comes from winning a championship, according to a man who would know, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. The Raptors have carried that confidence into a remarkable follow-up to their title-winning campaign, one that is founded in their defensive program.
Principles are replicable with or without Leonard and Green. The team has the trust, talent and smarts that allow them to execute schemes regardless of their personnel, and it has turned out to be even better than the season they had leading up to their championship run.
“We play defense as a team. And the best defenses are the best team defenses,” Johnson said. “No disrespect to them, you just gotta come together as a unit. Kawhi is a Hall of Fame-caliber defender, Danny Green is a championship-caliber defender, but a lot of guys have stepped up and given us a little push. Collectively, we’ve been able to recoup what we’ve lost.”
You may not have thought the Raptors would be this good. They didn’t let the championship hangover affect them. They lost one of the best two-way stars in NBA history and haven’t missed a beat. Every individual has dug a little deeper, and now they’re taking this confidence as far as they can. Based on their success so far this season, they’re more than ready to go seven games with anybody and make a legitimate push for a title repeat.
Follow Will on Twitter: @wontgottlieb.