While the Toronto Raptors were making yet another statement in an impressive victory over the red-hot San Antonio Spurs, their exclusive D-League affiliate were busy turning in their best performance of the young season.
Raptors 905 beat the Erie Bayhawks 101-80 on Wednesday, finally putting head coach Jesse Mermuys’ vision for how this team will play defensively on full display.
It’s been a slow process overall, but despite their 2-6 record entering play Wednesday, the 905 ranked ninth out of 19 teams in defensive efficiency. There have been long lapses, often frustrating ones, but the shell of the team’s defensive identity has been clear: Use the team’s appreciable athleticism to hound opponents on the ball, use the team’s length (despite a lack of traditional “size”) to help frequently and close out aggressively, and use those results and the team’s open-court speed to make for easy offense.
That was all obvious Wednesday, with the 905 locking down the Bayhawks to a man. It’s worth noting that Erie came in as the only team with a worse offense than the 905’s, but that alone can’t account for a 35.7-percent mark from the floor. It seemed like the 905 may have scaled back the hunt for turnovers just a shade – I haven’t been at practice this week to confirm with Mermuys if that was the plan – as they eschewed jumping passing lanes and did a better job staying at home until rotations were necessary.
The results were exactly as hoped. The Bayhawks were coaxed into a lot of inefficient mid-range jumpers, and the threes they did get were generally rushed looks late int he clock (they shot 3-of-18 from outside). They surrendered 10 offensive rebounds, but the raw number overstates a non-issue due to the sheer number of stops they made (they had 39 defensive boards). The 905 also forced 13 turnovers, a reasonable number, and they led to 10 points; the defense didn’t lead to offense like it may eventually, but grinding out defensive possessions and then pushing the pace back the other way seems to be as effective a formula as it looks on paper for this roster.
The offense didn’t get quite to where the defense did, despite dropping 101 points. The team still committed 21 turnovers, and their defensive performance would have looked even better had Erie not been gifted 22 points off of those turnovers, 11 of them of the live-ball variety.
Instead, the offense came from the team simply making shots. That sounds reductive, but it was the case Wednesday, and it hasn’t been often. The 905 have been doing well creating open threes but shooting woefully when they do, and that changed Wednesday with an 8-of-16 mark from long-range, the first time they’ve shot 50 percent from outside this season. They shot 50.7 percent overall, too, and used their athleticism to force Erie into fouling. The 905 took 35 free-throw attempts, a season-high, and converted 25, an eight-point edge in that area.
Most notably, Bruno Caboclo did well to get to the line. He would finish with 15 points on just five field-goal attempts, hitting a pair of triples and going 7-of-9 at the stripe. Caboclo hasn’t done well to draw fouls in the past and entered play with just 17 free-throw attempts. He was far more aggressive Wednesday, and even though his drives can be a little wild, he’s improving in terms of body control and following through on attempts when he finds contact.
And of course, there’s that stroke.
It wasn’t all great, as Caboclo still has occasional lapses that lead to turnovers. This is just a lazy pass, and while Caboclo does well to hustle back, he’s dealt with foul trouble too much to task himself with erasing his own mistakes. But it was mostly positives for the Brazilian, and he added five rebounds and two blocked shots in 29 minutes.
The same can’t really be said for his Raptors’ teammate in Delon Wright. Wright struggled with the aggression and quickness of Canadian point guard Myck Kabongo. Wright gave it back to Kabongo on the defensive end and generally showed continued improvement in handling the pick-and-roll and his off-ball duties, but Kabongo was able to get up in his jersey to good effect.
Wright made some ridiculous passes, as he often does. Some of those were necessary because he picked up his dribble too early (a minor criticism of his approach at Utah), and on other occasions he ate up too much clock trying to look for a seam to exploit with a funky drive.
Despite the turnovers and an off night from Wright (seven points and five assists, 2-of-7 shooting), the offense was mostly solid. They found ways to get easy buckets, and when they couldn’t, nobody on the Bayhawks could manage to box out Ronald Roberts (16 points, 12 free-throw attempts, 11 rebounds) without fouling him, anyway. Keanau Post, starting in place of an inactive Sim Bhullar to try to help the team get off to better defensive starts, did just that while also adding a bit of offense (10 points on 5-of-6 shooting).
The most notable offensive contributor was Melvin Johnson, who poured in 20 off the bench to continue the guessing game of “which reserve goes off tonight?” Johnson shot 7-of-11 and cashed all three of his 3-point attempts, bringing energy and pushing the pace in place of Jay Harris, who drew the DNP-CD as Mermuys continues to look for the right mix of players game-to-game. Axel Toupane also had a good night off the bench with 10 points, nine rebounds, and four assists, though he definitely had the night’s most embarrassing highlight.
Scott Suggs had an unflattering fall on a cut into the lane that led to a jump ball, too, but scoring 16 points on 10 shots saves you from having a clip posted.
All things told, it was a very encouraging night for the 905. Their shaky start to the season led Mermuys to turn a long home-stand into a second training camp of sorts, and while the returns weren’t there Saturday, he has to be pleased with Wednesday’s outing. The team now plays again Friday and Sunday, providing a great opportunity to really measure the progress the team’s been making in practice.