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Raptors’ defense set for culture reset-like improvement

The Toronto Raptors had their hearts broken in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and former head coach Dwane Casey was desperate to find a way to keep the Cleveland Cavaliers from going for the jugular in Game 2 and crushing his team’s pharynx and any hopes of a rallying cry with it.

The Cavs’ death lineup of LeBron James plus four shooters eradicated a 54-45 Raptors lead with under five minutes remaining in the first half and within four minutes of the third quarter, led 77-68. It was a stretch in which 24 of the 32 points Cleveland scored came via dunks, layups or three-pointers and three other points were earned at the free-throw line, effectively ending the game. Those are, statistically, the easiest shots in the game, and the Raptors were giving them up more easily than Billy King does first-round picks.

Constantly forced into a choice between DeMar DeRozan, C.J. Miles on the defensive end or a Jonas Valanciunas who struggles in the pick-and-roll or a struggling Serge Ibaka or Jakob Poeltl, or even a too-small-for-the-five Pascal Siakam left Toronto trying to plug three leaking holes with two hands and no real solution in sight.

Now, defending a lineup that allows James to manipulate the geometry of the court to the best of his ability is excruciatingly difficult. Trying to do it with defensively inept players is the equivalent of just handing him all the infinity stones. James forces you into decision after decision, each one steadily accumulating stress to the point of a breakdown.

Of course, this started to take full shape with the Miami Heat when James began operating as a power forward, scoring with ease inside and picking out passes to shooters with overwhelming simplicity. It ushered in a new era of basketball, too, one Golden State have become masters of. They space the court, but they also have defenders who take away that space on the other end. It’s why Kevin Durant was so coveted for them. Sure, he’s an offensive juggernaut unto himself, but the firsthand look they got at how he could operate in Oklahoma City’s defensive schemes is why they believed he could unlock another level for them.

That’s the level new challengers are striving for, beginning with the Boston Celtics. On the offensive end, they have multiple guys who can pass, dribble and shoot, but it’s on the other end where they have already become recognized for their championship calibre, altering the geometry within which offenses operate and imposing their own will on what teams can and can’t look to do.

That’s what the Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green trade is all about, unlocking another level. Yes, the spacing dynamic is dramatically improved with their additions in combination with the subtraction of DeRozan and Poeltl, but minimizing the angles, permutations and combinations that other teams can seek to expose in the Raptors’ defense and being able to dictate where an elite offense goes for a change should be where Toronto sees its biggest gains.

After all, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out, there’s plenty of room to grow despite being a top five defensive team last season.

I wrote an article back then to add context to those stats, but one aspect that was most concerning was my impression that the Raptors more often than not entered shootout mode against the elite offenses, thus leading to those alarming defensive numbers. They had the second-worst defensive rating differential of all playoff teams when compared to their overall defensive rating, only behind the Rockets. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, then, that the Raptors gave up the third-most point per 100 possessions among playoff teams, behind Portland and Minnesota.

The difference for Houston, though, was that they not only had the personnel to defend in the manner that is best suited for elite teams, but also were able to elevate their offense to astronomical levels (almost five points per 100 possessions higher against top 14 offenses in the regular season).

Now, the Raptors have legitimate big-small lineups they can throw at teams. From the heavily favoured starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby and Valanciunas as per the people, or a funkier Delon Wright, Leonard, Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka unit, there are quite a few ways they can go here which frankly just weren’t options a season ago.

There were times when Casey looked to Miles at the four-spot, but watching him get bullied by Kevin Love should be a distant memory now with the ability for Nurse to play one of Leonard, Anunoby or Green there in those ultra-small lineups.

Assuming the Celtics roll out Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford all together, and Philadelphia sticks with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid, it’s easier to see which way the Raptors would lean in a playoff series than the regular season. With those two being the main rivals and both Houston and Golden State likely to start games with similar constructs, though, Anunoby at the four in the starting lineup should be a strong consideration just to maximize comfort level.

It would also help the Bench Mob in area where they were found out a little bit towards the latter end of the regular season. Teams like the Nuggets, Clippers and Celtics all threw size at them and came away with strong results. From March 1, the highly touted unit finished with only a plus-0.9 net rating over 137 minutes and were only able to collect 69 percent of all available defensive boards. This could be a small area where Greg Monroe helps, but the option of Ibaka against backup bigs seems promising in theory. All this comes down to is ego and what the Big Moose looks like in training camp.

Leonard and Green have grown accustomed to Gregg Popovich’s comfort with two traditional bigs, and so Ibaka maintaining his starting position and one of Green or Anunoby coming in off the bench — although perhaps not an ideal scenario — wouldn’t be a bad look. It’s probably one that minimizes the physical toll on the smaller guys who would have to “level up.”

Whichever way Toronto goes, it’s going to be the ability of Green, Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam to alter the geometry of the court on the defensive end that can make them truly elite. Switching has often been looked at as a ‘Plan B,’ but with the way highly functioning offenses operate now, being able to switch without sacrificing a mismatch is a luxury the Raptors now have.

For years, the Raptors offense rated exceedingly well in the regular season but never quite lived up to its high ranking in the postseason. After overwhelming evidence that they needed a new way forward, they found one, with Nurse at the head of those changes. Last year, instead, it was the defense that looked much like fool’s gold, and the games against elite offenses told us just as much.

A glamorous culture reset doesn’t need to be sold this year with a top-five player in town, but with the new personnel in place, a modernized defense should be a significant step forward towards championship contention.

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