I was introduced to clichéd sports mantras at an early age.
I remember strapping on my boots in little league soccer — my first foray into organized sports — and my coach telling me, “there is no ‘I’ in team.” It’s an oft-used quote from the ‘Coach Talk’ handbook that I’m sure many readers have heard in their younger years.
You can capitalize it, italicize it, or even print it out in a big bold font if you’d like; but ‘I’ ain’t there.
Man, that still sticks with me twenty odd years later. There is an ethereal beauty about being a part of something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An unquantifiable energy amalgamates in every moment that an individual pours their effort outwards for others to feed off of. In those situations a person allows themselves to become vulnerable with the sole intention of bettering the group. It is easy look towards a teammate and intuitively know in that very moment if they are present to give themselves to the team’s objective, or if they are there to serve themselves. (see Kyrie Irving in Game 5 against Milwaukee).
The Toronto Raptors fit firmly into the former of those two categories.
The narrative surrounding the Raptors as they entered the Eastern Conference Finals was that they were a one-man band, a team hitched to the wagon of the impregnable Kawhi Leonard. Granted, Leonard has done little to dispel this notion with his continued awe-inspiring play over the first five games of this series. But once you scratch beneath the team’s exterior, which is barricaded by a litany of ludicrous Leonard jump shots, the core of this team’s success emerges. Every single player has committed himself to the end of the floor where highlights are rarely made and box scores are scarcely filled.
As a result, the Toronto Raptors have become a defensive juggernaut.
Since we are now fully on board with boring clichés, I might as well rattle off another and acknowledge that defence wins championships. I wrote about such at the start of this epic playoff journey. Now, on the back of their frenetic team defence, Toronto are one win away from competing for a championship in the NBA Finals, a place they have never been before. I have to let that sentence sink in for another second… a championship.
The lengthy 82 game regular season becomes a performative act that offers endless dramatic storylines to distract ourselves with and shiny new players for viewers to fawn over, all the while the most fundamental part of team success gets pushed aside like a kid shoveling stuff under their bed as they hurriedly tidy their room. But as anyone who haphazardly cleaned in their formative years knows, sooner or later that ‘stuff’ reemerges. Once the NBA calendar reaches April, defensive performance returns as the crucial factor that determines one’s fate. Charles Barkley parades on our television screens for days on end wearing an ‘I told you so’ grin on his face, reiterating that tired, but still apt, phrase.
Defence wins championships, Ernie.
Nothing exemplified the Raptors’ defensive tenacity and team-first mentality more than how they guarded the soon-to-be Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Defeating the Bucks in a seven game series starts and ends with Antetokounmpo, and he was chomping at the bit to ratchet the game up to a breakneck pace:
Despite falling to a 14 point deficit early, Toronto subsequently put on a defensive masterclass to stop Antetokounmpo. They continued to stifle his opportunities in the half-court and clamped down in transition defence, an area that the Bucks depend upon to tear opponents apart. After the hectic first quarter, Milwaukee only managed 10 more fast break points and were actually outscored by Toronto in the most comfortable part of their game.
Antetokounmpo finished the night a modest 9 of 18 from the field and although he might have only had two turnovers in the box score, it felt like 20 as a spectator. Even more impressive was the fact that of the nine missed shots Antetokounmpo had, they came against six different primary defenders. Every moment that Antetokounmpo sought to rampage towards the rim in hopes of cramming the ball home and mean-mugging towards the crowd, he was met by a Raptor standing in the line of fire ready to sacrifice themselves for the team. Instead of thunderous slams and a barrage of three-point assists, Antetokounmpo was fumbling into awkward shots and making uncharacteristic mistakes.
Fred Van Vleet and Marc Gasol, please stand up. The two teammates had polar opposite nights on the offensive end; Van Vleet hit an eye-popping seven triples enroute to a playoff career-high 21 points, while Gasol was the lowest scoring starter with 4 points and went an icy 1 for 6 from the floor. Yet, despite their differing scoring displays, each player displayed a sequence of individual defence on Antetokounmpo that was outstanding on the clips above. Van Vleet met his opponent arms stretched wide (an easy tell if a defender is locked in, by the way) and stopped Antetokounmpo’s powerful move in its tracks. He then got into Antetokounmpo’s body, forcing him to his non-favoured left hand and matched him step for step. Gasol, meanwhile, waits for the barreling Antetokounmpo to pick up his dribble in transition and quickly plants himself squarely in the paint and reaches every inch of his 7’3″ wingspan vertically towards the sky. Just a quarter earlier, Gasol was the recipient of a thunderous elbow to the temple courtesy of Antetokounmpo, yet the 34-year-old remained willing to absorb more bodily punishment and drew a quick turnover which resulted in an easy basket for the Raptors. Those were the plays that won Game 5.
After averaging 57.8 per cent from the field during the regular season, Antetokounmpo’s efficiency has been cut down to only 46 per cent against the Raptors this series. His playmaking has dipped — in part due to his teammates horrific shooting — and Antetokounmpo, seemingly invincible all regular season, is showing the first cracks of frustration. His turnovers have skyrocketed to 4.6 per game, while his assist to turnover ratio is an ugly 1.26 which would put him right on par with the regular season average of the notorious passing assassin Rudy Gobert. The Raptors help defenders are squeezing in like an accordion once Antetokounmpo arrives inside to his final destination and are flying out once he passes like madmen. (These could be the most impressive defensive closeouts I’ve seen this side of the ’13 Miami Heat team.)
Amid the frustration of being unable to let Antetokounmpo loose in transition and the Raptors relentless clogging of the paint with help defenders any moment he sniffed a layup, Milwaukee tried to use a different method to get their star involved. The Bucks began to deploy Antetokounmpo in post-up scenarios, despite him receiving only 1.5 of those touches per game in the playoffs so far which amounts to only 6 per cent of his total touches on offence. It has been speculated that Antetokounmpo could be a devastating matchup in that area, however the Raptors continually sent a double team at such a rate that his primary focus is just dribbling out of trouble rather than making a play. Even the times that Antetokounmpo did get single coverage, his post-ups didn’t reap rewards. Pascal Siakam was an absolute nuisance and refused to let the MVP have his way with him.
Kawhi Leonard has also put his body through the ringer over the past three games as the primary on-ball defender on Antetokounmpo in the half-court. It is mind-boggling that Leonard (who has been clearly ailing, although looked strangely spry on Thursday) has been able to exert that much defensive energy while posting a 31.8 usage rate. Leonard’s ball denial is another constant jab that has sent Antetokounmpo on the brink of explosion, and the Bucks are now going out of their offensive rhythm just to switch another defender onto their playmaker. This has played right into Toronto’s hands as their other capable defenders now only have to hang with Antetokounmpo on a possession for 10-12 seconds at the most. It has truly been a collective masterclass.
The best team defences are exactly that, a team of individuals working together on a string to best force their opponents into compromised situations. There is no way to defend Antetokounmpo individually, so the Raptors have leaned upon their greatest asset — the collective group — to thwart the most physically gifted star in the league. Nick Nurse must be credited for preparing his side for the Bucks regular actions, adjusting individual assignments after the deflating opening two losses, and devising a team approach that limits the areas where Antetokounmpo shines brightest.
When all is said and done on this magical 2018/19 playoff run, the pictures that will remain most vivid are those of Leonard flying out of bounds on the Game 7 buzzer-beater, Lowry swooping in for an offensive board, or Ibaka just doing whatever the hell Ibaka does on any given night. But don’t forget, amidst that bounty of moments we will no doubt treasure, the way in which this iteration of the Toronto Raptors grafted together to create the greatest team defence in franchise history.