When the Roman Empire faced rebels hiding in the natural fortress of Masada, in 73 CE, it was assumed they wouldn’t be able to breach the mountain. The only entrance was a winding path, exposed to arrow fire from the top of the mountain, that could only hold a few soldiers shoulder-to-shoulder. Masada was believed impregnable. Instead, the Romans built their own mountain alongside Masada, climbed it safely, and proceed to walk easily to the fortress on top of Masada. The victory exemplified inhuman brutality, certainly, but also methodical execution, creative problem solving, and single-mindedness.
The Toronto Raptors are the Roman Empire of the NBA. Apparently after tasting total victory for the first time, they are now unstoppable. The Utah Jazz have their own Masada of sorts, or at least they do employ a mountain in Rudy Gobert. Gobert is a two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and one would think that his seven-foot-nine inch wingspan and 2.1 blocks per game would offer some impediment for Toronto’s offense. Instead, the Raptors shredded the Jazz when Gobert was on the court, finishing a second-worst -21 in the game. Like the Romans at Masada, Toronto’s performance was an example of turning an opponent’s seeming strength into a weakness.
Most notable, at least for the Raptors, was not the final result, but instead the focused manner in which Toronto achieved it.
Gobert was the hinge upon which the game turned. He wanted to help his teammates against Pascal Siakam in the paint. He’s more comfortable in the paint, and his ability to eat up space allows teammates to extend further from the hoop. The Jazz bet that Siakam’s teammates wouldn’t hurt them from deep if Gobert cheated inside, but early on, that’s about the only thing that happened. Marc Gasol launched a straightaway triple on Toronto’s first offensive possession, and though it was short, he wasn’t dissuaded. Gasol shot three more from deep on the next handful of possessions, and he made them all. He was deadly from the corners, especially, but most importantly, he was aggressive. He looked for his own shot and didn’t hesitate. It was all part of the plan.
“If [Gobert is] gonna sneak down there, then you’ve got to space your bigs,” explained Nick Nurse after the game. “Our offence can run at a very high level when all five guys on the floor can shoot the three… In a game like tonight, and Marc knows he’s going to get some opportunities if he can get himself relocated to the right spots, and he stepped up and banged a few early. That puts an emphasis on that part of the game.”
He even threw in a cut to the hoop while Siakam was doubled and threw down the dunk for good measure. Gasol laughed and called the dunk reMARCable in his post-game scrum (emphasis his own). However, Siakam drawing the defense, and getting rid of the ball early, was integral.
“They double-teamed [Siakam] early and he made all the right passes, kick-out Marc for three, kick-out down the lane Marc for a dunk, kick-out to Fred I think for another [three],” said Nurse after the game. “I mean, [Siakam] read it and they called it off, and then he noticed they called it off right away, and he went to work in the post.”
Nurse was spot-on; after Gasol proved Toronto’s teammates could hurt the Jazz if they collapsed into the paint, Siakam did the damage himself. He put Royce O’Neale on his back and overpowered him in the post, dropping in the layup. He threw in a pair of 3s and another layup, as he proved to be the hard place to Gasol’s rock. No matter what defensive coverage the Jazz chose, Toronto turned it into a weakness. Utah had to choose whether to guard Siakam alone or with two, and Toronto hammered at that choice over and again. It was a display of ruthless efficiency.
On the other end, Toronto’s defensive efforts were fantastic. OG Anunoby locked Donovan Mitchell into a box. He is bigger, stronger, and longer than Mitchell, and he made the speedy guard’s every motion a fight for the space. Mitchell found what are usually easy catches to be contested, and he often didn’t get the ball until there were few seconds left on the clock. When he did drive, Mitchell was off-balance due to Anunoby’s hands questing for the ball. In the first half, before the Raptors let up, Mitchell shot two-of-nine from the floor.
Fred VanVleet was similarly brilliant, turning any live dribble near his hands into a dogfight for the ball. Nothing was easy. Turnovers against the Raptors are death, and Anunoby and Norman Powell combined for six steals in the first half. They both jump-started Toronto’s transition offense, where Powell did some damage with multiple corner 3s.
Quin Snyder and the Jazz, searching for some answer, any answer, called three timeouts in the first 17 minutes of the game. Nothing worked in the first half. The Jazz were trapped in their own defenses, hoisted by their own petard. Toronto led 73-33 at the half, which is a franchise record for a lead at the half. Serge Ibaka returned and hit his stride later in the game, and Kyle Lowry is coming back soon. Everything is coming up Raptor.
Yes, Toronto shot over 60 percent from deep in the first half. Yes, Utah was dispirited and started throwing the ball away. The Raptors are not quite so good as to be blowing out great teams by 40 points in a half; Utah was, at least partially, responsible for its own demise, as was hot shooting from Toronto. The rout got out of hand. But Toronto’s performance was not purely a result of irreplicable elements. The game-plan was exquisite and the execution magnificent.
Toronto turned lax in the second half. The game was all but won, the fortress conquered. Toronto let the Jazz back into the game as Mitchell especially got free for some easy layups and meaningless points. Don’t let the score fool you; this game was over after approximately 15 minutes of playing time. Plus, I’m in good company in finding the third quarter uninteresting:
“I don’t want to really talk about that third quarter if that’s all right?” joked Nick Nurse after the game.
When the Jazz clawed a 40-point deficit down to 16, Toronto strung together a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and-1, a Siakam 3, an Ibaka 3, and an Ibaka and-1. The Raptors always had an answer. In the end, Toronto won the game handily.
At this point, we should probably stop talking about the Raptors as a surprise story to the year. They are a fantastic team. They are now 15-4, second in the East, with the second-best net rating in the league. The Toronto Raptors are, once again, legitimate championship contenders. Victory has become a foregone conclusion. The Raptors are beginning to do as champions do. When in Rome.