On Thursday night, the Raptors attempted to add James Harden to its growing list of stars that have struggled to perform against their third ranked defence. At face-value they achieved their target — Harden only had 11 shot attempts and was held to 23 points, his lowest total since the season opener— but the net result was not what Nick Nurse would have hoped for. Toronto fell 119-109 to Houston, a game in which the Rockets launched 55 threes and Ben McLemore (yes, you read that right) scored a game-high 28 points.
Nurse, donning a freshly refurbished goatee look, implemented an equally new defensive scheme in an attempt to derail the league’s leading scorer. Toronto forced the ball out of Harden’s hands by aggressively trapping the moment he began to dribble. Two Raptors draped Harden all night in an attempt to nullify his presence. It was a scheme that stretched Toronto’s ‘star-stopping’ defence to its literal extent. However, Harden’s planned omission allowed his supporting cast to punish the Raptors.
Prepare for ‘janky’ comments to fly across everyone’s Twitter timeline for the next 24 hours.
“You roll the dice sometimes, and sometimes you lose,” said Fred VanVleet. “It’s [defensive scheme] not very common in the league, but a guy like James [Harden] isn’t very common either.”
Toronto have busted out a wide array of zones, traps, and blitzes this year, but none to this degree. They essentially conceded 4-on-3 scenarios repeatedly and backed on Houston making incorrect reads or missing shots, neither of which panned out.
“Somebody was going to get open. We were banking on them not making those shots,” said Pascal Siakam.
Three-point shooting results can be random on any given night, especially when a team launches 55 of them. However, Toronto cannot attribute this loss to shooting variance, even if a few shooters caught fire from deep. Houston, namely Harden, out-maneuvered the Raptors by perfectly timing his passes out of double teams to generate 4-on-3 opportunities. From there, the supporting cast executed with the numerical advantage and generated countless quality looks from the corner.
Variance in three-point shooting doesn’t just relate to if the shot went in or not. Missed shots from deep result in longer rebounds which creates far more randomness as to who comes down with possession. There is a skill to this too — I mean, Clint Capela was built by Daryl Morey in a laboratory to solely corral missed Westbrook jumpers— and the Raptors defensive scheme did them no favours in getting into early positions to box-out. The trickle-down effect from the quick Harden double team left the defence a step behind and in recovery mode all night. It exposed the Raptors persistent rebounding flaw, allowing Houston to swallow up 20 offensive boards.
I don’t think that Toronto’s aggressive defensive scheme was entirely flawed. There were periods where it caused turnovers and got them out in transition. Toronto began to feel more comfortable in it, but the energy required to execute noticeably sapped. It became apparent that it was not a sustainable tactic for the entire 48 minutes. Pascal Siakam— a man who has never been out of breath a day in his life— was gassed in the help defender role. I don’t suspect that he’ll be jumping at the opportunity to play this scheme for a full game anytime soon.
“If it is a situation where we really need it for a couple of possessions, not a whole game, we can use it. I think it’s good that we are trying different things and are open-minded, trying to do new things that most people don’t do,” said Siakam.
There is logic to trying out these unique defensive looks. Despite the frustration of the loss, in the long run it doesn’t mean much. The film Nurse and co. now have to assess how the scheme actually played out over an entire game may turn out to be more beneficial for the team later on.
“It was an interesting experiment to see if it would play, and I think it was pretty good, wasn’t great, but pretty good,” said Nick Nurse.