There has been a lot of talk about the NBA bubble favouring offense; about how the gyms are good for shooters and how games have turned into shoot-offs with little defense being played, suggesting that the best offensive teams have an advantage.
The Toronto Raptors hope to dispel any notion that offense will win out in the bubble, and they made their best case in favour of defense so far in a 117-92 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday afternoon, taking the first 3-0 series lead of the bubble and the first in Raptors’ franchise history.
It’s true that the Raptors shot 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from three while assisting on 35 of their 46 made buckets, which is about as good as it gets offensively, but this was a vintage defensive performance from the Raptors from start to finish. The team came out of the gate locked in, playing intense and aggressive defense while sticking to the game plan: their big-men effectively guarded the basket while the rest of the rotation consistently contested the Nets’ three-point shots. In fact, the Raptors held the Nets to just 17 points on 30 percent shooting (including 3/13 from behind the arc) in the first quarter and never looked back.
Aside from Gasol and Ibaka, who are nimble enough to occasionally defend the perimeter but mainly sit in the paint as much as they can and challenge everything that comes inside, the rest of the Raptors’ rotation players are all fast, athletic, and smart enough to keep their man in front of them while also switching coverages without second-guessing. Those two aspects of Toronto’s defense are extremely important: negating blow-by drives by keeping their men in front of them allows the Raptors defense to not collapse to the paint all that often. And, when the Raptors defense does need to scramble — which is part of their game plan and is what allows them to double-team elite scorers and post-players — they have a special ability to pick up the open man fast enough to challenge his shot even when at first it looks wide open. Just watch how few open three-point attempts the Nets attempt compared to the Raptors:
While he doesn’t get enough credit for his defense — and it admittedly slipped during the regular season — Pascal Siakam is the best at running around the perimeter challenging shots, using his long wingspan to contest everything. He was crucial in the win on Friday; the best player on both sides of the floor for the Raptors.
The Raptors defense led to offense all night. Whether it was forcing turnovers or just grabbing defensive rebounds and running, the Raptors’ 20 fast-break points were only a percentage of the offense that stemmed from getting stops. They were in charge of the game because they made the Nets feel uncomfortable and second-guess themselves while never straying from what they do best: running the floor and moving the ball.
CLAMPED 'EM pic.twitter.com/XSfKHBSfvW
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 21, 2020
And the Raptors stuck to their game plan, limiting shots in the restricted area while allowing the Nets to take contested shots from behind the arc. In fact, at one point late in the game (before the bench was emptied) the Nets had taken 47 field goal attempts and just 5 came within the restricted area, according to John Schuhmann of NBA.com.
The only times the Raptors struggled to contain the Nets was when the Raptors’ players failed to get back on defense, allowing the Nets to score 19 fast-break points against a defense that wasn’t set. Otherwise, the Raptors defended in the half-court about as well as any team reasonably could, and the fact that their shots were falling certainly helped them run away with this one. Sure, it’s the depleted version of the Brooklyn Nets, but what the Raptors are doing defensively is sustainable and has gotten them wins against elite teams all season.
The Raptors are hoping that defense can lead them to their second-straight title. The circumstances are certainly different this time: Kawhi Leonard is gone and the team has struggled to score in the half-court all season. But the defense that led them to glory last season is still there. In fact, it’s been better than ever in the bubble, with a league-leading 102.7 defensive rating through the 8 seeding games and an even better 99.0 defensive rating in the first three games of the playoffs.
The Raptors have the blueprint. They have the personnel and coaching. And on Friday afternoon against the Nets, the Raptors showed that they have the defensive acumen to not only win, but to also leave opposing teams demoralized in the process.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 21, 2020