Three games into the 2021-22 season, and we already know what the Toronto Raptors are going to look like at their best and their worst. In fact, we saw that after two games. In game one against the Washington Wizards, the Raptors couldn’t score in the halfcourt and had plenty of transition opportunities, which they wasted. In game two against the Boston Celtics, the Raptors couldn’t score in the halfcourt and had plenty of transition opportunities, which they converted. In both games, their defense was ferocious.
In game three against the Dallas Mavericks, the Raptors proved to be more or less in the middle of the pre-established peak and valley. The defense was stringent. The halfcourt offense was a struggle. And because the NBA has a ridiculous level of scouting and knowledge, the Mavericks had already read the books on the Raptors. They protected the defensive glass, got back to limit transition buckets, and forced the Raptors to play slow.
“I think there’s fastbreak opportunities where numbers are really in our favor that we’re not getting enough out of,” explained Nick Nurse after the game. “There’s a few too many of those but again, I think we’ll see that improving as we go. But we’re going to have to continue to execute in the half court…
“I don’t want to push any alarm buttons, I think our offenses has struggled at times, but I think it’s also grown a lot in the last, you know, five or six games including the last couple of preseason games but we got to continue to work on it for sure.”
Translation: the offense needs work, but Nurse is hopeful that it’ll happen. They need to run, and that the Mavericks finished with only nine turnovers was probably enough to sink the ship 103-95.
The defense, on the other hand, was great. Toronto was comfortable switching size onto Luka Doncic. They did that in part because they were fine with Kristaps Porzingis posting up just about anybody (in the first quarter he settled for a fadeaway against Gary Trent jr.) and in part because size limits Doncic’s pull-up shooting and his sightlines of passing lanes. Precious Achiuwa in particular had success against Doncic, as he contested everything, and the latter had a lot of trouble even seeing the rim over Achiuwa’s outstretched arms. He put on a defensive masterclass, finishing with an extremely modest box score ouput, including zero blocks or steals, yet was one of Toronto’s most critical defenders in the game. That’s massive headway for a young big.
Most impressive though was OG Anunoby’s work against Doncic. He is strong enough not to budge against Doncic’s ferocious hips and long enough to deflect or bother both Doncic’s passes and pullups. When Anunoby guarded Doncic, the Mavericks struggled to even attempt shots, let alone convert them. Dallas scored two points in the first six minutes of the game. Anunoby smothered jumpers, jumped passing lanes, and landed uppercuts on Dallas’ chin. If it weren’t for Toronto’s offensive limitations, they would have built an insurmountable lead in the game’s first few minutes.
Fouls undid the Raptors’ defense for a stretch. Scottie Barnes picked up three in the first half, as he received his usual rookie whistle. But so too did Anunoby, as he was baited into a few cheapies against Doncic. Without their pair of enormous wings, Toronto’s identity on the court faltered. Svi Mykhailiuk is a solid veteran shooter, but he can’t simulate the defensive ferocity of Toronto’s starting wings, and Nick Nurse chose to play Mykhailiuk alongside similarly sized Goran Dragic and Gary Trent jr. at one point. Toronto lost those minutes by a huge margin. When Chris Boucher entered the game, his defense was stout, but he was committed to flinging stepback threes at the rim with seemingly every touch. He was benched for the rest of the game after his most egregious chuck.
Asked if there was too much up and down from Chris Boucher, Nurse said, “I didn’t see any up.”
Through it all, the defense remained impressive for Toronto, as it has through three games. But the Raptors couldn’t build a big enough lead to stay comfortable. Unfortunately, not only was Anunoby the lynchpin for the defense, but he was one of the only consistent sources of offense, as well. Anunoby scored 23 points, drilling triples after relocations, muscling into the paint for self-created dunks, and creating advantages in the pick and roll. With him sitting with fouls, Toronto’s halfcourt offense, meagre that it was, fell off a cliff. It didn’t help that with Anunoby off the court, Doncic went berserk late in the third quarter as he hit one-legged moonball floaters, fadeaway triples, and everything else he chose to fling at the rim.
Toronto survived, and Anunoby returned to the game with seven minutes remaining and facing an eight-point deficit. But low energy on a back to back, the pace slowing from that of a modest stream to a dry river bed, and some hot shooting from Dallas closed the door on Toronto for good. Toronto managed only 12 fastbreak points in the entire game; they’ll lose the vast majority of games in which they’re limited in such a significant way to the halfcourt, no matter how impressive their defense.
The Mavericks have better halfcourt offensive options than Toronto. With Pascal Siakam still injured, the Raptors simply don’t have the personnel who can force rotations in the halfcourt whenever required. Doncic can do just that, even to the best defensive teams.
Nurse did mention to media before the game that Siakam is already practicing, though not yet with full contact. His return will solve some of these problems for the Raptors, as well as bolster the Raptors’ defensive and disruptive identity. For now, their success will be tied to transition. Against good teams, they won’t be able to run enough, so some losses should be par for the course. At least Scottie Barnes is projecting to be a superstar, so there’s plenty of fun to watch in the losses. Barnes is only four points away from the record for Raptors rookies through three games, and he’ll need 12 to tie the mark through four games on Monday. But only expect the losses to good teams for now. When Siakam returns is when the real stakes — and expectations of winning — should return.