Toronto might have fixed its defensive debacle in the corners

The Raptors haven't been less aggressive on defense. But they have been breaking down far, far less.

It only took Jakob Poeltl one game to change the framework of the Toronto Raptors’ defense. 

The definitive moment came midway through the third quarter against the Utah Jazz. Utah inbounded the ball and tried for a quick post-up, easily stonewalled by Poeltl. The Jazz ran a pick and roll, again defused by the presence of Poeltl in the lane. A quick skip to the weak-side corner, and Chris Boucher almost intercepts it with his extraordinary length. A drive -- with Poeltl lurking in the lane -- so the Jazz settle for a stepback triple. Boucher blocks it, and Poeltl grabs the loose ball to start a Toronto fast break. 

For most of the 2022-23 season, the Raptors’ defense has been fiddling precariously close to the edge of the roof. The strategy of extreme gapping, cheating, digging, helping, and rotating is meant to concede lots of opposing corner triples in exchange for a boatload of forced turnovers. Last year, Toronto weaved a passable tune, ranking 10th overall in defense. That could be divided, though, with Toronto on one hand struggling to 18th in opposing effective field-goal percentage yet also forcing the highest rate of turnovers in the league. That's a good trade when you rank 10th -- the swing vote fell to collective rim defense, as the Raptors were middle of the pack in limiting opposing rim frequency as extremely long players like Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes shared duties at the rim.  

This season, Toronto snapped a string and fell off the roof. Before Feb. 9 -- the trade deadline, when the Raptors acquired Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs -- Toronto was below average at forcing difficult shots from within six feet and at forcing opponents to miss those shots. Last year, Toronto was still poor at allowing high-quality looks at the rim, but it was the sixth-best at holding opponents to field-goal percentages below expected quality (based on tracking data and shot location). 

Toronto still gave up corner triples, and it still forced plenty of turnovers, but the collapse at the rim resulted in a defensive debacle. It was a vicious cycle, with hectic effort from Toronto’s long defenders, and pell-mell rotating around the corner, resulting in layups regardless. Midway through the year, the coach and players were questioning the team’s heart and commitment as the defense failed entirely.

If that was rock bottom, Toronto took those stones and built a ladder, climbing out of that disaster pit. Since acquiring Poeltl, the Raptors are once again above average at forcing misses from within six feet. Poeltl has been fantastic protecting the rim -- he’s one of nine players since the trade deadline to contest at least seven shots at the rim while holding those shots to an efficiency at least 7.0 percentage points below expected. (The others are the league’s absolute best rim protectors, including Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Brook Lopez, Evan Mobley, and Myles Turner.) No Raptor reached those marks last year. 

But a funny thing happened to Toronto’s defense with Poeltl in tow: Now, the Raptors are also limiting corner triples. Being able to protect the rim has meant Toronto can now use its collective length to limit corner triples, rather than collapsing to always put out fires in the paint. 

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