It’s often said that the first game in a best-of-seven series is a feeling game, and in the case of the Raptors — who were defeated by Philadelphia in Game 1 last weekend — they’ll likely need the case.
In the series opener, Toronto had some sort of Murphy’s Law performance in defense: just about anything that could go wrong did go wrong.
- The Raptors’ intricate web on D, like the myriad inner parts of an expensive wristwatch, accomplished its main purpose, holding scoring champion Joel Embiid and future Hall of Famer James Harden together just 11-of-32 of the field.
- But by paying so much attention to that duo to stifle his score, the other Sixers players had a field day, with guard Tyrese Maxey noting a 38-point playoff career and Tobias Harris having 26 points on just 14 shots.
- Philadelphia, which hit 16 of its 32 triples in the afternoon, finished with 29 assists and made no turnovers until the third period.
But between the one-sided nature of their 131-111 Game 1 loss and the high probability of the Raptors being knocked out in second place, it might be enough to gloss over the fact that Toronto may be the weirdest, experimental club in the world. competition. And in a way, without their depth, the Raptors may have to lean even more on their wonderful, proprietary craziness on defense to fend off the playoffs’ extinction.
There’s a bit of irony to this basketball franchise, which took its name from a vote of fans in 1994, less than a year after the hugely popular film’s release. Jurassic Park† Raptor dinosaurs, which roamed the Earth about 75 million years ago, were thought to have disproportionately short arms. By contrast, in 2022, the Toronto Raptors are quite the opposite and stand out for their never-ending arms.
Take their January show against Bradley Beal and the Wizards, for example. Toronto’s swarming defense chased the three-time All-Star to a career-high nine turnovers that night.
“It’s not like I threw that b—- across the floor,” Beal said, explaining the abuses the Raptors forced. “They were sweeping while I was in traffic. There were a lot of guys with their hands in it. They were shrinking the floor. They stole. They got their hands on a lot.”
Almost nothing with this Toronto team is typical. The Raptors’ arm lengths make routine passes nearly impossible for opponents. They bounce back more passes than any NBA team and force turnovers at the fastest pace in the league. It’s a big part of the reason that opponents take longer to find shot attempts against Toronto than almost anyone else, according to data site Inpredictable. At some level, this long-limbed team makes shooters and passers-by think more than they’d like from one game to another.
Of the 14 players who have logged at least 200 minutes for the Raptors this season, only two-point guards Fred VanVleet and backup guard Malachi Flynn are under 6 feet tall. Most are a minimum of 6 feet tall and have wingspans. which generally exceed the 7-foot mark.
Yes, teams have invested in lineups that were ridiculously athletic and tall before. During the controversial “Process” era led by Sam Hinkie, the Sixers made it a point to prioritize wingspan, using 6’5″ Michael Carter-Williams as point guard before finally taking on 6’11” point forward Ben Simmons landed. The Bucks also considered gaining height as an organizational priority for a few years closer to the beginning of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s time in the league before winning it all in 2021. In between those phases, the Warriors had their utterly dominant Death Lineup – and later The Bucks Hamptons Five group-choking attacks with four alternating defenders each at least 6’6″ tall with huge wingspans.
Yet it is hard to imagine that there ever was a club this one committed to almost always having height advantages. Even if someone like All-Defensive Team candidate Fred VanVleet is beaten to the point of attack on the way to the paint, will the dribbler have to go through one, two or possibly three defenders – think 6’7″ OG Anunoby, 6 ‘8″ Pascal Siakam then 6’7″ Barnes – all of which have a range of 2 meters or more.
Scroll to continue
Hell, even calling for a standard pick and roll set is complicated. Getting around in VanVleet is in itself a big enough challenge. Despite standing only 6’1″, he finished second in the league in deflections and has forced double digit converting into games by himself† If VanVleet is shielded, a ballhandler must figure out how to throw off a bigger, nimble, but physical wing that’s probably fast enough to go with him step-by-step. It’s like being at a carnival, locked in an area with five funhouse mirrors and five potential trick doors to walk through: most of the decisions you make against this defense will be the wrong ones.
“There is no other team like us,” says Anunoby. “It would be hard to play against us because we are running around everywhere and throwing a lot of stuff at you. We play an energetic style. I don’t think there is another team like us. And it’s fun to play that way.”
Of course, this craziness is a design, the brainchild of Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Toronto already had more defensive height than average when it won the NBA title in 2019. But since Kawhi Leonard left as a free-agent and since he saw Kyle Lowry join the Heat last year, the Raptors have only seemed to double down on building their roster with skilled, interchangeable wingers who are roughly between 6’7″ and 6’9″.
“It’s a lot like what it was like when I was in the state of Florida where we had a lot of tall, athletic players who could switch from 1 to 5,” Barnes said, probably part of why he was an attractive choice for the Raptors with the No. 4 roster in the 2021 draft. “By watching our hands and getting those deflections, it helps us run in transition.”
With its tallest players at just six feet – Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe are all the same size – Toronto doesn’t have a traditional center on its payroll. Which leaves the Raptors with a giant question mark the size of Embiid for a playoff series like this.
It would be easy to assume that the blowout in Game 1 and Toronto’s major absences from the rotation for Game 2 put the Raptors behind the eight ball. And maybe they have.
But if you’ve been paying attention to the Toronto season thus far, part of the reason the Raptors have relied so heavily on their clone-style defenses is because they had to. Injuries were a factor, prompting coach Nick Nurse to throw some of the team’s youngest players in the fire a little earlier than he would have otherwise. As a result, Barnes, the rookie forward, gained a lot of experience on offense over the course of the campaign, while VanVleet and Flynn didn’t queue for games. So did Siakam.
“We did that out of necessity, but hopefully it translates into making better players and making more all-round type of players, to help them improve in different skills and situations,” Nurse says. “That’s really the goal: to be able to move pieces and make some matchups that we think are more favorable. It’s hard to organize at times, and it feels a little clunky and weird at times. But it often smoothes itself out and looks good”
Toronto looked better than OK to finish the campaign, with 33-17 over the last 50 games after a 15-17 start. The Raptors had the NBA’s stingiest defense in the last 12 games, giving up just 108 points per 100 possessions during that period. Interestingly, they also finished with a 10-5 score against the other top five clubs in the East, the best record of the entire group.
At the start of the season, the Raptors looked a little lost. Defensive rotations weren’t always there. People played with energy, but there wasn’t always a clear picture of what the goal was. Wings went after steals, but made poor guesses as a result.
By the end of the year there was consistency. Goal. “There has been a lot of growth. Guys feel more comfortable with what we’re doing and I think we’ve fully embraced our style,” said Anunoby, who missed parts of the season before coming back just in time for the play-offs.
Playing without Barnes, Trent and Young throws an undeniable wrench in things for this series – especially with Barnes, because of everything he brings to the table. But even before his injury in the fourth quarter Saturdayit was reasonable to wonder if some adjustments would be needed for Toronto ahead of Game 2.
If the prehistoric raptors needed hard meat to survive, the 2022 Raptors can’t survive without forcing turnover. Forcing the Sixers to just four won’t work as Toronto tied for the league lead in sales points scored per 100 possessions throughout the season. (Another problem: The Raps scored just seven second-chance points on Saturday night — well below their 16.5 points per game average, which was second-place in the NBA this season.)
The tendency to play someone like Embiid more directly after seeing Maxey and Harris ignite would be understandable. But again, Toronto doesn’t have a player of the physical weight to cover the MVP candidate for long. And with fewer bodies available, it would take immediate foul trouble to try and take that route against one of the competition’s elite foul-loads. To some extent, the same is true for a whistleblower like Harden.
Nurse has a long track record of trying just about anything to confuse a counterattack. A few years ago, when Harden was in the midst of a ridiculous scoring hot streak, Nurse had several defenders sprint toward the lefty to force the ball out of his hands before going half the field. (“If I remember correctly, that didn’t turn out very well,” Nurse said with a smile. “A big, fat L, I guess.”) During the 2019 final, he trotted a box-and-one from zone defense against Stephen Curry and the Warriors who worked almost to perfection. According to Synergy Sports, the Raptors, who alternate from night to night more than any other basketball team, are among the five clubs that have used a zone the most.
“The changing defenses are part of who we are, and they help us get through some of the things we’re trying to improve on. We’re doing it to cover up the things we’re still working on, I guess,” the nurse said several days before the wheels came off during Game 1.
The kinks will occasionally show up with an experimental club like this. But the one thing you can count on at Nurse and the Raptors, for better or for worse, is that it will always look different next time. That is the beautiful madness behind this atypical club.
More SI Daily covers:
• Kyrie Irving has put the NBA in a tough spot
• Joel Embiid: ‘I thought I was really going to lose it’
† The Inevitability of Cade Cunningham