Poor Joel Embiid. The gigantic colossus didn’t feel well — a fever, a cough, whatever it was. He was under the weather, and everything is harder when you’re sick. Which must have made all the Dobermans nipping at him, dodging in for a bite here or there, much less pleasant, surely. The crowd taunting him was one thing. But the defence can’t have been fun.
But then, what was Ben Simmons’ excuse? Of all the things these Toronto Raptors do well, they guard. If there is a wellspring that unleashes their potential — not just their potential to watch Kawhi Leonard perform his brutalist ballet, night after night — it is that there is a real defence underpinning everything else.
“Sometimes you have bad games, sloppy games, but I don’t think they played that sloppy,” said Raptors guard Danny Green, after Toronto forced 19 turnovers in a 125-89 win in Game 5, to take a three-games-to-two series lead. “I think we just upped our intensity defensively. I can’t give all the credit to our defence. They had an off night as well. They didn’t shoot it as well as they usually have in the past games, and they probably had some turnovers they don’t normally have.
“We did a great job defensively. We were more locked in, intense, focused. Obviously they helped us out a little bit, missing some shots, but I think we were more into the body, more physical, scrambling around, communicating better … The biggest problem for us, most games, is offence, and tonight we finally got a rhythm going and some flow, which helped us.”
The Raptors were a good defensive team in the regular season, of course. They had moments of weakness, as everyone does. There were blow-bys at times on the perimeter, and not just because it’s impossible to keep modern NBA players from blowing by you sometimes. Kawhi is a former defensive player of the year, but he spent the year practising and resting up. It’s a long season.
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And now the bedrock of this team is that they can defend with just about anyone. Before acquiring former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol in early February, Toronto was eighth in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions. With him they were third at 105.7, behind only Utah and Orlando, both teams driving for the playoffs. And frankly, while the competition down the stretch wasn’t the firmest, it’s not like the Raptors were using all the engines, either.
Their defensive rating against Orlando in the first round was 95.8, over a dozen points below Orlando’s regular-season mark of 108.1. Toronto has held the 76ers to 101.9 points per 100 possessions, almost a full 10 below their eighth-ranked regular-season number of 111.5. The game slows down in the playoffs; the fun of fast breaks is lessened, and the easy possessions disappear.
But the Raptors have the best defensive rating of any team left. In Game 5, they employed their best tricks: the length and mobility of Pascal Siakam, who proved capable of enveloping even Jimmy Butler on occasion, despite the bruised calf; the implacable viciousness of Leonard, who stripped Simmons of the ball the first two times the Sixers star touched it, after which Simmons was barely seen again. The clever stubbornness of Kyle Lowry, who leads the league in charges taken and loose balls recovered in the playoffs, and is third in deflections; the solidity of Green, who is one of the best transition defenders in the league.
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And then there is Gasol, whose feet aren’t fast but they’re clever, and whose ability to interlock with Serge Ibaka in big lineups has been integral. At their best the Raptors switch well, dive at ballhandlers at key moments — Embiid was victimized by this a few times — plug the lane for offensive fouls, and scramble exceptionally well when they are forced to double to recover. Matchups matter, and OG Anunoby (recovering from an appendectomy) would allow for one more big perimeter player they could use, but it’s a pretty good machine.
“I give Toronto credit for their crowd and their activity,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “I think things that we can do better is not playing in a crowd, being stronger with the ball, but they made life difficult for Joel as a post player. He had maybe one, maybe two (turnovers) passing in transition, early offence, but I bet four came as just a post player. So I think they did a good job of sending multiple people at him. And with Ben I think they did a good job of showing a crowd.”
It’s comforting, right? The Raptors have been picked apart in previous years: LeBron got to the point where he had to try different shots just to stay interested, and by gum he made them. The Raptors always had to hide DeMar DeRozan, or got exploited with Jonas Valanciunas on the floor. C.J. Miles played 99 minutes against Cleveland last year. Toronto’s defensive rating in that humiliating series was 127.3. The year before against Cleveland, it was 120.3. The year before, 118.5. So, it wasn’t exactly getting better.
Well, now it’s something that, along with their collective and individual basketball intelligence, is among the better reasons to believe these Raptors are different. It shouldn’t be hard to believe that, actually. After all, they are.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
Published at Wed, 08 May 2019 22:54:40 +0000