Monday night, Marc Gasol and the Toronto Raptors worked their defensive center on Philadelphia 76ers star center, Joel Embiid. Embiid was held scoreless for the first time in his career, sparking memes and barbs across the internet.
While Embiid was certainly the most drastic case, he was not the first to be limited by a smart and tenacious Raptors defense this season. Even without Kawhi Leonard this season, head coach Nick Nurse has made the flummoxing of the NBA’s elite a calling card for his unit.
As a team, the Raptors rank sixth in the league in defense. They have stymied teams by putting emphasis on paint protection. They are fourth in the NBA in preventing shot attempts at the rim and second in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage on those shots, per Cleaning the Glass.
Nurse and his staff have frequently employed various zone schemes to help keep opponents out of the paint. These schemes are not common in the NBA and can be used to surprised teams at the start of a quarter or coming out of a timeout.
The first high-profile victim for the Raptors’ defense was none other than LeBron James. In a game that the Raptors won on the road, James was held to just 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
Looking at the NBA.com matchup data, the Raptors gave James a variety of looks defensively. OG Anunoby was given the lions share of the possessions on James and held him to 1 point on 0-for-1 shooting. James was sent to the line once in those possessions and went 1-for-2 from the charity stripe.
While Anunoby did well, he was only guarding LeBron for less than half of the game. The lack of scoring production from James was the result of a team defensive effort.
Here are the Raptors guarding James in the pick-and-roll. Notice that Fred VanVleet is almost in the paint, completely ignoring his man, Alex Caruso, on the wing. The defense forces a tough shot but they were unable to secure the rebound.
On this play, VanVleet is switched onto James and Siakam, who is guarding Caruso, shades all the way over to the paint as well. This time, James notices the help early and hits Caruso for the three, but he is unable to knock it down.
This team defensive effort has been a theme for the Raptors all season. They have ignored specific shooters to put an emphasis on keeping opponents out of the paint.
One night later, on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors went to work on their former teammate Kawhi Leonard. They held the Finals MVP to just 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting and forced him into 11 turnovers.
Like they did with James, the Raptors gave Leonard a variety of looks and refused to let him attack one-on-one.
The Raptors trapped nearly every pick-and-roll Leonard ran, forcing him to either pass out or turn the corner. If he managed to turn the corner and head towards the rim, he was met with multiple defenders in the paint.
The trapping scheme forces Leonard into what is maybe his only weakness, passing out of tight situations. Here, Gasol hard hedges and forces Leonard out to nearly half-court. He and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson cause Leonard to throw a wild pass resulting in a turnover.
This is a risky scheme to deploy, especially against a Clippers team that is armed with willing and capable shooters around the perimeter. The Raptors have the requisite length and intelligence to pull it off though, doing so against a number of the league’s best ball handlers.
The Raptors made a stop in Portland and gave Damian Lillard the same treatment that Leonard and James received. Nurse did not employ the hard trap, fearing Lillard’s passing out of those plays, but the attention paid by multiple defenders was a theme throughout.
Lillard draws the eyes of VanVleet, Siakam and Gasol on this pick-and-roll, as he misses a tough fadeaway. The Raptors consistently showed him multiple sets of arms during any foray into the paint.
The most recent and most effective example of their defensive success came against Joel Embiid earlier this week. The All-Star center was mainly shadowed by Marc Gasol, who had major success guarding Embiid in last season’s playoffs. Gasol was not alone though, as the Raptors frequently threw double teams at the big man down low.
On this play, Chris Boucher completely abandons his man on the perimeter to cut off Embiid’s drive. VanVleet also pinches in and takes a swipe at the ball. The multiple bodies in his line of sight cause Embiid to slow down and allows Gasol to recover for the block.
The Raptors boast a roster full of defensive-minded players who exert full energy on that end. Even some of the younger players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher have excelled in Toronto defensively.
VanVleet particularly has made a leap on that end and has defended opposing guards at an elite level to start the season. His play along with Siakam’s two-way brilliance are two major factors in the Raptors hot start to the season.
While the excellent three-point shooting may cool off a bit for the Raptors, their team defense could carry them to a high playoff seed. What happens once they get to the playoffs will be exciting to watch.
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