Piecing it Together

by Vivek Jacob

Nick Nurse knew it’d be a bit of a journey, he suggested it might even take an entire season. A team filled with new, young players and injuries steadily changing rotations meant that the learning curve for a defensive philosophy that is demanding at the best of times was going to be steeper than usual.

He accepts that. What Nurse wants to see over the course of this journey is progress: increase the frequency of the peaks and reduce the depth of the valleys. Results aside, play with the intensity they did against Boston on Nov. 28 and establish that effort level like the one against Indiana on Nov. 26 unacceptable.

Over the last four games, the Raptors have made progress. Perimeter defenders are keeping their man in front of them. Even when they don’t, they are forcing a more circuitous path to the rim as opposed to going north-south, directing traffic to the help rather than defenders moving too far away. Impede, help, contest, rebound. That last bit still has some way to go, but the Raptors managed the sixth best defensive rating over the past week courtesy of allowing the second-best effective field goal percentage. After ranking dead-last in defensive rating from Nov. 5th-27th, this stretch is the light at the end of the tunnel.

“We were really connected, just not a whole lot of mistakes and most of the shots had somebody in front of them, one way or another and it's good to see,” Nurse said after defeating the Washington Wizards. “I thought that group that started set the tone, but I also thought every single guy that came in off the bench brought the same kind of energy and maybe even a little more, that's kind of what we're hoping for it to look like, but it was a good all-around team effort defensively.”

The problems length and switchability create are great in theory, but it wasn’t coming together in game action often enough. Blow-bys, cheap fouls, and a failure to secure the defensive board are all issues that have plagued the team in equal measure, and they are steadily being mitigated. With an extended home stretch, the Raptors have been focused on getting things right on that end of the floor at OVO Athletic Centre where they held four practices on the five non-game days since Nov. 27.

Siakam, for one, acknowledged that there was not only an adjustment for him to make in terms of getting back to game-speed after recovering from a torn labrum or some of the new teammates, but also the difference in the way the game is being called of late compared to the physicality that was being allowed in the early season.

“I was just watching those games [when I was rehabbing] and getting super excited about how they let things go,” Siakam said. “It was exciting and I got too excited about it, I think that period of time is gone now. I feel like it’s not that anymore. So, I just have to be mindful of that, just getting away from the cheap ones, the little slaps or whatever - If I’m going to have a foul I would rather it be an actual foul preventing someone from scoring or a foul I actually want to give.”

His understanding of the officiating isn’t the only aspect that’s improved. Through his first five games, Siakam averaged 14.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists on 46.7/29.4/75 shooting splits on twos, threes, and free-throws. Over his last eight games, Siakam is up to 22 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 53.8/35.5/76.7 shooting splits.

A key dynamic of this Raptors season will be how his chemistry with Scottie Barnes develops, and one of the ways the team has looked to elevate their compatibility is to have Barnes present himself as a 3-point threat. Spacing is key to Siakam’s success with the ball in his hands, and while Barnes has been on a hot streak of late from three, it’s his willingness to actually shoot it that is most encouraging. After 19 attempts from deep over his first 18 games, Barnes has hoisted 23 attempts over the last four (making 10). 

“There might be times when it might not go in but it’s just the confidence in taking them,” Siakam said of Barnes’ newly found proclivity for 3-point shooting. “I don’t really care about the result of it, I really think [the fact] that he’s taking them is enough for me and I know that he’s working on them so I’m sure that it’s gonna balance out, he’s gonna make em. I just like that he’s taking them.”

It’s an interesting adjustment for Barnes to make beyond the obvious. He has proven to be a very effective cutter and offensive rebounder through the first quarter of the season, and so the decision of when to stand your ground and space the floor versus when to present an option going to the rim is going to take some feeling out before it becomes instinctual.

“You just have to pick and choose when’s the right time,” Barnes said. “I really just try to go in there and get offensive rebounds all the time. Sometimes they’re going to come your way, sometimes they’re not, but really just trying to get in there and find open spots to get easy baskets.”

Barnes has been tasked with plenty as he showcases his tantalizing talents, but defending on the perimeter at the NBA level as well as processing defensive rotations in real time were going to take time no matter the reputation he arrived with. He appears to have turned a corner in that regard as well, helping the Raptors actualize some of the defence they envisioned coming into the season.

The returns of Yuta Watanabe and Gary Trent Jr. have been a major boost as well, with the former delivering early on the promise of doing a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor and the latter continuing to impress with his two-way ability. As OG Anunoby and Khem Birch continue to mend themselves, what has become evident is that familiarity with both concepts and personnel are paramount to this team’s success, and that the margin for error is thin when it is lacking.

With three games remaining on this home stand against Oklahoma City, New York, and Sacramento before a three-headed monster stretch against Brooklyn, Chicago, and Golden State, it is a crucial week ahead in Toronto’s hopes of getting back over the .500 mark. One defensive rotation, one close-out, one rebound after another, the Raptors are slowly but steadily piecing it all together.


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