Photo credit: Che Bhatt (@shay2.0 on Instagram)
To say the last two weeks for the Toronto Raptors have been a roller coaster is an understatement.
Back-to-back wins over the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers had the team at 7-9 and appeared as if they were turning the corner from their slow start.
Follow that with three straight losses and they’re back to five games under .500 and the sky was falling once again on Raptors Twitter.
But everything was restored after two wins over the Orlando Magic. Fred VanVleet is coming off of a historic 54-point masterpiece and the defence is rounding into form.
The reward? Well, you get to play the three-headed offensive machine known as the Brooklyn Nets! Congrats!
Making matters slightly worse, OG Anunoby remains out so Nick Nurse is going to have to figure things out without his best wing defender.
And that, to me and most others, is the most fascinating thing about this game. The Raptors are a team that pride themselves on their defence and in the last two weeks are top ten in defensive rating.
They change their defence seemingly at the drop of a hat during games, going from high school zones to switching everything to keep their opponents off balance.
But without one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, how do the Raptors plan to slow down Brooklyn’s offence?
WELL, HOW GOOD HAS BROOKLYN’S OFFENCE BEEN?
If I had to describe their performance in a word? To quote the great Nayvadius Wilburn a.k.a Future, they’ve been sensational.
Since acquiring James Harden, the Nets have a 121.0 offensive rating; the best in that span.
Their five-man unit of Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, and Jeff Green have posted an offensive rating of 125.7 in 72 minutes together and are plus-16.9.
For context, the Raptors best five-man lineup with at least 50 minutes together is VanVleet, Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Chris Boucher with a plus-1.4 net rating.
As expected, the Nets are incredible offensively and teams have a hard time slowing down three elite scorers on the floor. Who would have guessed!
So should the Raptors simply throw their hands up and concede defeat?
While that would be a new tactic for Nurse, it’s probably unlikely so let’s go into how they could slow down the Nets.
IT’S TIME TO GET WEIRD!
As I mentioned already — and as every Raptors fan knows by now — Nurse likes to get creative on the defensive end.
Brooklyn isn’t a team that allows for opponents to get weird against them, though.
The Raptors have never played a team like this. No one has.
Following the Los Angeles Clippers loss to the Nets, Paul George was asked about defending the elite scoring trio.
“As good of defence as we played all night, the fact of the matter is, they have some of the best iso players in the world,” George told reporters via Zoom. “I thought there was a stretch there where we played great defence, were right in their face, and it was almost like each one of them took turns making a shot.”
Sure PG, but just how good are they in isolation?
Out of 41 players with at least ten percent of their possessions coming in isolation, the Nets have the second-best (Irving, 1.36 points-per-possession), fourth-best (Durant, 1.29 PPP), and sixth-best (Harden, 1.24 PPP).
So how do the Raptors counter that? Let’s start with how they handled one of the Big Three individually.
For instance, let’s look at how they defended Harden in their lone meeting with the Houston Rockets last season.
Harden finished with his lowest usage rate of the season (16.3 percent), his lowest assist rate (11.3 percent), and took his second-fewest shot attempts (11) in that game.
The Raps defended Harden better than pretty much anyone else. They sent hard double teams at him almost every time he touched the ball in the half court and it resulted in plays like this.
They lived with Ben McLemore taking 17 three’s and Russell Westbrook took 27 shots. They decided that Harden wasn’t going to beat them, so they dared the rest of the Rockets to do so. They did, but that’s beside the point.
When Harden didn’t have the ball, the Raptors always had someone glued to his hip even if he was standing at half court doing nothing.
You might see something like this when Harden is out there with one or neither of the other two superstars. I’m sure Nurse can live with Landry Shamet or Bruce Brown shooting instead of Harden. But clearly this is not a tactic that can be applied with all three stars on the floor, they’ll get killed.
BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN ALL THREE ARE OUT THERE?
What you’re likely going to see is a whole lot of something the Raptors have been doing pretty frequently this season: going small.
If the Raptors plan to switch everything and hedge against the Nets’ screens, there’s basically no way Aron Baynes can play 20+ minutes and risk getting hunted in isolation by any of the Nets stars. As well as Baynes has played defensively this year, they’ll go after him on every possession.
Chris Boucher would be able to survive a bit better but the best bet is going with Siakam at centre for any important stretch of time with all three of the Nets stars on the floor.
Siakam is playing more at centre this year than he ever has in his career with about 18 percent of his minutes coming at the five.
It’s working, too. Toronto is plus-14.8 per 100 possessions in those Siakam-at-centre minutes. Compare that to the minus-2.6 points per 100 possession with Siakam at the four, going super small might be the Raptors best chance.
We saw them do this basically the whole game against the Golden State Warriors on January 10th and it’s worth looking at how the Raptors played in that game to get a sense of how they may look against Brooklyn.
(No, the Warriors are not the Nets and do not have three monstrous isolation scorers but the defensive approach of going small is there).
First, Lowry and VanVleet switch the off-ball action with Kelly Oubre and Steph Curry. Then, VanVleet and Anunoby switch the on-ball action, leaving the much smaller VanVleet against James Wiseman. You can expect a lot of switching, no matter who the players that are switching when the Raps go small.
If Nurse can live with VanVleet matching up with Wiseman (Powell does come over to help in case Oubre passes to him), then he’ll be more than fine with VanVleet against Jeff Green (even against DeAndre Jordan in those limited minutes).
Now this is something you won’t see against the Nets, but it’s another example of how things will differ in their game plan. When the Nets go small with Green playing centre, four of the five players in that lineup are shooting over 40 percent from three this year. The other is Harden.
There will not be a single player in that lineup you can leave open confidently. Sure, you’d rather leave Green open instead of Durant or Irving or Harden or even Harris, but he’s still shooting a very silly 51.1 percent on wide open three’s.
The other big difference between the Nets and Warriors is the Nets won’t be moving close to as much as the Warriors do.
So, to look at how they could defend an offence with less movement and cuts like the Nets, we can use the game from the very next day, January 11th, against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers have the highest frequency of isolation possessions at 9.6 percent. The Nets are fourth at 8.8 percent.
Let’s treat this like a scout team in the NFL. Damian Lillard (playing the role of Irving) takes the screen, Anunoby (or Stanley Johnson against the Nets) hedges for VanVleet, Lillard passes over to CJ McCollum (playing the role of Harden) who goes to work one-on-one against Siakam and draws the foul. Of course Harden brings a different set of challenges than McCollum but the same principles are there.
Another play I could see the Nets go to. Raptors switch the off-ball action, leaving Carmelo Anthony (playing a much more toned down role of Durant) to go to work against the smaller VanVleet. You’re much more comfortable with VanVleet against Anthony than Durant, but if the game is close late and the Nets hunt for matchups, that is something I could certainly see them go after. VanVleet would rise to that opportunity too.
A big reason for why I think the Raptors will need to go with Siakam at centre is the Nets hunting Boucher (or worse, Baynes) in pick-and-roll. I don’t think Boucher does a terrible job here by any means, but it’s certainly a scenario you don’t want to be put in consistently and having him try to keep up with Irving or Harden going downhill.
Down the stretch against the Clippers, the Nets either went full iso-ball or did a quick on-ball screen and got a matchup they wanted. It’s not fancy, it’s not sexy, it’s just straight up bucket-getting.
If that’s Norm Powell or Johnson or any Raptor for that matter, you can’t give Irving that space. Kawhi Leonard has the length to still get a good contest but if you’re not Kawhi — and unfortunately none of the Raptors are — you can’t afford to give up that space.
The issue becomes if (or when?) Irving can drive past his defender and get into the paint. Against Portland, the Raptors crashed the paint whenever Lillard got penetration. In some instances, the Raptors will be able to do the same against Irving and the Nets.
However, in a late game situation with that five-man closing lineup Brooklyn had against Los Angeles, they’ll have four great shooters on the perimeter. It’s a matchup nightmare, especially for a Raptors team that allows the fifth-highest frequency of three-point attempts.
You aren’t going to let Irving (or Harden) get what he wants at the rim, so you’ll have to live with helping off of Green (and to a certain extent, Harris as well) and force him to make his shots.
I think you’ll see Nurse do some of what he did against Harden last season and force other players to beat them.
They’ll most likely keep one guy glued to Harden no matter what, even off the ball, and take a similar approach to Irving that they did to Lillard.
There’s no easy way to guard Durant, obviously, but they’ll throw different bodies at him whether that’s Siakam, Johnson, Watanabe, or pretty much anyone with length and try to make life somewhat difficult for him. The Nets will try to hunt VanVleet or Lowry with Durant and you know both guards will relish that chance.
Each of the three stars for Brooklyn are going to get their buckets. Even when you play the tightest defence as George said, they’re still going to make shots. That’s why they’re elite.
But it’s about making them work every possession and being tight with your switches.
Even without Anunoby, the Raptors are still a talented defensive team and bring intensity at that end of the floor. It just makes the job a bit harder without him.
However the game goes, this will be a great measuring stick for how far the Raptors defence has come, as well as where they stack up against the best of the Eastern Conference.