After watching the Toronto Raptors give up 39 fourth quarter points at Memphis on Friday night and then give up 125 points to Orlando in the game on Sunday, I'd have to say that you have to be quite concerned if you're a Raptors fan right now.
The team is more talented this year with greater offensive weapons and improved returning players like Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani (he needs to get consistent now), yet if you can't dictate terms to a degree with your defense you're in big trouble.
Yes, it's early and a bigger yes to the fact Reggie Evans is hurt and that impacts the interior toughness, rebounding and overall grit of this squad. But, with that being said, if the issues become a constant pattern of behavior it will be tougher to fix later on.
Here are some areas of concern that need to be addressed by head coach Jay Triano and his staff in the coming days and weeks ahead to ensure that this team makes the steps that are necessary to be a playoff team.
1. 3-POINT DEFENSE: Slow on reactions in help and recover scenarios on the perimeter. Have to do a better job of controlling the dribble and not requiring as much help. Need to look at staying closer to outspending 3-point shooters and shading them. They must also avoid helping off on penetration and taking chances with interior help on those instances. Close outs have to improve dramatically – have to get out and contest the shots. Too many clean looks for shooters lead to greater shooting percentage for opponents.
2. PICK & ROLL/SCREEN SEQUENCES: Need to communicate better and be more aggressive stringing out the coverage. The man guarding the ball is not getting enough talk or help behind him allowing the opposition to exploit the situation. Settle into how you're going to play it and get better at it.
As far as other screen scenarios go -- have to do a better job of communication and being fundamentally sound on how to play each type of screen in an opponent's offensive arsenal. With nine new faces on the team and only three players (Bosh/Bargnani/Jose Calderon) that started last season with the team, it will take time to get everyone 'on a string' and function as ONE as a defensive team. Have to help each other and trust each other to help when needed.
3. CONTROL DRIBBLE PENETRATION: Starts at the point position (Calderon in particular) and MUST improve. The more your team has to help and rotate, etc, etc, the weaker the sum of the parts are. Your point guard sets the tone, not just for your offense, but the D too! Jose needs to do a better job of keeping people in front of him and limit 'blow byes.' By the way, it's not just one player, it's a team issue that has to improve and can improve.
4. POST POSITION/INTERIOR PHYSICALITY/REBOUNDING: Overall, the level of attention to detail and effort to be in the right spots and win the battles for position inside set a huge tone for whether you can slow down opposing big men. Getting the right position, being physical to secure your turf, blocking out and winning the 50/50 battles for boards goes a long way towards winning. They miss Reggie Evans here, but that doesn't excuse the others from improving and taking a stand.
5. OVERALL EMPHASIS: Very easy for me to sit here and say that they need to improve; that's brutally obvious to us all. I've had these challenges as a coach as well -- no fun… that's why I'm in broadcasting!
The "how do you do it" is what counts and in the days and weeks ahead I'm sure Coach Triano and his staff will look to:
A. Tighten and Improve: They need to focus on the schemes they're implementing. With lots of new faces that will take time and teaching.
B. Demand Results: You can tweak, teach and X and O all you want and then you get to a point and say "enough is enough." At that point it's time to play the guys who are going to say "enough of this $#%&. I'm going to shut down my man and we're going to stop some dudes right here and right now as a team." The pride and determination factor takes over. If a player is going to be a constant weak link, you need to start to limit his minutes.
C. Zone Defenses: Not something you see quite a bit of at the pro level, but there comes a point where you have to look at your team and ask that when certain players are in a game (and they're good offensive players) that they hide their defensive issues with various zone alignments. It can help camouflage their weaknesses and yet keep them on the floor so you can still tap into their skills on the offensive end. It's never an easy decision to admit the weakness and implement a zone system as well.
I'm convinced that the Raptors have a capable team and can be a playoff team and how they handle the challenges in this area will directly effect the W's and L's. They've got enough offense to beat lots of people. Will they improve enough to stop people on a consistent basis? That is the story of their season in a nutshell beyond the injuries, etc... The weakness is exposed; it's time for the Raptors to correct it as best they can.