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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – What happens when a team that’s built to defend at a high level is no longer defending at a high level? It loses games.

The Toronto Raptors are learning that the hard way, as they near the quarter pole of the season. Since their surprising 6-3 start, they’ve dropped seven of their last nine contests and the obvious culprit is their ailing defence.

Through those first nine games, they were the league’s sixth-ranked defensive club, holding opponents to 102.4 points per 100 possessions. Over their most recent nine-game stretch, they’re surrendering 116.6 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the NBA during that period.

Consider it an early-season identity crisis for a young team that’s still figuring itself out on the fly. With elite length, athleticism and versatility at every position, this roster was constructed to be a nightmare for opposing offences. At times, you can see that vision come to life– a group of long, interchangeable defenders built in the image of the head coach and his system. However, it’s not an easy system to execute.

Nick Nurse asks a lot of his players on the defensive end. Generally, a good defence is designed to take something away, often at the expense of something else. The Raptors’ system is ambitious in that they’re trying to limit everything, without conceding much.

“We've gotta stick to what we do and what we do is we try to protect the paint first and then get out and challenge hard,” Nurse said after his team allowed 119 points on 55 per cent shooting in Friday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. “When we're in and we're out quickly and we’re flying around a little bit is when we're at our best, and we're just not having enough of that.”

Four of Toronto’s last five opponents have hit at least 15 three-pointers and shot 40 per cent or better from beyond the arc. On Sunday, the first-place Warriors burned them for 22 threes on 49 per cent shooting – both opponent season-highs – despite holding MVP favourite Steph Curry to just 1-of-6, well below his league-leading averages of 5.4 makes and 13.1 attempts.

According to NBA.com, 30 of Golden State’s 45 three-point attempts, and 17 of its 22 makes, were wide open (no defender within six feet of the shooter). They were also 10-for-16 from the corners, where the Raptors have been especially vulnerable.

Possession after possession, Curry or Draymond Green would leak out in transition or drive the ball into the teeth of Toronto’s defence and kick it out to Andrew Wiggins (32 points, 6-of-8 from three), Jordan Poole (33 points, 8-of-11 from three) or Otto Porter Jr. (15 points, 5-of-9 from three) for an open look in the corner.

On one hand, the Warriors make it look routine. They’re that good. Still, it’s becoming a familiar problem for the Raptors.

Under Nurse, the Raptors have always given up a high volume of corner threes. If they’re going to concede anything in favour of keeping teams out of the paint, it’s that. Still, the expectation is they use all of that length and quickness to make those shots as difficult as possible.

In 2019-20, the year they boasted the NBA’s second-best defence, the Raptors gave up an average of 12.5 attempts from the corners, most in the league and 3.0 more than any other team. However, opponents hit just 37 per cent of them, the seventh-best mark. Most importantly, they held teams to 59 per cent in the restricted area, second-best in the league.

Over the last nine games, Toronto is still giving up 12.5 attempts from the corner, only opponents are hitting 39 per cent of those shots, while also shooting 70 per cent inside the restricted area. In other words, the Raptors aren’t really limiting anything right now.

“We're not quite getting out to make them miss enough,” Nurse said earlier in the weekend. “We need [to be] another step closer, we need a little harder challenge, we just need to anticipate when it's going out and be on the move a little sooner.”

Even this early in the campaign, and despite their young legs, fatigue could be a factor. It’s an exhausting system, physically and mentally. You’re constantly changing up coverages, switching pick and rolls, sending help and rotating out to shooters.

Their two most important defenders, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, are first and second in the NBA in minutes per game. VanVleet leads the league in distance covered on the court. They’re also banged up, with VanVleet playing through a nagging groin injury and Anunoby missing the last three games after sustaining a hip pointer in practice last week.

Scottie Barnes, arguably their most versatile defender, leads all rookies in minutes – he’s logged 558 in his first month as a pro after totalling 595 in his lone college season with Florida State last year. Pascal Siakam is still getting his legs under him after returning from off-season shoulder surgery a couple weeks ago.

Then consider the substantial workloads those guys carry on the offensive end, and Nurse’s short rotation, and it’s fair to wonder whether they’re simply running out of gas defensively.

But it’s not just a question of getting to the right spots, it’s also about knowing where to be and when, and that’s where experience comes in. Nurse’s system requires high basketball intellect and constant communication.

The 2019 championship team was able to pull it off, not because of its length and athleticism as much as its veteran savvy. With Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka anchoring the defence, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter, as well as the young vets Siakam and VanVleet, Nurse could throw anything at that group, even on the biggest stage. Hit Curry with a box-and-one in middle of The Finals? Sure, no problem. Triangle-and-two? You got it. They were a rare mix of talent and IQ.

This team has the upside to be special defensively, based on talent alone, but there’s more to it than having long arms and quick feet. It comes with time and with reps.

“When you’re really experienced you can kind of decide which guy you’d rather have shoot it depending on which guy it is and where,” Nurse said following Sunday’s 119-104 loss to Golden State. “Sometimes you’ll rotate hard to one guy and not to another, take your chances based on who that is and percentages.”

“I don’t want to sit here and say that’s an excuse, but the experience and the reps need to be there. They need to get the feel of how fast the ball’s moving out of some of those double teams, anticipating where it’s going.”

Nurse has already simplified things, at least to a degree. We’ve seen fewer specialized coverages, like the ones they used to throw at Curry, James Harden, Luka Doncic and some of the league’s best offensive players on any given night. But should they consider simplifying things further?

There’s a fine line. Theoretically, they could switch less or send less help, but they also don’t want to lose their identity. They’re a team that wants to be aggressive defensively, force turnovers and generate opportunities to score in transition. That’s how they were built to play. Even if they wanted to defend more conservatively, their half-court offence probably isn’t good enough to support that style. They need to play to their strengths, while also getting their young guys those valuable reps. It’s about finding the right balance and adapting their system to fit this team.

“I think everybody understands, from me to the team, that there is a process of getting some of this stuff figured out,” said Nurse. “We’ve still got to teach it, and when it’s not quite right we go over it and teach it again and throw it in the games and try to polish it up as much as we can on the go.”