So much of the Toronto Raptors’ success this season came in spite of injuries, with six of their top seven rotation players missing at least a month. It’s the main reason why Nick Nurse deserves coach of the year for having this team at a better record through 67 games as compared to last year’s title team.
But to say the Raptors were unaffected by the injuries is untrue. The impact on wins and losses was minimized through deft coaching strategies and depth on the roster, but injuries disguised the true strength of Toronto’s roster: It boasts one of the best starting units in the league, and finally they are reunited.
Since the restart, the combination of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol have outscored their opponents by 37 points in 124 minutes. They are 3-0, with the starting five winning 36-17 against the Lakers, 41-29 against the Heat, and 46-41 versus the Magic. On the season, Toronto’s starters boast a net rating of 15.4, which is second to only the Milwaukee Bucks.
Marc Gasol’s return
Gasol is the most underrated member of the starting five in large part because he refuses to score. Some have even argued that Serge Ibaka, who averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds in 27 starts, should replace him in the starting five. That ignores the stark difference in the overall numbers: The starters with Gasol are plus-108, whereas the same group with Ibaka is minus-4.
That’s not a knock against Ibaka, so much as it is a reflection on how much Gasol impacts the game despite not appearing on the scoresheet. Gasol is the glue that holds the starters together, as his game complements the other four, without ever taking any concessions for himself. His role is to anchor the defence, set solid screens, direct traffic with his passing, and to hit enough threes at the top of the arc to pull the opposing centre out of the paint on defence.
To compare it to soccer, Gasol is a defensive midfielder. His job isn’t to finish, he is responsible for linking the play. He has chemistry with everyone. Gasol is a popular pick-and-roll partner for Lowry, VanVleet, and even Siakam when the matchup permits, because he creates space for others to attack. He’s either popping out to the three-point line to clear traffic in the lane, or he’s getting the pass at the elbow, drawing a second defender, and kicking it out to the perimeter for an open shot. And even with Anunoby, the least offensively skilled of the five, Gasol has a knack for spotting his cuts to the basket.
Defensively, Gasol is the Raptors’ best rim protector by a long shot. Toronto is allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor, which ranks a full four points better than any other starter. That mark is also six points below Milwaukee’s defensive rating, and the Bucks only have the best defensive rating of any team in the last five seasons.
Once again, it’s hard to find Gasol’s defensive impact in steals or blocks, because the bulk of what he does is as a helper. Against the Lakers and Heat, it wasn’t Gasol with the primary defensive assignment on Anthony Davis or Bam Adebayo. Instead, the Raptors had him on less dangerous players so that he could freely clog the lane against Jimmy Butler and LeBron James. And of course, there is no better low-post defender in the league than Gasol to neutralize the likes of Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic.
Toronto is the best help-and-recover defence in the league. Nurse likes to swarm and overwhelm opponents, especially on drives to the basket. The main piece of that scheme is Gasol, who not only directs traffic as a backline communicator who organizes the play, but he is also a massive 7-foot, 260-pound bear of a man who absorbs and negates all contact at the basket.
And now with a slimmer physique, Gasol is showing even more agility in his movement, which played a major role in the Raptors shutting down the Heat. Notice his mobility in hounding Goran Dragic from one three-point line to the next to force a shot-clock violation.
Five fingers on a fist
What sets the Raptors’ starting five apart is their ability to play as a group. Even though there isn’t a top-five player in the mix, the Raptors also benefit from not having to orbit and cater to one singular superstar. If the Houston Rockets with James Harden and Russell Westbrook are like two lions taking chunks out of their prey, the Raptors more resemble a pack of wolves nipping at where the opponent is weakest.
In that sense they are harder to stop, as they find the mismatch and morph their attack according to the opponent. Over their last eight games, the Raptors had six different players lead the team in scoring. That pattern holds true in the bubble — first it was Lowry dropping 33 on the Lakers, then VanVleet with 36 on the Heat. In a playoff setting, you can build a wall to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint, or ensnare Stephen Curry inside a box-and-one, but what do you do against a side with five different scorers?
marc's basketball IQ: look how he creeps behind the defense before anything materializes, calls fred over, sets a back pick, leading to an open corner 3 pic.twitter.com/ng3qvnRGwL
— William Lou (@william_lou) August 4, 2020
The trade-off is that the Raptors don’t have a statistically dominant offence. Toronto is middle of the pack in points per halfcourt possession, and relies on its wicked fast-break game to score efficiently. But injuries have dampened those numbers, as the starting five average 113.3 points per 100 possession which would rank second to only the Dallas Mavericks for tops in the league. It’s also worth mentioning that even with players coming in and out of the lineup, the Raptors have had no issues scoring when it mattered most. Toronto posted the second-best offensive rating in the final five minutes of games within five points.
Fixating on halfcourt woes also overlooks the Raptors’ lethal transition attack. The old adage is that games slow down in the playoffs, but that’s only true to a point. Last year’s team scored 20 percent of its points in transition during the regular season, as compared to 18 percent in transition during its run to the title. The biggest determinant of transition scoring is the ability to get stops and to force live-ball turnovers, and Toronto is even stingier now as compared to last year, with an average of 17 deflections per game that tops all 22 teams inside the Orlando bubble.
Ultimately, it’s defence that makes the Raptors’ starters elite. There is not one weak link in the bunch, as all five players can and should be in consideration for All-Defensive teams. VanVleet is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, as evidenced in last year’s Finals, and leads all players in deflections. Lowry’s speciality is taking charges — he’s at 33 and counting — but he’s also a tough competitor who will battle and scrap against much bigger opponents. At forward, there are two 6-foot-9 wings who can legitimately guard all five positions, and tying it together is a former Defensive Player of the Year winner in Gasol.
Jayson Tatum exposed pic.twitter.com/V9AapLx2Jo
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) February 4, 2020
They have developed a reputation for shutting down superstars. Kawhi Leonard had nine turnovers going against his former club. Anthony Davis was limited to only two field goals. Jayson Tatum shot 3-of-7 with six turnovers. Damian Lillard had a 230-game streak of double-digit scoring snapped. Joel Embiid finished scoreless. The list goes on and on.
What ties the group together is their smarts. If basketball IQ were a metric, the Raptors starters would lap the competition. It goes beyond Nurse’s trickery with zone defences of all shapes and sizes, because it’s not the scheme that makes the defence, it’s how the players execute it. Most teams avoid scrambling because it creates mistakes, but the Raptors almost embrace rotations as a form of controlled chaos. When the starting five is locked in, it’s as if there is constantly a double team on the ball. Nurse must run practices in a pool, because they’re like synchronized swimmers with how they expand and contract in concert, picking up for one another until they finally wrestle the ball back into their hands.
And that’s why they have a chance to beat anybody heading into the playoffs, because there isn’t a team in the league the Raptors can’t defend. In that sense, the Raptors most resemble the 2004 Detroit Pistons, which remains the lone title team without a generational superstar. Comparing the two starting lineups, the composition is similar. There’s a defensively-dominant centre at the back, a versatile scorer at power forward who can attack inside and out, a tenacious 3-and-D wing to handle superstar forwards, and two scoring guards taking turns carrying the offence. And like that Pistons team, if everything breaks right, the Raptors can make history.
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