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Film Study: How Toronto's defense evolved without Kawhi Leonard

Last summer, the Toronto Raptors lost one of the best perimeter defenders of his generation. And then they got better defensively.

When the league suspended the 2019-20 season, the Raptors had allowed 104.9 points per 100 possessions, the league’s second best mark and 1.9 fewer than they allowed last season (when they ranked fifth defensively). This defensive improvement without Kawhi Leonard had the champs on pace to tie the franchise record for regular season wins (59).

The Raptors lost Leonard, but they brought back a core of seven guys who played at least 1,300 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined) on that championship squad. From watching the Raptors early in the season (and even in the preseason), it became clear those seven guys came back with a certain level of institutional knowledge, big-game experience, cohesion and trust.

Those qualities materialize most on defense. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse will try a lot of things on that end of the floor, but within his different schemes, his team will always come with pressure, always prioritize protecting the basket and always have each other’s backs. That requires effort, which is abundant on this team. The Raptors got their rings, but they’re still willing to do the work to get stops.

“For any defense that you play,” Nurse told earlier this season, “if you play smart and you hustle, you’ll be pretty good.”

The Raptors’ defense is more than pretty good.

Getting Back = Getting Stops

Good defense starts in transition. According to Second Spectrum tracking, league-wide effective field goal percentage is 60.0% in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 53.1% in the middle 12 seconds, and 43.9% in the last six seconds.

According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Raptors rank 12th (lowest) in percentage of their opponents’ possessions that have been in transition (15.4%). But the 1.04 points per possession they’ve allowed in transition is the league’s lowest mark.

The Raptors’ success in transition begins with the fact that they don’t really crash the offensive glass. Toronto ranks 22nd in offensive rebounding percentage, having grabbed 25.9% of available offensive boards. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Serge Ibaka rank in the top 50 among individuals, but watch the Raptors and you won’t often see them chasing offensive rebounds. Combine that with how much they space floor offensively and they’re rarely putting themselves out of position in regard to transition defense. (It also helps that only 49% of their own turnovers, the league’s lowest rate, have been live balls.)

As they get back on defense, the Raptors will prioritize rim protection. In doing that, they’ll give up some transition 3-pointers (here are some examples – one, two, three – from their early-March game in Phoenix). But league-wide, 2-point shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock (1.26 points per attempt) are worth a lot more than 3-point shots in the first six seconds (1.11). Over the last 18 seconds of the shot clock, 3s are more valuable (1.07 vs. 1.01).

Here are a few plays to illustrate the Raptors getting stops in transition:

Play 1. Patrick McCaw misses a 3-pointer from the right corner, but is able to get back and put pressure on Devin Booker as he dribbles across midcourt, forcing a turnover and generating a transition opportunity for the Raptors themselves.

Number to know: The Raptors rank second with 17.2 deflections per game.

Play 2. Both Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher (a rare occasion when a Raptor chases an offensive board) are behind the ball, but McCaw again gets in the ball-handler’s way. When Mikal Bridges attacks the paint, there are three other Raptors there to meet him. On the kickout, Matt Thomas sells out to prevent a catch-and-shoot attempt from Jevon Carter, who has to shoot a side-step 3-pointer instead.

Number to know: The Raptors lead the league in opponent 3-point percentage (33.7%).

Play 3. All five Raptors are back, but Ibaka never goes to his man, staying focused on the ball. And when Andrew Wiggins gets by Norman Powell, Ibaka is there to help and block the shot.

Number to know: Toronto opponents have an effective field goal percentage of just 56.4% in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That’s the second lowest opponent mark in the first six seconds.

Perimeter Pressure

Pressure on the perimeter (like that applied by McCaw and Powell in the plays above) does not stop with transition. In fact, it’s a prominent aspect of the Raptors’ half-court defense. Toronto defenders, both on and off the ball, will push the opponent well beyond the 3-point line, often blowing up the play the offense is trying to run, eating valuable time off the shot clock, or forcing turnovers.

Here are four plays from a late-February game in which the champs absolutely suffocated the Indiana Pacers:

Play 1. Kyle Lowry switches an off-ball screen for Doug McDermott and prevents a pass from T.J. McConnell (it helps that Domantas Sabonis isn’t in position for the second screen). McDermott eventually cuts through and OG Anunoby denies a pass back to Sabonis, forcing McConnell to pick up his dribble. Fred VanVleet denies an easy pass to Malcolm Brogdon and McConnell finally finds McDermott in the corner. But Lowry pushes up on McDermott and draws an offensive foul when McDermott tries to drive by.

Number to know: Lowry ranks second in the league with 0.58 charges drawn per game.

Play 2. When Myles Turner catches the ball at the top of the floor, Anunoby immediately denies the swing pass to T.J. Warren. Anunoby then switches a Warren screen for Aaron Holiday and denies him. Turner plays catch with Warren and Ibaka forces him into a tough shot. Alas, the biggest issue with the Raptors’ defense is rebounding, and Turner taps the ball back out, leading to a corner 3-pointer for Justin Holiday.

Number to know: 33% of the Raptors’ opponents’ 3-point attempts, the league’s highest rate, have come from the corners. They’ve allowed a league-high 4.6 corner 3-pointers per game.

Play 3. VanVleet seamlessly switches a Brogdon-Warren exchange on the left side of the floor and denies the dribble-handoff from Sabonis. Warren cuts through and Brogdon comes back to the ball, but Anunoby springs forward to intercept Sabonis’ pass.

Number to know: The Raptors have seen the league’s third biggest jump in opponent turnover rate, from 14.7 per 100 possessions (ninth) last season to 16.6 (second) this season.

Play 4. VanVleet will not allow Aaron Holiday to get the ball from Sabonis. So Brogdon again comes back to the ball and Sabonis takes Ibaka into the post. Anunoby leaves the weak-side corner to help Lowry as Warren dives to the rim and, when Sabonis throws a strong pass to Holiday in the left corner, Lowry rotates out to run the shooter off the line, forcing a travel.

Number to know: The Pacers’ 81 points on 103 possessions in this Feb. 23 game account for the second least efficient offensive game for any team this season. The Raptors’ defense is also responsible for the third least efficient game (the Bulls’ 84 points on 106 possessions on Oct. 26).

The VanVleet Pinch

VanVleet is a pest defensively, whether he’s guarding the ball or not. In fact, he may be the most aggressive “pinch” defender in the league, leaving his man one pass away to put extra pressure on a ball-handler coming in his direction.

It’s a gamble (here’s an example of a VanVleet pinch leading to an open 3-pointer for the opponent), but it often pays off. Here’s a few plays where VanVleet gets disruptive:

Play 1. Anunoby chases Aaron Holiday over two off-ball screens on the left side of the floor. After Brogdon makes the pass, VanVleet leaves Brogdon to knock the ball out of Holiday’s hands.

Number to know: VanVleet leads the league with 4.2 deflections per game.

Play 2. Anunoby switches a Warren/Sabonis pick-and-roll and pressures Warren out to the logo. Warren gets by Anunoby, but both VanVleet and Siakam leave strong-side shooters and they come up with another steal that leads to a fast break.

Number to know: VanVleet ranks fourth in steals per game (1.9).

Play 3. Eric Bledsoe sets a pin-down screen for Giannis Antetokounmpo to catch the ball at the nail (the middle of the foul line). VanVleet again leaves the passer and gets his hand on the ball as Antetokounmpo goes to his spin move.

Number to know: 52.5% of Toronto opponent turnovers have been live balls (Raptor steals). That’s the 17th highest opponent rate, just a tick below the league average (52.7%).

In the Zone

There’s been an increase in zone defense this season. And no team has seen a bigger increase than the Raptors, who have played 438 possessions of zone, second most in the league, according to Synergy play-type tracking.

Toronto zones (they come in different forms) feature more pressure. Here’s the Raptors in a 3-2 zone in Sacramento, with the three high defenders extended to and beyond the 3-point line.

Here are a few more examples of the Raptors in zone:

Play 1. The Raptors are in a janky box-and-one defense, with Terence Davis guarding Caris LeVert and the other four defenders in a zone. Lowry pressures Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s catch well beyond the 3-point line and Davis denies the handoff back to LeVert at the logo. DeAndre Jordan is the escape valve, but, with Davis continuing to deny, he can’t get the ball back to LeVert either. Garrett Temple is open in the opposite corner, but Siakam rotates from under the basket and runs him off the 3-point line. Hollis-Jefferson rotates from the right baseline to stop the drive and Lowry rotates down to the right corner on the kick out to Wilson Chandler. Chandler swings the ball back to TLC at the right wing and McCaw rotates from under the basket to contest the 3-point attempt.

Number to know: The 0.945 points per possession the Raptors’ zone defense has allowed ranks fourth among the 19 teams have played at least 100 possessions of zone.

Play 2. After their first made basket in their Feb. 25 game against the Bucks, the Raptors go to a 3-2 zone. The Bucks aren’t quite ready for it and the ball is eventually swung to Wesley Matthews. VanVleet is in his shirt and deflects the ball off Matthews’ leg.

Number to know: The Raptors have forced turnovers on 12.6% of their zone possessions, the fifth highest rate among the 19 teams have played at least 100 possessions of zone.

Play 3. In a 3-2 zone against the Kings, Lowry’s off-ball pressure forces Buddy Hield to catch the ball well beyond the arc. Alex Len comes up for a ball-screen and Ibaka ventures up from his baseline position to prevent Hield from walking into a 3-pointer, while Siakam sinks to tag Len’s roll to the rim. That leaves De’Aaron Fox wide-open on the weak side and what’s missing here is the next rotation from Powell. Fortunately for him, Fox misses the 3-pointer.

Number to know: Toronto opponents have taken 43.5% of their shots from 3-point range. That’s the league’s second highest opponent rate, lower than only that of the Miami Heat (43.7%).

Play 4. Two possessions later, Nemanja Bjelica cleverly slips a pick-and-roll into the middle of the zone. But before he can get to the basket, Ibaka is there. Lowry rotates down to the baseline, forcing Harry Giles to put the ball on the floor and allowing Ibaka to recover and block Giles’ shot.

Number to know: The Raptors are one of four teams – the Nets, Clippers and Bucks are the others – that rank in the top 10 in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (58.9%, third) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the restricted area (30.1%, eighth).

You Can’t Do It All

A lot of teams in the league are uncomfortable “in rotation” defensively, where they’re continually chasing the ball and, eventually, allowing an open shot. So they won’t send extra defenders to whatever the offense is running. Pick-and-rolls are the responsibility of the two guys involved in the action.

The Raptors are not one of those teams. There was a possession early in the season where Marc Gasol was guarding an Andre Drummond post-up, a situation seemingly calling for the other four defenders to stay at home. But when Bruce Brown cut through the paint, Anunoby left him and doubled Drummond, trusting the three teammates behind him to account for the four other Pistons.

When Drummond tried to get rid of the ball, Gasol took it away.

The Raptors aren’t just comfortable in rotation, that’s when they’re at their best, making the ball move, making offenses uncomfortable, forcing turnovers, and contesting the shots that were seemingly open when the last pass was made.

“You only really want to be in rotation,” Nurse said earlier this season, “if you’ve taken something else they really want away, if you’re prioritizing what you’re willing to live with. You got to be willing to give up something to take away things. If you’ve taken away your priority things and it puts you in rotation, you got to go from there.”

The Raptors “go from there” a lot. But they’re the best in the league at plugging leaks, thanks to their cohesion, communication, effort and collective acumen.

Rotations can take you out of rebounding position, and the weak spot of the Raptors’ second-ranked defense is on the glass. They rank 25th in defensive rebounding percentage, having grabbed just 71.5% of available defensive boards. If you were to take away opponent second chance points to calculate defensive efficiency on initial possessions, the difference between the Bucks’ (91.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the Raptors’ (91.2) defenses would be much smaller than when you do count second chance points (101.6 vs. 104.9).

No defense can take everything away. The Bucks have had the league’s No. 1 defense each of the last two seasons, protecting the rim much better than any other team in the league. Last season, they set an NBA record for 3-pointers allowed (1,073) and this season, they were on pace to break it.

The Raptors don’t protect the rim like the Bucks, but they’re the only team that ranks in the top five in both opponent field goal percentage in the paint (52.7%, second) and opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (48.2%, third). They also rank second in opponent turnover percentage.

You can’t take it all away, but no defense comes closer than that of the defending champs.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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