Watching the Golden State Warriors operate on offence is an exercise in peripheral vision. Whether it’s the players involved or the eyeballs watching, the slightest failure to acknowledge what’s happening away from the ball can lead to a series of short sprints to screen and cut alike to be missed. They make it look effortless, he makes it look Stephortless.
What goes into creating that level of understanding between teammates is a level of harmony and understanding that takes constant repetition not just in practice but live games to create perfection over time. Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Damion Lee are among those who figured in Golden State’s rotation a year ago but the results weren’t quite the same. A team that ranked 21st in offensive rating last season is now up to second. Along with a stifling defence, it has led to loud claims that the Warriors are indeed back as championship contenders, and Klay Thompson is yet to return.
The Raptors are looking to steadily build their way back to a point where they can also make such bold claims, but they also have to make do without a galactic superstar. It makes what happens through osmosis and telepathy that much more important to Toronto’s effectiveness, and a team as young as any in the league -- if you exclude Goran Dragic’s 35 years of wisdom -- is forced to contend with the harsh reality of growing pains when it isn’t quite in sync.
Institutional knowledge -- not just of how the organization operates but the league itself -- has been a strength of the Raptors over the years, but the majority of the rotation is in knowledge acquisition mode. Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton are rookies, Gary Trent Jr. is in his first full season with the team, as are Khem Birch, Precious Achiuwa, and Svi Mykhailiuk. Defensively, the Raptors have struggled mightily over the last nine games with missed rotations, poor closeouts, and help that’s either too early or too late yielding a league-worst 119.5 points per-100 possessions.
“I don’t want to sit here and say that’s an excuse -- the experience -- but the reps need to be there,” head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “They need to get the feel of how fast the ball’s moving out of some of those double teams. I already said the word but anticipating kinda where it’s going. You can kind of anticipate that sometimes and if you’re a half-count earlier when you take off leaving the lane, you’re gonna be there a half-second sooner and that’s usually the difference.”
In short, the devil is in the details. The best defenders in the NBA are specialists in pattern recognition, they snuff out set plays before they happen not just because they know what’s coming, but how it’s coming as well. What an opponent might do with 15 seconds left on the shot clock can be far different than what they might do with five seconds left. What the scheme requires they do can be entirely different, too. There’s subjectivity in how to defend depending on who’s catching the ball as well. All of these decisions have to be made in a split second and the ability to mark off the checklist instinctually requires muscle memory that has been lacking thus far.
The Raptors are currently 1-3 on their six game road trip, but it’s worth noting the losses have come to teams that are a combined 23-5 at home heading into Wednesday night’s action. Trips to Memphis and Indiana will conclude the away swing, and at 8-10 overall they are currently on the outskirts of the play-in tournament. Extended travels have a history of being both character and chemistry builders, and one one positive that may be emerging is the secondary unit.
Over the last two games, the bench has produced 66 points but it’s the impact that has stood out even more. They genuinely altered the course of the game against the Sacramento Kings and then more than held their own against the Warriors. Fred VanVleet noted that that’s exactly what good benches are supposed to do. Achiuwa, for one, attributed the success he’s experienced since returning to learning by virtue of time away from the court.
“I was able to see the game up close, not actually playing the game but being in the arena and being up close,” Achiuwa said. “I’ve been able to see a lot of things, a lot of things I couldn’t see while I was out there. That’s the thing I took from being out... and my shoulder feeling better, of course.”
This is something the Raptors will hope Yuta Watanabe can say soon enough, too, as he is nearing a season debut after an extended calf injury setback and would fill a vital void with his ability to defend multiple positions and knock down open looks. With Anunoby’s return imminent and Siakam continuing to round into form, Toronto still has its best basketball to look forward to.
As the quartermark of the season approaches, being intact holds the biggest key to being in sync.