The Toronto Raptors are making their first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals. The key to them claiming the title as their own? Defense.
For the last few years, there was a LeBron James-sized hump that the Toronto Raptors couldn’t seem to get over. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry revitalized the franchise and former head coach Dwane Casey kept them among the top teams in the league, but James was always waiting for them in the postseason.
This year that changed. First, LeBron moved on to try his hand at the Western Conference. Then, general manager Masai Ujiri took a gamble and sent DeRozan to San Antonio and brought back Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri wasn’t done making changes; at the deadline, he brought in Marc Gasol from Memphis.
By bringing in two former Defensive Player of the Year recipients the mold of this year’s team was set. If the Raptors are going to emerge victorious over the Golden State Warriors, their defense will be why.
In an era that prioritizes length and versatility on defense, the Raptors have loaded up on both. Here’s a list of their rotation players’ wingspans: 7-foot-4 (Marc Gasol), 7-foot-3 (Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka), 7-foot-2 (OG Anunoby), 6-foot-11 (Norman Powell), 6-foot-10 (Danny Green), 6-foot-2 (Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet). Each player listed has a wingspan at least two inches longer than their height. Danny Green’s 6-foot-10 measurement is the shortest among their wing players. This allows them to cover a variety of players and positions.
Teams that have previously given the Warriors issues — Memphis Grizzlies in 2015, Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, Houston Rockets in 2018 — have used some combination of length, physicality, and switching to stall the defending champions’ high-powered offense for stretches of play.
The main person that the Raptors need to keep off balance is Steph Curry. Especially with Kevin Durant remaining on the sideline, the entire Warriors offense runs through the two-time MVP.
While Curry is a one-of-a-kind talent, he has a propensity to be too casual at times. In these playoffs alone we’ve seen opponents stick bigger defenders on him and trap him off screens to get the ball out of his hands. But, the work doesn’t end there. Curry welcomes the trap and tries to move the ball to the open teammate, yet if timed right, these passes can turn into steals and fast break opportunities for the defense.
The Raptors love to disrupt passing lanes and create easy transition opportunities. Toronto has four players in the top 10 of deflection totals in the playoffs — Kyle Lowry (49), Kawhi Leonard (42), Marc Gasol (41), and Danny Green (41) per the NBA’s stats site. Look for those four to be very involved in the Warriors fabled Curry-Green pick and roll.
Another way to get Curry off of his game is to be aggressive with him. With the amount of cutting and off-ball action that Golden State uses, most teams opt to get handsy with Curry when he doesn’t have the ball. However, teams have shown that a defender can be just as disruptive against Curry when the ball is in his hands.
If Durant does eventually return to the court in this series he has a fatal flaw that Toronto could take advantage of. Durant’s size is usually mentioned among the reasons as to why he is nearly impossible to guard. However, the long limbs can cause the ball to be exposed as he drives to the basket oftentimes resulting in a defender knocking it out of his hands.
Once the ball is loose, the Raptors do a great job of scrambling to it and gaining possession. Much like the deflection stat, Toronto also has three players in the top 10 for loose balls recovered according to the NBA’s stats site — Lowry (40), Leonard (27), and Siakam (24).
In their two regular-season meetings, the Raptors forced Golden Stars into 19 and 15 turnovers. For the season, the Warriors averaged 14.3 turnovers per game. Through three rounds of the playoffs, their turnover average remained the same.
Besides players missing games — Draymond Green didn’t play in either matchup and Steph Curry only played in one game — a big reason for the increased turnovers is a flaw that we’ve seen cost Golden State before: carelessness.
One player who’s suited to create havoc during any stretch of lackadaisical play by Golden State is Lowry. He led the team in deflections and loose balls recovered, but what he is best at is drawing charges. During the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the NBA has tracked that Lowry is the only player to have drawn double-digit charges (13).
Early foul trouble for any of the Warriors heavy hitters would be disastrous in this series and we’ve seen Curry battle it against Houston. With Lowry on the court Curry’s propensity to collect unnecessary reaching fouls could be even more punitive if Lowry is able to draw the occasional charge and rack up fouls against Curry.
Finally, a defensive possession doesn’t end until the defense gains control of the ball. Kevon Looney’s offensive rebounding was vital in Golden State’s previous two series and if DeMarcus Cousins comes back that’s another player the Warriors feel comfortable attacking the glass with.
For the Raptors, they must remain diligent in finding bodies while the shot is in the air and secure defensive rebounds. The NBA keeps track of the amount of times players box out in a game, here again, we see Toronto amass a good number of players within the top 10 for the postseason. Serge Ibaka’s 110 box outs rank third overall, Siakam is right behind him at 109, and then Marc Gasol rounds it out at 88. Draymond Green (103) is the only Warrior on the list.
Golden State has more high-end talent and has the edge in experience at this stage. If Toronto is going to win it all they’re going to need to defend hard, control the glass, force turnovers and plainly out tough the Warriors. The blueprint is laid out, now they just have to piece everything together starting tonight.