The NBA’s reigning champions, the Toronto Raptors, haven’t missed a beat since losing their best player over the summer.
About 13 months ago, we saw the Toronto Raptors hoist their first-ever championship trophy. A swing-for-the-fences trade for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, supplemented by an elite support cast that seemed to fit just right, resulted in a dethroning of the Golden State Warriors.
Take out those two acquisitions, who each bolted for Los Angeles in free agency, and the Raptors are somehow just as good as before. Despite not replacing either with outside additions, the Raptors are right where we left them: 46-18 going into the bubble, which would prorate to 59 wins in a normal season (they won 58 last season), and in pole position for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference (they were also second in 2018-19).
Even more impressive is that the injury bug hasn’t fazed them: Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell have missed a combined 101 games. It hasn’t mattered. There was evidence from last season that this would happen (Toronto had a strong record when Leonard sat for load management), but it’s still very impressive. The Raptors are a well-oiled machine from top to bottom.
What they lack in star power, they make up for in several other areas. The top seven in the rotation (the above six plus O.G. Anunoby) are rock solid on both ends, head coach Nick Nurse is a mad scientist with defensive schemes, and everyone is in lock-step with each other. The whole is superior to the sum of its parts. One of the best stories in the league, the Raptors have done an excellent job defending their title so far.
So how do you beat the Toronto Raptors in a playoff series?
Dare Siakam to beat you: Arguably the Raptors’ toughest playoff opponent last season was the Philadelphia 76ers, a group of huge and physical dudes who did everything in their power to make Toronto uncomfortable.
Physicality is a general way to wear any contender down, but the Sixers also put the 2019 Most Improved Player in quite a few tough spots. Starting in Game 2, Joel Embiid was switched onto Pascal Siakam. Embiid’s talents on defense are best used at the rim, a strategy he continued to use against Siakam by imploring his fellow Cameroonian to take 3s.
This resulted in Siakam going a dreadful 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) from beyond the arc in the final six games of the series. His game is predicated on putting constant pressure at the rim, something he can’t do very easily against someone like Embiid.
Granted, few potential playoff opponents have the freedom the Sixers did. Switching Tobias Harris onto Gasol was a huge risk; it just happened to pay off. Having two strong frontcourt defensive options is not commonplace in 2020.
Daniel Theis has been a pleasant surprise as the Boston Celtics’ defensive fulcrum this season, and between the defensive wing trio of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, one of them could potentially survive against Gasol. Of Toronto’s potential opponents, though, they’ll have the toughest time with Toronto’s frontcourt.
The Indiana Pacers have the proper pairing for this conundrum. Myles Turner is a rim protector who can also defend in space, while Domantas Sabonis is better off defending the post. Their path to Toronto is unlikely though, unless Victor Oladipo opts to play in Orlando. The Miami Heat may have trouble defending Gasol, but Bam Adebayo can hold his own against Siakam. They’ll just have to hope Meyers Leonard’s beer escapades will make him a sizable foe for the former.
The Milwaukee Bucks have arguably the best defender in the league in Giannis Antetokoumnpo, and Brook Lopez has been an excellent rim protector this season. If Toronto can run chalk through its first two opponents, the conference finals will be a slugfest.
Have the best player on the court: The Raptors’ biggest weakness —a lack of top-tier star power — will likely be their undoing. Pure talent plays up in the playoffs, and several East contenders have a guy who can be the best player in a given series.
Having the best individual performer is pretty indicative of team success in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard was widely considered the best player of last postseason, the Warriors had one of the top dogs in the two previous playoffs, and LeBron James earned that honor several times over the last decade.
The Bucks have…well, you know who. Boston has both Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, though the Raptors do have good counters for each of them defensively. The Heat have Jimmy Butler, who has been incredible this season and is a proven playoff competitor.
Indiana might be without the man who fills this role in Oladipo. As for the Sixers, Joel Embiid expects to be that guy, but he also put up a goose egg against the Raptors earlier this season. This isn’t exactly a schematic model, or an advantage that any team can have, but it is what the Raptors lack most.
That is, unless Siakam makes the first strategy null and void. He was hitting 35.9 percent of his 6.0 3-point attempts a game before the season shut down. If he keeps that up, defenses can’t sag off as much, giving him runway to be dominant in the East bracket.
Size up: Guard play has been integral to Toronto’s collective success. Lowry continues to be one of the most important players in the East, and VanVleet is a perfect role player for what the team wants to do. But what were to happen if, say, VanVleet gets played off the floor? The Wichita State alum can punch above his weight defensively, but only so much more. Playing both him and Lowry together may be difficult to pull off in certain matchups.
Philadelphia has a mammoth quintet that didn’t work well in the regular season, but is still a wild card to work out in the bubble. Milwaukee has a mismatch detector in Antetokoumnpo and will play another big with him as much as possible.
The rest of the pack can’t talk themselves into bully ball as easily. The Heat have Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to throw out there, but not simultaneously unless Adebayo slides to the 5 (which is a good lineup, but not for these purposes). Indiana is naturally pretty big, but T.J. Warren at the 3 may be tough to swallow in the playoffs.
If a team can pull off the bulk up without losing too much on either end, they’ll be sure to have an advantage. Getting extra physical will be sure to put a dent in the Raptors’ offensive flow, and they aren’t exactly loaded with guys who can improvise on offense. Forcing them into a slow-paced dogfight will be beneficial to any challenger.
Toronto would likely counter these strategies by deploying O.G. Anunoby, who can handle all kinds of defensive assignments just like Siakam. Keeping two of Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol on the floor will be Nick Nurse’s base formula for bigger matchups. And lest we forget, he is fearless with defensive strategies; expect some zones and box-and-ones throughout Toronto’s climb. His creativity has also been vital, and could throw a wrench in any opponents’ game plan.