Defensive breakdowns loom large as Raptors drop 2 big games

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 18: Pascal Siakam
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 18: Pascal Siakam /

The last pair of Raptors defeats have been offensive successes, but defensive disasters. What can be done to ensure no repeat?

In a season filled until now with remarkable success, the Toronto Raptors have been humbled. There’s no shame in losing to the OKC Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers, particularly when both of those defeats could have been (should have been; Toronto averaged 127 points, which ought to be sufficient to defeat anyone, including the mid-nineties Chicago Bulls) narrow victories. However, we can’t dance around a worrisome fact – the Raptors surrendered 132 points in both losses.

You won’t be surprised to learn those are the most points given up all season to any opponent. The closest was the 127 Golden State scored in their narrow win in Toronto on January 13. And therein lies the problem. This is not the time of year to be teaching defense, yet here we are.

CLEVELAND, OH – MARCH 21: LeBron James
CLEVELAND, OH – MARCH 21: LeBron James /

The problem is the same

What’s one characteristic OKC and Cleveland share? A mega-star. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook, and Cleveland has LeBron (or perhaps the other way round, in James’ case). With both playing superb ball, their squads might have defeated anyone they faced. That’s not a thought a coach is allowed to hold. Dwane Casey must convince himself, and his charges, these people can be beaten.

Let’s consider LeBron’s masterful effort. He scored 35 points, though just one of his buckets was a 3-ball. He did the most damage with his passing, racking up 17 assists. Of those, 12 were for 3-balls, to 5 different Cavs (Kevin Love = 4, Jose Calderon = 3, J.R. Smith = 3, and George Hill & Jeff Green one each). Only 3 assists on 3-balls were racked up by Cavs other than LeBron.

Here’s my take on all this:

  1. OG Anunoby can’t be expected to cover LeBron. The next time we see Cleveland is April 3. I hope Casey starts Pascal Siakam. He’s got the length, better footwork, and more experience.
  2. The Cavs enjoyed a huge night of shooting accuracy. They were 15 of 24 from deep (62.5%), which was actually higher than their overall rate of 60.3% for the game. Many of their deep shots were untroubled by Raptors defenders.
  3. If Toronto is going to slow down Cleveland’s long-distance attack, they will need to pay greater attention to LeBron’s recipients. He showed patience before delivering some remarkable passes to open mates. Perhaps fearing his baleful stare-down should they miss, most of the time they didn’t.

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Westbrook a speed merchant

We back up to the OKC defeat:

Russell Westbrook racked up 37 points and 14 assists. “Only” four of his dimes were expended on long balls (3 by ‘Melo and 1 by Alex Abrines); much of Westbrook’s damage was done by feeding Steven Adams on the high pick & roll.

What do we observe:

  1. RB is like King James in many ways, one of which is the complete impossibility of stopping either of them entirely. Westbrook has a clear advantage over any defender you can name, that being his insanely fast pace of play. If there’s been a more effective player at warp speed, I haven’t seen him.
  2. RB has an Achilles heel. He commits the second-highest number of turnovers per game in the NBA, and tied with James Harden right behind is none other than King James. But who on the Raptors can exploit Westbrook’s weakness? I think he will wear out Kyle Lowry in a long series, should that transpire. Once again, Pascal Siakam has the footwork, length and quick hands sufficient to bother Westbrook, who’s an Olympic sprinter. Ideally our man would force RB to his left (or right, just somewhere away from the top of the key). Perhaps someday OG will be able to keep pace, but not for a few seasons yet.

Dwane Casey may not like being forced out of his comfort zone with regards to his rotation. But if the Raptors are going to enjoy a long playoff run, they must pay particular attention to opponents’ stars, and adjust.

Should we face Cleveland or OKC in the post-season, Casey should drop OG to the bench in favour of starting Pascal.