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Gangsta Raps: How Toronto Lost the Finals MVP but Remained a Title Contender

The champs have managed to replace one MVP candidate with another, but the keys to their encore success go beyond Pascal Siakam

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

So much for the Raptors being the greatest one-hit wonder in NBA history. Months after Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles, the rest of the band is writing another hit. Pascal Siakam has emerged as an MVP candidate, Fred VanVleet is playing like an All-Star, and Nick Nurse is proving to be one of the NBA’s best head coaches. Through 20 games, the Raptors are tied for the league’s fourth-best record and have the third-best net rating. The American media was slow to warm to the league’s lone Canadian team, but with every win against a formidable opponent and every hard-fought battle against a heavyweight, the Raptors are leaving no room for doubt that they should be taken seriously as contenders for a repeat championship.

Toronto’s title defense is fueled by an unpredictable and aggressive style. On offense, they play fast and relentlessly attack the rim. On defense, they blitz and trap stars, and change strategies nearly every game. One possession, the Raptors will blitz a pick-and-roll; the next, they’ll drop Marc Gasol into the paint. Sometimes, they’ll have a help defender aggressively rotate over to halt a driving ball handler; other times, he’ll stay home to defend a shooter. After Nurse famously used a box-and-one defense against Steph Curry in the NBA Finals, the Raptors are now utilizing zone more often than all but two other teams. Toronto varies its defensive coverages by game and by player like it’s the postseason, when teams have ample time to prepare for an individual opponent. It’s often as if the entire roster memorized the scouting report for every player on every team. The Raptors are usually in proper positioning to anticipate opponents’ plays, and they’re allowing only 102.7 points per 100 possessions, which is good for fourth best in the NBA.

Joel Embiid’s zero-point performance last month was well publicized, but Toronto has neutralized many other superstars this season. LeBron James had 13 points on 15 shots, Kawhi Leonard had 12 points on 11 shots, Damian Lillard had nine points on 12 shots, and the list goes on. The low point totals are impressive, but every player has an off night; it’s the low shot attempts that are most notable. Each of those stars, plus other primary options, posted season-low or near-season-low shot attempts against the Raptors. Teams struggle to score when they aren’t sure of the defense’s game plan. But Nurse isn’t just coaching a team of tricksters who outscheme opponents. The Raptors have assembled a team full of smart, long-armed defenders who play hard. They do the little things that go beyond the box score, too. Take OG Anunoby, for example: He doesn’t rack up steals or blocks, but he’s an excellent defender across multiple positions and is always in the right position to bug an opponent:

At first glance, this is a yawn-inducing play that results in Emmanuel Mudiay missing a midrange jumper. But it started it with Anunoby tightly covering Donovan Mitchell as he crossed half court. Joe Ingles was dribbling to hand the ball off to Mitchell, but Anunoby flubbed it up and the ball never touched Mitchell’s hands again during the possession. Sometimes Anunoby’s timely positioning results in deflections or steals, which lead to transition opportunities, but usually his impact is more subtle. So far this season, Anunoby is deserving of a spot on the All-Defensive first team.

A defense can do only so much to prevent stars from getting touches, and the Raptors aren’t shy in those situations. Toronto doubles the post more than any other team in the NBA, and it’s been effective in forcing sloppy decisions from players ranging from Embiid to Luka Doncic.

Toronto is also aggressive when defending the pick-and-roll. Though Gasol will primarily sag toward the paint, the Raptors will utilize blitzes far more frequently than most teams. In the clip below, the Raptors send two guys at Kawhi, who throws the ball away.

Discipline is required to play this style. Teams like the Bulls blitz pick-and-rolls often, but get roasted because their defenders lack focus or don’t know where to be on the floor. Toronto is equipped with smart, talented veterans who can fight over screens or communicate and rotate like they’ve already seen the play happen. And they hustle. Siakam receives praise for his offensive progress, but he still plays hard on defense. Gasol is getting older, but he remains a defensive genius. Kyle Lowry missed 11 games with a fractured thumb and Serge Ibaka was sidelined for 10 games with a sprained ankle, but other players have stepped up. VanVleet, Norman Powell, and undrafted rookie Terence Davis make for a feisty backcourt, while Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have brought frenetic defensive energy off the bench to the frontcourt.

With so many capable defenders across the roster, the Raptors are able to use a drastically different game plan each night. Toronto’s funky zone defenses, in particular, are a joy to watch. So far this season the Raptors have run the box-and-one against Lou Williams and Trae Young, a triangle-and-two against Lillard, and a standard 2-3 zone against a long list of teams, including the Lakers.

Zone can throw the opponent out of rhythm; it’s like a boxer switching from an orthodox to a southpaw stance. Playing zone comes with risks: Defenses are more vulnerable on the offensive boards and one missed rotation could lead to an open layup or 3. But the Raptors are willing to allow 3-pointers. Teams attempt the second-highest share of 3s in the half court against the Raptors, but the fewest amount of shots near the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors are essentially doing what the Bucks did last season with their own aggressive spin on it—they’re prioritizing rim protection over preventing 3s. How long will it be until other teams copy the strategy?

Proper personnel is required: Gasol’s presence around the rim and Toronto’s savvy help defenders influence teams to kick the ball out for 3s rather than attack the paint. Teams are shooting only 34.5 percent on 3s against the Raptors in the half court, which is close to the league median (35.5 percent); so it’s not like opponents are shooting an abnormally low percentage, which would raise questions about the realness of their defense. Even when opponents shoot above league average from 3, the Raptors are 7-1 because they can win in more ways than one.

The Raptors force the seventh-most turnovers and block the 14th-most shots, and don’t pass on opportunities to turn secured loose balls on defense into transition chances on offense. Toronto plays at one of the league’s fastest paces and logs the second-most transition possessions, per Synergy Sports. Most transition buckets result in open layups or early 3s, but Toronto creates more chances by feasting in situations that resemble a power play or a penalty situation in hockey.

When a hockey team has a five-on-four power play, or even a four-on-four, the player in possession of the puck is able to skate around the ice more freely than he would be in a standard five-on-five. Basketball is, of course, always five-on-five. But temporary short-handed chances exist early in the clock, just like in the clip above: Siakam teleports to block a layup then hustles up the floor for the layup. But take note of VanVleet probing near the paint as he awaits reinforcements. Only four Mavericks are back on defense and no one is in proper positioning, so VanVleet can roam before Siakam slices to the rim. You’ll see this often when you watch Toronto.

In this next clip, Siakam aggressively digs in to cause a turnover, then brings the ball up the floor himself and attacks before Rudy Gobert gets back. Transition scoring is nothing new for Siakam; he’s been running like Forrest Gump since he played at New Mexico State. But now he leads a team that follows him stride for stride on the break, and turns to him for buckets in the half court.

Siakam is going through growing pains, too: He’s still figuring out how to balance scoring with playmaking, and he’s had some struggles generating space against long, elite defenders like Jonathan Isaac and Bam Adebayo. In a loss against the Heat on Tuesday, Siakam attempted only one shot in the fourth quarter and overtime; he can’t fade in tight games for Toronto to reach its true upside. Still, Siakam has shown enough in other tough matchups to inspire confidence in his ability, and his leap in usage and volume is virtually unprecedented.

The offense accompanying Siakam’s rise is very analytics friendly, which should come as no surprise. Nurse has spent 30 years coaching for 15 teams across five countries and has developed a reputation for installing forward-thinking offensive systems. The Raptors log a ton of transition possessions in a league posting its quickest pace since the 1985-86 season, and they treat the midrange like it’s an in-case-of-emergency shot. Only Houston and Brooklyn attempt fewer midrange shots in the half court than Toronto, according to Cleaning the Glass. In total, the Raptors have the league’s eighth-best offensive rating.

Nurse almost always uses lineups with five shooters; the only player who doesn’t shoot 3s to log at least 100 minutes is Hollis-Jefferson, who saw his minutes increase partially because Ibaka was out. The Raptors value spacing so much, they gave a three-year, $4.2 million deal to Matt Thomas, who went undrafted in 2017 and spent the past two seasons overseas, where he made nearly half his 3s. As a team, the Raptors are shooting an unsustainable 39.3 percent from 3, but the benefit of a spaced floor goes beyond actually making 3s. It also leads to opportunities like this drive by OG:

Anunoby gets Embiid to bite on his pump fake, then effectively gets a pick-up-style one-on-one matchup with Josh Richardson—and offense will win in these situations the majority of the time. Meanwhile, watch Gasol; his mere presence stretches bigs like Embiid and Al Horford away from the paint, freeing a lane for drives to the rim for scores or kick-outs for 3s. Sometimes, Gasol will even receive one of those passes.

Gasol is averaging career-low numbers virtually across the board, but he’s transformed his game to remain an impactful offensive player by eliminating post-ups in favor of facilitating and shooting from the perimeter. Great teams require buy-in across the roster, and Toronto has it. The play above is a great example why. Gasol excels in his limited role, while Anunoby makes the simple play on offense. Siakam is learning how to pass when he receives defensive attention. VanVleet is used as a Swiss army knife who will screen for Siakam, play off ball when he’s sharing the floor with Lowry, or run the show when Lowry is injured.

VanVleet is averaging 18.7 points and 7.4 assists with only 2.5 turnovers on a league-leading 37.8 minutes; he’s been indispensable because of his playmaking and gritty defense. But VanVleet will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and league front-office executives expect him to receive offers from $20 million annually up to his max of about $31 million annually. VanVleet is arguably the top point guard in a weak free-agent class; teams targeting a guard would have to choose between VanVleet or one of the many guards in this upcoming draft class. Most teams that will have cap space already drafted guards, like the Hawks and Grizzlies, but VanVleet could be a perfect backcourt partner for Trae Young or Ja Morant. How Raptors president Masai Ujiri handles VanVleet’s free agency could tip his hand to the team’s plans for 2021, when Toronto is expected to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Ujiri could always make a big acquisition long before 2021. If an opportunity presented itself, league front-office executives wouldn’t rule out Ujiri making a move this season to bolster their chances for a repeat. The Raptors are one of a handful of Eastern Conference teams with a chance to make the Finals. In their win against Toronto, the Heat showed that they too belong in the conversation, and both Milwaukee and Philadelphia remain threats. Boston and Indiana loom, too. But the Raptors are built to play many styles, meaning they can adapt or dictate to any playoff opponent. Potential additions could increase their odds, but no matter what happens, the Raptors are in good shape.

The team led by Lowry and DeMar DeRozan that preceded the Kawhi trade wasn’t good enough to win a championship, but the then-underdeveloped players from that roster now have the experience and continuity to lead this new, revamped titled contender. It’s a roster with undrafted players, unheralded late first- and second-round picks, and Nurse has them operating in an adaptable system that enhances their strengths. The Raptors are on the right trajectory. Canadian fans understandably want their team to get more attention. Soon enough, it’ll be impossible to ignore the fact that a championship team that lost a future Hall of Famer in his prime remains a contender for another title.