After a red-hot 22-6 start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have seemingly come back to earth with a 2-4 record on their most recent road trip. Granted, with the West Coast swing bringing about Western powerhouses such as the Clippers, Warriors, and Blazers, a winning record was never really in the cards.
Nevertheless, the streak has allowed the Hawks to take away the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The saying goes that to be the best, you have to beat the best, and for the Raptors, getting better starts on defense. That’s no cliche about defense, it is Toronto’s legitimate weakness. Chasing the Mavericks for best offensive rating, while 24th in the league on the other side of the court, (which is WORSE than the tanktastic 76ers) the Raptors have to get back to the defensive ferocity that made head coach Dewayne Casey famous. The biggest culprit: MVP Kyle Lowry.
Shocking, I know, but it’s the truth. Don’t just take it from me, take it from the man himself, courtesy of basketball genius Zach Lowe on Grantland:
“Our defense has slacked off. There are a few things we need to clean up, and we just gotta play harder.”
“Sometimes you overhelp because you want to protect each other. Sometimes you get burned.”
“That’s our scheme. We show. We rotate. It’s what coach teaches us. It’s hard work, but it’s what we do.”
That “scheme” is the Raptor’s hyperactive, rotation heavy defensive strategy. Forgoing the more conservative ICE strategy, outlined by coach Nick in the below video, the raptors rather allow the ball handler into the middle, immediately giving him passing options.
This is a difficult line to walk, as once in the middle, elite ball handlers can get to hoop with merely a half step in front of their defender. With the point guard dominance of the league currently, that defensive burden often falls to Kyle Lowry. With DeRozan out, Lowry has taken up the offensive slack, and his defense has suffered as a result. Take this play for example:
Lowry gets completely stuck on a simple pick and roll, allowing Stephen Curry the luxury of being able to double clutch before firing off a perfect pass. Again, when elite players see daylight, they can make you pay for it. This is especially dangerous for the Raptors, as their aforementioned scheme on pick and rolls forces tough rotations by the Raptors.
Here, Lowry is barely bumped by Aldridge, and yet falls behind Lillard all the way to the free throw line, where Ross helps down, freeing up his own man. The main action lies elsewhere on the weakside, where Valanciunas rotating over to help on Lillard as well forces James Johnson to cover two players. A simple screen on him by Joel Freeland, and voila, open three pointer.
This entire system, while welcoming rotations, is ultimately undone by the type of deep penetration Lowry gives up on a regular basis. What’s worse is that his dismal play has a trickle down effect in more ways that one. For example, immediately after being plastered by a David Lee pick against Golden State, he found himself guarding Draymond Green while Greivis Vazquez was on Curry. Dewayne Casey would rather put the man they call the slow as Gravy on one of the fastest guards in the NBA. What;s worse is when I attempted to take a look at him guarding another fast guard in Eric Bledsoe.
Disappointingly, Lowry was never given the assignment of the opposing guard. For stretches, he wasn’t even on the other point guard, Goran Dragic. No, what you see here is Lowry guarding PJ TUCKER. What happened to the bulldog defender of last year?
The answer to Toronto’s troubles is to get Demar Derozan back ASAP. I realize it may sound obvious that an All-Star guard back would be key, but as I have shown, it is not his production the Raptors miss the most, but rather the responsibility he takes off the other All-Star hopeful (Vote Now!) In terms of defence, while Derozan had shown signs of improvement before his injury, it is the trickle down effect that can have great benefits for the Raptors.