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Why the Raptors’ defense is built to stop the Warriors

The Warriors have never faced a defense like this, and it’s showing.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO — After a Game 1 loss in which his team’s offense was completely flummoxed in half-court situations, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was asked to stack Toronto’s defense against all others they’ve faced in their five runs to the NBA Finals. In the aftermath of defeat, Kerr wasn’t able to pinpoint an exact pecking order, but the way he ended the quote spoke volumes.

“They’re very long and athletic. They’re tough, they get after you and they play well together. They got a lot of versatility,” Kerr said. “I think they’re actually a lot like our team.”

Kerr was acknowledging that his current foe’s fundamental traits are the exact same ones his own team unleashed on an unsuspecting NBA half a decade ago. This is why Toronto’s defense is more grueling than any other the Warriors have faced in 19 playoff series heading into this one.

According to subscription stat site Cleaning the Glass, Golden State had only faced a top-five regular-season defense four times in five years before the Raptors. (One of those four was the 2016-17 Spurs, who did not have Kawhi Leonard after the first half of Game 1.) By contrast, Golden State has squared up against 10 teams ranked in the bottom half of regular-season defensive efficiency that season. The Raptors ranked fifth in defensive efficiency this season and third since acquiring Marc Gasol at the trade deadline.

As we’ve seen over the past six weeks, the playoffs are a different animal from the regular season. Matchups matter. Effort, intelligence, awareness, and length are requirements. An ability and willingness to adjust on the fly is critical.

Unlike almost every defensive strategy and/or personnel group the Warriors have incinerated in their path, these Raptors are uniquely built to stand without withering. They are flexible enough to find a schematic answer for just about any question posed by the defending champs.Toronto can play big or small lineups. They can trap and live in chaos, or stay rigid by switching screens and helping off non-shooters. Its collective athleticism transcends positions.

Most importantly, the Raptors understand as much as anyone that versatility is not a luxury, it’s a mandate. Adapt or die. Team president Masai Ujiri chose the former, and now they are, in many ways, the best defense Golden State has ever faced in the playoffs.

Other opponents have made the Warriors reach deep inside themselves to discover a new gear. The 2015 Memphis Grizzlies came in with a top-three defense that held Golden State to 104.4 points per 100 possessions over six games, their worst output to date in any playoff series. But Memphis’s shield splintered when Kerr famously shifted center Andrew Bogut onto guard Tony Allen, allowing the Warriors to prevail thanks to their own defense. The 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder moped through 82 games with an average defense before unleashing an army of arms in a classic seven-game series, but the Warriors loosened up their size advantage by closing game 5, 6, and 7 with their Death Lineup featuring Draymond Green at center

The 2016-17 Utah Jazz were also a top-three outfit, but Rudy Gobert didn’t let them shapeshift out of their doomed base identity and the Warriors swept them. The 2017-18 Houston Rockets executed a disciplined switch-everything game-plan, but fell short because their own attack evaporated.

The main difference between all these teams and Toronto is that there’s no obvious move Kerr can make that will force the Raptors to scramble for a solution that doesn’t exist. Nick Nurse spent his first regular season as Raptors coach experimenting with different rotations and combinations, familiarizing his team with randomness because they were smart and talented enough to accept it. Roles were defined, but not in any way that rejected defensive ingenuity.

The end result was that the Raptors are positionally overwhelming, with enough size to stare down the mighty Philadelphia 76ers and enough speed to erase the collection of three-point shooters the Milwaukee Bucks used to terrorize the league all season. They’ve played big men Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam at the same time. Even without sturdy forward OG Anunoby, they have enough depth on the wing and in their backcourt to put Siakam at center and seamlessly switch every screen. (Nurse hasn’t played that card much this year, but did close Game 1 with Siakam, Leonard, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green on the floor.)

So many players on this team can guard up or down from their natural position, be it Lowry and Green defending forwards as well as quick guards, or Siakam and Leonard doing the inverse. Nobody’s usefulness is restricted to one side of the ball, either. When forced to rotate more than they’d like, or even switch in areas that create uncomfortable matchups, length becomes their best friend. (Toronto averages a playoff-high 14.4 deflections per game.)

When someone breaks them down on the perimeter, help comes quick and fierce. Ball-handlers who think they’re about to reach pay dirt are politely instructed to guess again.

Draymond Green tried to force an early switch by screening Fred VanVleet off Stephen Curry in the backcourt. The Raps responded by trapping Curry and giving Green a lane to the basket, usually a recipe for disaster. But Lowry, who has somehow never made an All-Defensive team, stepped in off Andre Iguodala to draw a key foul. Lowry has drawn more charges in these playoffs than every team except the Warriors.

Versatility helps, sure, but so does feel. The Raptors have an intellectual advantage that allows them to gamble without much risk. They think fast, but the more methodical the game, the better off they are.

“There are so many things going on that are more instinctual probably than they are some unbelievable design,” Nurse said. “So, yeah, we always say know your personnel and if there’s a problem, try to go fix it.”

Heading into the Finals, the Raptors allowed a playoff-low 85.8 points per 100 possessions in half-court situations. The Milwaukee Bucks’ offense averaged 100.3 points per 100 possessions in half-court situations during the regular season, trailing only the Warriors and Rockets. In the conference finals, the Raptors held them to 84 per 100 possessions in those situations. Golden State won’t win this series unless it’s played in the open floor.

“The challenge effort-wise first starts with transition. We have to try to make them play against our five-man defense because then we think we’re pretty OK,” Nurse said. “We have a good chance to at least for a starting point be able to guard them the way we want to. That was the same way in Milwaukee. It was really like, come on, let’s make them play against our set defense.”

The Raptors have an unimpeachably accomplished crew: Three Defensive Player of the Year awards, 10 All-Defensive teams (none of which are accounted for by Lowry or Siakam), and zero weak points that stick out like sore thumbs. Gasol was the biggest question mark in this particular matchup, because Curry would force him to defend in space. Gasol was beat off the bounce a couple times, but held his own plenty.

“To me, more than the talent defensively, and physically, athletically, it’s more the mindset, ‘OK, now we’re gonna get a stop, and we’re gonna need to do that multiple times,’” Gasol told me when I asked him to compare these Raptors to the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies. ”It’s not X’s and O’s, things that coach will tell us where to be.”

Every Gasol step has purpose. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of all five opponents, and channels that information in a way that always puts him in the right place at the right time.

Here he was doubling Thompson in the post because he knew the shot clock was winding down and Jordan Bell, his man, a threat. By the time the Warriors swing the ball to Green, Gasol was back in front of Bell for the interception. This wasn’t the fastest you’ll see an NBA player move, but Gasol’s lack of hesitation allowed him to cover more ground than someone with his speed ever should.

“[I] think there’s always a sort of kind of comfort when [Gasol] is on the floor with us,” Siakam said.

Toronto’s defense isn’t tied down to any one personality. As a whole, it floats from one character to the next. It’s always on the same page, with each possessing unteachable anticipation that makes it seem like they exist 10 seconds in the future. Toronto contests every shot—opponents have made a playoff-low 30.2 percent of their non-corner threes—with the confidence of a world beater.

Even with Kevin Durant set to return at some point in the series and DeMarcus Cousins possibly fit to earn more minutes, the Raptors have the bodies to make life miserable for an offense that isn’t used to sweating. No defense will ever fully shut the Warriors down but if any has ever been constructed to make them look human, it’s Toronto’s.