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How the Raptors’ defense is making other teams see ghosts

Zone defense, man defense, full-court press, half-court trap, it doesn’t matter. The key to the Raptors’ success is their unrelenting pressure.

The Toronto Raptors took on the Houton Rockets at the Scotiabank arena. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Picture yourself on a haunted house ride at your favorite amusement park. You’ll be spooked by pop-out faces, fluorescent lights, and ominous sounds, but you don’t know exactly how, where, or when they will hit you. Intellectually, you know there’s nothing to really fear and you’ll eventually finish the exhibit unscathed. But as soon as you enter that front door, those rational thoughts give way to base fears that you can’t escape. You scream. You yelp. You gasp. You lose your nerve. You’re scared shitless. And you forget, for a brief moment, that the ride is all an illusion.

If this experience describes one you’ve had before, congratulations. Now you understand what it’s like to go against the Toronto Raptors’ defense, and why so many skilled teams and star players look shockingly out of their depth when they try.

You also understand why the Raptors have responded with even more vigor after losing the star that carried them to last year’s NBA title. Toronto was expected to slink back into the league’s middle class after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Instead, the Raptors are two games better off than they were at this time last year and riding a 15-game winning streak, the longest of any Canadian professional sports franchise ever.

They constantly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, no matter who’s healthy enough to suit up. The most recent example: a one-point win over conference rival Indiana in which they scored 11 straight points in the final 2:25. After watching Indiana calmly move the ball and nail scores of open threes for 45 minutes, the Raptors dialed up their pressure, deployed a full-court press, and watched the Pacers wilt.

It wasn’t the first time Toronto used unconventional methods to take teams out of their comfort zone. They deployed that same full-court press to devastating effect to overcome a 30-point third-quarter deficit against Dallas. They held LeBron James to 13 points on 5-15 shooting in a win in Los Angeles, flummoxed Damian Lillard into a 2-12 night with a mix of box-and-one and triangle-and-two zone defenses, and didn’t even let Joel Embiid score a single point in a November victory over Philadelphia. Their aggressive double-teaming of James Harden in a December game against the Rockets inspired other imitators and played a role in Houston’s decision to go all-in on small ball. Turns out the box-and-one they famously deployed against Stephen Curry in last year’s NBA Finals was merely a precursor to the “janky” defenses they’ve effectively rolled out this year.

Toronto’s adaptability is attributed to second-year coach Nick Nurse, an innovative basketball tinkerer willing to try many different defensive alignments. Nurse is indeed a creative soul, and his nonchalance at the possibility of embarrassment inspires buy-in from his players. Toronto’s roster is stocked with athletic wings and some of the smartest veterans in the league, the ideal mix to carry out Nurse’s experiments.

But ingenuity and intelligence only succeed when they’re used in service of a common purpose. That goal for the Raptors is simple: create a feeling of constant pressure that scares otherwise-poised players shitless. Zone or man, full-court or half-court, 2-3 or box-and-one, trapping or switching, hard double-teaming or softer digs down, the point is to facilitate the same kind of base fear one gets when riding a haunted house exhibit. They make you see ghosts.

“Constant pressure” does not mean sprinting directly into ball-handlers’ faces. The Raptors do attack the ball sometimes, with targeted surprise traps at opportune times. D’Angelo Russell certainly wasn’t ready for this.

But these frontline maneuvers are useless if the back line of defense isn’t moving in concert to shut down potential outlets. Every team strives to cut off drives to the basket, but the Raptors commit to the cause with all five defenders sinking deep into a shell, on or even before any move to the basket. They have two goals: clog precious driving space and cut off the most obvious escape routes a ball-handler might use when they draw multiple defenders to them.

When they accomplish both, they force offenses to be indecisive. That’s when they pounce.

To make that style work, Raptors’ extra defenders don’t actually go directly to the ball. Instead, they anticipate where the offense wants to take it and position themselves to stand in the way, or at least in the vicinity. Get past one guy, and a second is already in position to replace him while a third lurks nearby.

Every player must see the big picture to make this five-man strategy work. Luckily, Toronto’s roster is stocked with players capable of doing just that. This is not a group that gets tunnel vision on their own matchup. Instead, they happily block off potential driving lanes, as if they are human banana peels.

One downside to a collective paint-packing approach is that it leaves the perimeter relatively unguarded. The more compressed the shell, the more room for offenses to suck the defense in and deliver kickout passes for open jumpers. The league’s three-point revolution, in theory, makes these drive-and-kick easier to execute, not to mention more valuable on the scoreboard.

To solve that problem and maintain their pressure anyway, the Raptors do two things that most teams don’t.

One is that they close out incredibly aggressively to open shooters, often to the point of looking reckless. They don’t merely run shooters off the line. They catapult them off it.

This is a high-risk approach because a simple shot fake gives the offense an odd-man advantage. It can often look undisciplined and silly, so I wouldn’t recommend coaching your youth team this way. But Nurse and the Raptors find a way to make it work with their personnel and commitment.

How? Stack up enough help-and-fly recovery sequences, and suddenly the offense is wasting precious time trying to find a perfect shot that doesn’t exist. Every additional decision the offense must make to avoid or shoot against a flying closeout is another chance for them to mess up and/or hesitate due to self-doubt. Toronto gets so many “coverage sacks” like this because they force opponents into endless drive-and-kicks that don’t go anywhere and mentally drain them.

Every Raptor plays an instrument, but Pascal Siakam is the orchestrator of the Raptors’ closeout crescendo. He is so fast, long, and versatile that he spooks potential shooters the second he surges toward them. Per tracking data, Siakam contests six three-point attempts per game all by himself, the most among players with at least 25 games played by a wide margin. Because he can guard all five positions effectively, opponents never know exactly where he might be on a given possession. And because the Raptors’ system is so well drilled at rotating down early to stop drives to the basket, Siakam is free to run at shooters all over the court without worrying about getting beat on drives.

The other key is that the Raptors’ five players switch seamlessly in scramble situations to lessen the distance any single player must travel to get back in position. Most teams have mastered the art of the “scram” or “kickout” switch, a maneuver used to prevent offenses from exploiting big-vs.-small mismatches inside. (Here’s a good breakdown from 2017).

The Raptors use the same principle, but on the perimeter. Rather than scram switching to stop post mismatches, the Raptors scram switch players of all sizes to shorten the distance needed to close out on shooters or stop drives. Watch Fred VanVleet pick up Patrick McCaw’s man on this Pacers curl.

Or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson boot McCaw to his spot-up wing assignment to cut off Caris LeVert’s drive.

Or Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka covering for each other on two straight Thunder spot-up drive attempts.

Collectively, Toronto’s frantic closeouts and quick-thinking switching make opponents feel pressured in moments where they should feel comfortable. Shots that are objectively “open” against Toronto often feels like they’re too contested to take, but when opponents choose to drive instead, they’re bound to find someone unexpected cutting off their path before they even get started. Their only choice is to restart the process with another drive-and-kick that hopefully yields a less stressful situation for a teammate.

Sometimes — nay, often, it does, but Toronto’s OK with that. This seems counterintuitive on many levels. Historically, the league’s best defense are the ones which limit three-point attempts rather than three-point percentage, because they have much more control over the former than the latter. Yet four out of every 10 Raptors opponents’ shots are threes, the highest rate in the league. More significantly, Toronto yields the highest proportion of corner threes in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass, and the difference between them and 29th-place Miami is larger than the difference between the Heat and 10th-place Detroit.

If the goal of a defense is to limit high-efficiency shots, Toronto’s would fail spectacularly. Cleaning the Glass uses a metric known as Shooting Location Effective Field Goal Percentage, which estimates how well an opponent would shoot if they converted the shots a defense gives up at a league-average rate. Based on this, Toronto’s defense should surrender an effective field goal percentage of 53.7 percent, the sixth-worst mark in the league. Instead, the Raptors actually hold opponents an effective field goal percentage of just 50.8 percent, mere percentage points behind Brooklyn and the Clippers for the second-best mark in the league. Since 2014, only two other teams (the 2016-17 Warriors and 2017-18 Celtics) have maintained a wider positive disparity between those two numbers over a whole season. Usually, those large discrepancies indicate good fortune and stabilize over time.

But there’s a growing case that Toronto is actually the exception to this rule. Teams may get juicy three-point looks against them, but only after surviving what seems like a never-ending a gauntlet of closeouts, switches, and traps. This shot is “open” in literal terms, because there’s no defender in sight.

But in the same way an unexpected tap on the shoulder gives you anxiety, this shot seems more contested than it is because the Raptors’ constant pressure screws with the shooters’ senses.

Those numbers also don’t account for the many “open” shots teams pass up, only to turn the ball over because they feel the Raptors’ footsteps. Toronto is second in the league in live-ball turnovers, second in points off turnovers, and tops in most points added per 100 possessions via steals. They strike quickly off the many mistakes they force, which only stresses their opponents out even more.

Nurse’s deployment of a shapeshifting defense with pressure as the foundational principle is unconventional and creative, but hardly unprecedented. In the early and mid 1990s, the Seattle SuperSonics emerged as a defensive powerhouse using Bob Kloppenburg’s “SOS” system, a frantic style of play that was often seen as a gimmick by its detractors. Among the core tenants of the system: switch all 2-on-2 screens, defend each action with all five guys, and force opponents to vulnerable “checkpoints” on the court before turning up the heat.

This system, combined with the Sonics’ athleticism and quick-strike ability, helped them overcome their lack of size and probably should have yielded a title. It looked bad when teams managed to beat it, but those moments were more than cancelled out by turnovers, rushed shots, and the general discomfort opponents felt trying to navigate what seemed like an endless supply of bodies in the way. (The three-point shot wasn’t en vogue in that era, but it like Toronto, those Sonics teams surrendered more long-distance attempts than most of their peers).

Nurse and the now-retired Kloppnburg were never on the same coaching staff. (The head coach Nurse replaced in Toronto, Dwane Casey, did overlap with Kloppenburg for one year as George Karl assistants in 1994-95). Still, it’s not hard to spot the parallels between the two men and their teams’ defensive systems. Both understood they needed to throw opponents off kilter to win the larger defensive war, even if it meant surrendering some easy buckets along the way. As Bernie Bickerstaff, the Sonics coach who initially hired Kloppenburg, told the Seattle Times in 1993, playing against Kloppenburg’s SOS defense “was like you were still picking something off you after the game.” They both make five defenders feel like 15.

Nearly three decades later, Nurse’s Raptors have translated the principles of those legendary Sonics defenses to the modern game. We don’t yet know if their haunted house defense is creative enough to take them all the way to the promised land again. Maybe, like Seattle’s style, it’s too gimmicky to ultimately triumph on its own.

But no matter the outcome, the Raptors have made the NBA a more interesting place. That’s the power of creativity and innovation.