The Raptors’ Defense Is Almost Never The Same, But It’s Always Really Good

In their second game of the 2019-20 season, the defending champion Toronto Raptors played the division rival Boston Celtics. Boston had struggled offensively in its season opener, scoring only 91.4 points per 100 possessions in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and once the game got underway, Toronto replicated much of Philly’s defensive strategy.

The Raptors did not send a single double-team on any of the Celtics’ 19 isolation plays, per Second Spectrum (the Sixers had doubled on zero of 20 isolations). They played soft coverage, with the big man hanging back,1 or ice2 coverage, with the on-ball defender forcing the ball-handler to the sideline or the baseline, on 59 of Boston’s 73 actionable pick and rolls,3 and they did not send an extra defender to blitz the ball-handler a single time (the Sixers played soft or ice coverage on 62 of 71 actionable pick and rolls and sent just one blitz). They were similarly passive against off-ball screens and dribble handoffs, sending zero blitzes on 62 such actions while playing soft or drop coverage 47 times (the Sixers played soft or drop on 48 of 72 off-ball screens and did not blitz at all). But the Raptors did not replicate the Sixers’ results. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward combined for 87 points while hitting 11 of 26 3-point attempts, Boston scored 110.7 points per 100 possessions, and the Raptors lost by 6.

About a month later, the Raptors had gotten more aggressive. Against the Dallas Mavericks, they blitzed Luka Dončić on 27 of his 34 pick and rolls — tied for the greatest number of times any player has been blitzed in a game this season.4 The Raptors succeeded in holding Dončić, as he shot only 5 of 14 from the field, but they also fouled him enough to send him to the line 19 times — and they ended up losing the game by 8.

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