Dave Feschuk: There’s no defence for the Raptors, for one night anyway, as they prepare for rematch with Heat

Dave Feschuk: There’s no defence for the Raptors, for one night anyway, as they prepare for rematch with Heat
It is a schedule quirk built out of necessity that has been spun as a selling point of a COVID-ravaged NBA season. Sure, teams often find themselves playing with skeleton eight-man rosters. And yes, there continue to be postponements stacked upon postponements as the league navigates a pitfall-rife existence outside the protection of its summertime bubble.

But look on the bright side: At least the Raptors , who lost to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night in Tampa, get the chance for a prompt rematch against the Heat on Friday in Tampa. Exciting, no?

To which Fred VanVleet, usually an unfailing voice of reason and enthusiasm, didn’t sound particularly excited.

“I mean, I’m going to be honest, I’ve let go of all expectations or dislikes and likes a lot time ago. We’re getting through this season for what it is. I’m not sure it’s good, bad or indifferent,” VanVleet told reporters after Wednesday’s loss. “I guess there’s something to it, to try and play a team you just lost to right away. There might be a little extra motivation there. But you just go into each game every night trying to get a win and we didn’t do that (Wednesday), so we’ll try to bounce back in the next one.”

You know it’s not business as usual in the NBA when even VanVleet sounds mildly dispirited. And you know something’s not right in Raptorland when the defence is as bad as it has been. Toronto’s defence ranked second in the NBA last year; the two seasons before that, they were fifth. This season, they were 10th in the East heading into Thursday’s games. Wednesday’s loss to the undermanned Heat saw the Raptors, after showing some signs of improvement in the most recent five-game stretch, backslide into what coach Nick Nurse framed as one their worst defensive performances of the season. Miami shot 49 per cent from the field and 45 per cent from three-point range, making 18 bombs.

“I always talk about you re gonna have some defensive mistakes and lapses and you got to be able to kind of overcome some of those and keep chipping away at cutting a number of those down,” Nurse said Thursday. “But that was the most defensive mistakes we had in the season, times three (on Wednesday).”

While the Heat were missing key players like Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, the Raptors occasionally ignored the obvious strengths of the opponents actually in attendance. All four of Duncan Robinson’s three-point field goals, for instance, were uncontested, no matter that Robinson happens to be one of the deadliest shooters in the league.

“They were just mistakes … they were wide open mistakes,” Nurse said. “We’ve got to limit those.”

It would be easy enough to identify individual culprits. But a good team defence is a complex organism whose strength ultimately lies in its cohesion. So in a lot of ways, a dip in Toronto’s ball-stopping power was easy enough to see coming. The Raptors knew they were blowing a hole in the foundation of their defence when they allowed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to sign with the Clippers and Lakers, respectively, in free agency. The two represented a combination of veteran savvy and size and toughness that was essentially impossible to replace.

Not that the Raptors aren’t trying. The still-developing Chris Boucher has been an effective contributor in more than one area this season, but he’s a long way from understanding the ropes as an anchor of an elite NBA defence. And free-agent signing Aron Baynes, though he arrived with the reputation as a hard-nosed competitor with some of the qualities required for the gig, deserves more than a month with his new team to figure things out. Baynes has struggled to carve out playing time, being left out of the rotation entirely in three games on a recent Western road trip. Wednesday’s loss, at least, saw him contribute seven rebounds in 13 minutes — the most he has played since that three-game benching.

“I thought he did a good job around the rim (Wednesday),” Nurse said. “I said it last night after the game, I think he was hard done by (by the referees) … He’s got his hands up, they bang into his body (and he gets called for a foul). (Without those fouls) he would have had a really good rim-protection night. That’s where it starts, rim protection, rebounding on the defensive end or at least blocking the main rebounder out … The scoring, shooting, whatever. (The defensive side is) where we really need him for our team to be successful.”

With the Raptors now a wobbly 5-9, Friday’s cause probably won’t be helped by the uncertain status of Pascal Siakam, who skipped Thursday’s practice after taking an awkward legs-splayed fall in Wednesday’s loss, after which he appeared to be suffering pain in the groin area. Siakam said after the game that his groin had been bothering him even before he took that hit. He missed 11 games with a groin injury last season.
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