Weekly Dose: Nick Nurse’s new toys

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

By @RyanGrosman
Laced
February 16, 2021

Each week, I’ll be writing about one thing that’s on my mind.

Before that ugly Timberwolves game on Sunday, which we shall never speak of again, the Toronto Raptors were beginning to regain their star-stopping form that was their calling card for most of last season.

In other words, they were starting to look a lot more like themselves.

Last year, members of the NBA’s elite class, like Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard, routinely had the clamps put on them by Nick Nurse’s star-targeting defensive strategy — get the ball out of the hands of the most lethal threats by doubling or even tripling them while letting everyone else beat you.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Look no further than the most recent Boston Celtics game. If you told me before the game that their two main stars, Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, would shoot a combine 8–27, I would’ve thought easy win for the Raptors. Unfortunately, new perpetual Gerald Henderson award-winner Payton Pritchard and 4 PPG scorer Semi Ojeleye both went supernova, netting a combined 44 points on 14–22 shooting.

This season, much to Nurse’s joy, he has a new crop of pesky defenders he can deploy from the bench to disrupt, disturb and deny the league’s top talent. I’m talking about Yuta Watanabe, DeAndre’ Bembry and Stanley Johnson. (Yes, Johnson isn’t new, but he’s new to the rotation.) While all three lack any real scoring punch, they’ve shown a propensity to guard multiple positions and be at the right place at the right time. And the Raptors’ defence isn’t exactly the easiest defence to get right.

So far, along with the starters not named Aron Baynes, these three have used their athleticism, size and brains to help leave a trail of bodies in the Raptors’ wake. In addition to Tatum and Brown, these bodies include a who’s who of All-Stars.

Raptors @ Warriors, January 10: Steph Curry, who was on a tear leading up the game, shot just 2–16 for 11 points. However, shutting down the two-time MVP somehow ended in a one-point loss.

Mavericks @ Raptors, January 18: Luka Dončić scored only 15 points on 4–11 shooting. Dončić, in fact, was so infuriated by how close and tough he was being defended the entire game that he blatantly elbowed Johnson in the head. What petulance from a supposed superstar.

Heat @ Raptors, January 20 and 22: The team managed to hold the beast that is Bam Adebayo to back-to-back 14-point games. The very next day, Adebayo scored a career-high 41 points (mind you it was against the Swiss cheese defence of the Brooklyn Nets).

Raptors @ Nets, February 5: James Harden was held to just 17 points on 4–8 shooting, with seven of those points coming from the line. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving scored just 15 on 6–12 shooting, resulting in the Raptors’ biggest W of the season.

Watanabe, Bembry and Johnson have already been christened The Defenders 3. While I like the name, I was thinking of something along the lines of The Bench Bouncers because they deny defenders from entering the paint and then send them on their way. Well…I’m still workshopping it, anyway.

Surprisingly, though, the Raptors’ defence is currently lagging behind their offence. Normally, it’s the other way around. But once OG Anunoby and Watanabe are back in the fold, and all three bench stoppers continue to get a better handle on Nurse’s complicated schemes, the defence will truly return to form.

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