Among NBA coaches outside Toronto, the word is out on how soft the Raptors’ defence is. Admittedly, you don’t need to be Gregg Popovich to figure out that the Raptors’ defensive deficiencies are easy to exploit — they can’t defend the pick-and-roll, they don’t box out consistently, they’re soft, they’re not particularly athletic, certain key players “tune out” for extended periods on the defensive end… I could go on, but you get the point. Here’s Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins on the Raptors’ defence:
“I was watching the Spurs-Toronto game and one of the sets (San Antonio) runs, we run and Toronto was struggling stopping it when they played zone. We ran that play almost the entire second quarter. (Maurice Speights) rolled to the basket and Jrue (Holiday) did a nice job finding him for those little pocket passes and scores.”
The second quarter of last night’s game might have been the most embarrassing defensive display I’ve seen the Raptors put up all season, and that’s really saying something. It wasn’t just that the Sixers scored 30 points in the quarter, it was how they scored them. They repeatedly scored off the same pick-and-roll play and off of several uncontested offensive rebounds.
In particular, backup big man Marreese Speights looked like an unstoppable force of nature as he scored 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting and grabbed five offensive rebounds in his nine-minute stint. Unsurprisingly, Andrea Bargnani was the main Raptor to look bad on a lot of these points, but Jose Calderon, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and new Raptor Alexis Ajinca all had moments where they were culpable — as you can see in this painful-to-watch compilation of Speights’ second-quarter offensive rampage.
What you see there is a lack of effort, a lack of awareness and an apparent lack of pride in the way the Raptors allowed themselves to be exposed like that. This isn’t LeBron James using his otherworldly physical gifts to dominate the opposition — it’s friggin’ Marreese Speights. He really isn’t that good.
Of course, the Raptors’ defence has made several opposing bench players look like All-Stars over the course of their nine-game losing streak. Jamal Crawford (36 points on Jan. 12), Jarrett Jack (17 points on Jan. 17) and Ryan Anderson (21 points on Jan. 21) can attest to that. The easy excuse would be to blame the Raptors’ lack of depth during this skid because of their injuries, but each of the Raptors’ five starters played at least six minutes in the second quarter against Philly — Bargnani was on the floor for 10 of those 12 minutes.
A lack of talent is obviously a factor here, but an ongoing lack of defensive accountability has been a problem with this team for a season-and-a-half now. These players just aren’t motivated to try hard and focus on defence. And whose fault is that?
Whatever you think of him as a man or a basketball strategist, it’s increasingly difficult to see Jay Triano as a coach who inspires his players to play with pride and passion on defence. I’m aware he can only do so much with the players he has to work with — and it’s difficult to pinpoint how much of the fault lies with his defensive schemes or his inability to hold his players accountable for their repeated lapses — but a clear pattern has been established. These players don’t fear that they won’t get to play if they don’t do their part on defence and on the boards.
Some coaches improve the defence of the teams they take over — Scott Skiles accomplished this in Chicago and Milwaukee, Rick Carlisle had that effect in Detroit and Dallas, while Tom Thibodeau and Lionel Hollins are this season’s shining examples. They were all able to work with players who were previously known as poor defenders and improve them to a point so that they’re no longer liabilities on that end.
Does anyone think Triano has this ability to inspire and improve his charges? Will it even make that much of a difference if the Raptors trade Bargnani, Calderon and/or whoever you’ve decided is the primary reason for this team’s tissue-soft D? I can’t claim to know the certain answer to these questions, but I’ve developed my suspicions.
Changing gears a little, two players made their Raptor debuts last night. Neither Trey Johnson nor Alexis Ajinca particularly distinguished themselves in their brief cameos. Johnson seems like a bit of a chucker, but that’s to be expected of a guy trying to make an impression on a 10-day contract. Ajinca didn’t show me anything that would change my opinion of him as a soft player with limited talents whose only significant attribute is that he’s seven-foot-one. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers and this decimated squad definitely qualifies for that cliche.
For what it’s worth (not much), here are the handful of noteworthy plays involving the new Raptors when they each logged the majority of their minutes in the second quarter.