If you look-up the word defense in the dictionary you are apt to find something along these lines:
Defense - noun, verb, -fensed, -fensing. –noun
1. resistance against attack; protection:
2. something that defends, as a fortification, physical or mental quality, or medication:
In sports –
a. the practice or art of defending oneself or one's goal against attack, as in fencing, boxing, soccer, or football.
b. the team attempting to thwart the attack of the team having the ball or puck.
Defense is something that at its root seems so simple. It is one person or thing trying to prevent another person or thing from achieving a particular goal. Yet for one reason or another the Raptors have had a difficult time defending much of anything this season. They are in the bottom third of the league in points allowed and as a team their defense has left a lot to be desired.
As a result, last nights game was a bit of a surprise.
In a solid W over the Atlanta Hawks the Toronto Raptors easily played their best defensive game of the year. You can talk all you want about defensive schemes, the different types of zones, trapping and rotations but in my opinion at the end of the day defense is all about "getting after it" and I would point to last nights game as a prime example of that.
From the opening tip the Raps looked like a team possessed on the defensive end, Anthony Parker in particular. In the first quarter there were countless balls deflected and stolen and although the Raps struggled to find their offense early it was their defense that kept them in the game.
It’s a good thing too because the Raps offense on this evening didn’t leave a lot of room for error on the other end of the floor.
I’m really of two minds after this game. In one sense I am thrilled by the fact that this Raptors team came out and showed that they are capable of playing steady and solid D. On the flip side the offense let me down. There were simply just too many jump shots taken and the Raps in many ways are lucky to have sealed this W. When the defense did let up the Hawks had no problem getting back into the game, in particular in the second Q. Riding their tough D early the Raps managed to put themselves up by ten or twelve points but this easily could have been 15 or 20 had the players shown more of a willingness to get to the hoop.
Even CB4 was guilty of taking too many jumpers. Now it’s hard to knock a guy who almost managed a triple double but early on the Hawks did a tremendous job filling the paint with bodies making it very tough for the franchise player to get to the rim. As all great players do, CB4 managed to find a way and before you knew it he had put up another sick stat line. His impact on the game was not only on the offensive end however. CB4 was also key in spurring on this defensive performance as he was extremely vocal on the defensive side. Bosh was essentially directing the other guys on the floor and the results were promising.
What was also promising was the Raps bench play. Jason Kapono was solid off the bench and for arguably the first time ever Joey Graham followed up one good performance with another. Despite being a big JG fan, precedent told me to expect a less than stellar performance last night. I was quite happy to see the opposite.
Once again Graham took full advantage of the minutes provided to him and was extremely active on both ends of the court. The obvious highlights were the big dunks (despite the obvious travel!) but also the low foul count. In 22 minutes Joey only picked up one personal foul despite having to guard Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams for most of the evening.
Graham did make some mistakes defensively but rather than giving him the quick hook Mitchell rode it out. On countless occasions Graham has been pulled from games after one mistake. Tonight he took his verbal lashings from the Coach but was allowed to play through it. Mitchell has to be pleased with the results of what can only be described as the "Joey Graham Experiment" as he has been a presence on the floor the past two games showing great intensity. Of particular note is just how confident he seems handling the ball. In past seasons any time Graham put the ball on the floor I expected the worst. Tonight I found myself waiting to see what he would do.
As an aside, it may just be coincidence but following Graham’s solid performance on Weds. Jamario Moon also had a solid game. If Joey is going to continue to play solid ball and fight for minutes I am hoping that Jamario responds and steps it up.
Fortunately with a few big misses by the Hawks the Raptors did just enough to split the home stand. They may not be so lucky going forward though. There are some stiff tests ahead and the first match-up out West is with the Lakers.
To get ready for Sunday’s tilt we touched base with Kurt from the LA Lakers blog, "Forum Blue and Gold" for our "Blogging with the Enemy" segment and asked him the following questions:
1. RaptorsHQ: Talk to us a bit about this current Laker team so far this season; how improved is it from last year's squad and why is that?
Forum Blue and Gold: What has improved the most about the Lakers this season is their defense. The Laker team that made it to the Finals was an offensive juggernaut that played okay defense, but that will not get you a title (as the Celtics showed). What changed was twofold. First was that guys got healthy, particularly Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza. Bynum provides the long, shot blocking (or changing) body in the paint that the Lakers needed in the Finals last year when Paul Pierce was on parade to the basket nightly. Ariza brings another long, aggressive perimeter defender to go with Kobe, allowing the Lakers second unit to get steals and get out and run. But the bigger change was philosophical. Phil Jackson won nine championships playing man-to-man, but last season taught him that with the current no-touch rules on the perimeter, you need some zone in your scheme. What he came up with was the most aggressive team defensive system since Seattle's good teams from the 90s.
Basically, the Lakers bring an extra big over to the side with the ball, try to force the ball handler to drive into traps with that extra player, and generally are aggressive. They get steals, they force bad shots. And while the offense is not where it was last year (at least yet), the defense keeps winning games for them.
2. RaptorsHQ: Who is the one player on the Lakers that has impressed you the most so far this season and why?
Forum Blue and Gold: It would be easy to say Pau Gasol here, because he has been such a key part of the Lakers offense here. Or, I could say Kobe, because he's a pretty good player, if you hadn't noticed. (Actually, Raptor fans have noticed.) But I'm going to cheat here and name two guys — Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza. Odom accepted coming off the bench (Radmanovic starts because with two seven footers his three point shot stretches the defense) and has thrived in that role. He's shooting 53%, 50% from three, and is thriving in the open court with a Lakers second unit that likes to get out and run. He is getting 25+ minutes a night, is third on the team in rebounding and is playing great all around ball. Ariza is just playing great at both ends — he has the second best PER on the team, better than Gasol, Bynum and Odom. He is playing great defense but the biggest change is on offense. He has developed a decent jumper that defenders now have to respect, but that is opening up his ability to get to the rim. Plus, he is another thriving in the open court, the fast break pace of the second unit.
3. RaptorsHQ: Sunday's game - What are the keys for the Lakers to getting their 14th win?
Forum Blue and Gold: First and foremost, contain Chris Bosh. The Lakers have done a good job of taking away other team's first offensive option (and usually the second) but they don't have a good matchup for Bosh. Gasol and Odom will get their chances, but it will need to be a team effort. Two other keys. First, be focused on defense, the Lakers keep taking halves (and the occasional game) off from what they are doing on offense. Against some teams the offense can bail them out, but not against the Raptors. The second is the bench. The Lakers role out the best bench in the NBA — Jordan Farmar, Ariza, Odom, Sasha Vujacic get the key minutes, usually with one starting big. The Lakers have had a lot of games where they pulled away at the start of the second or forth quarters, when the bench outplayed the opponents and it turned into a route. The Lakers bench had 56 against the Nets recently. More play like that will be hard for Toronto to match.
Those might be some of the better answers we have gotten in our "Blogging With The Enemy" feature and really helps establish what the keys are for the Raps on Sunday night.
1. Offensive Execution
With the Lakers putting so much emphasis on defense the Raps are going to need to be razor sharp with their offensive sets. The ball is going to need to be in constant motion and there’s a lot of pressure on Calderon to create easy looks for teammates. If the Raps become stagnant on offense then it might not be pretty. The Raps are also going to have to hit a high percentage of their jump shots to beat the Lakers. If JO is still on the shelf the Raps are undersized against the liked of Bynum, Gasol, Odom etc. and it may be tough to get much production in the paint. The extra swing pass could go a long way.
2. Match The Lakers Bench Play
The reality is the Lakers are a much better team than the Raptors so in order to make this a game the likes of Kapono, Graham and Humphries will all need solid performances. The Raps don’t have the luxury of a Lamar Odom off the bench and will need a collective effort to ensure the game doesn’t escape from their grasp during the early and fourth quarters.
3. Keep Bringing the Effort on Defense
I for one think you will get a sense of whether this will be a game right from the opening tip. If the Raps bring a defensive effort like they did against the Hawks then they have a fighting chance. If not then it spells trouble. It could either be a really late Sunday or nice night’s sleep to ease into the week ahead.