The Raptors' bench has been laying waste to opponents over the course of the last month or so. After using the first part of the season to coalesce and find its form, the four-man bench rotation of Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo has established itself as a cohesive unit, every member of which brings a skill set that complements his floor mates beautifully.
Cory Joseph is a tremendous driver, who when not getting to the rim for crafty lay-ups is dishing to Patterson and Ross for spot-up looks; shots they were both missing early on before finding their respective grooves in recent weeks. Providing the defensive foundation is Biyombo, who's offense is still far from reliable with the ball in his hands, but has been more passable than most people expected when he was brought in after being cast aside by Charlotte.
Part of the success of that unit is of course the fact that it's usually spearheaded by one of Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan. The "Lowry plus the bench guys" combo has been particularly devastating. In 136 minutes together (the third most of any Raptors lineup), that five man group has rolled to a +34.3 NET Rating, allowing just 79.2 points per 100 possessions. Those gaudy numbers are of course being buoyed by that fivesome feasting largely on second units, but it's been impressive nonetheless.
It used to be that Ross was never associated with strong defensive lineups. And at times when his shot hasn't been falling, he's been nearly unplayable due to his absent-minded tendencies. On a 2014-15 team littered with defensively liabilities like Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and a still-learning Jonas Valanciunas, it was Ross who was the iffiest defender of them all. He sported a team-worst 107.7 Defensive Rating last year - a full two points per 100 possessions more inept than any other regular.
The exact opposite has been true this year. Going into Thursday's game in Portland, Ross was leading the team with a 96.9 DRtg, tops on the team. Even more encouraging: the Raptors defense is 7.1 points-per-100 better with Ross on the court than off - the second highest differential on the team behind Joseph (8.9). Even on nights when he can't get his scoring mojo going, he's not out of place on the court.
So what's changed for Ross this season? We know he's always had the physical tools to be a defensive ace. But something's clicked this season that has helped him lock guys down at a level he was never able to reach as a starter.
Assistant coach Rex Kalamian might have something to do with it. Chris O'Leary of the Toronto Star outlined how the former Thunder assistant has helped mold Ross in his fourth season. Here's a snippet from Kalamian himself:
"I keep telling him, ‘You’ve got so much potential that you’re not even getting into the game yet. Keep working, keep getting better. This level you’re at now is who you are and who you will be for a long period of time until you make your next jump.’ " ..."I want to see special defence two times a game. A great block from behind, a passing lane, a steal that turns into a dunk, ripping your man off the dribble, something that’s really special. If you can give us two plays like that, eventually it’s going to end up being four and then we’re going to ask for six."
Those outstanding defensive moments have definitely been there. We've seen him recover and chase down guys for massive crunch time blocks:
On top of plays like that one, Ross is hawking steals more than he ever has on a per-36 minute basis (1.3 this year up from 0.9 last year) - including four steals against the Clippers a couple weeks ago. For the most part, he's been living up to Kalamian's expectations.
But it's not just the stand-out plays that Ross has been churning out with regularity. Ross has always sprinkled in those instances of brilliance, and there are plenty of hyper-athletic, porous defenders who gamble and exhibit similar plays from time to time. The real difference for Ross this year has been his enhanced focus on the nuances of sound defense, like understand angles, making smart rotations and, well ... trying hard.
The main quibble with Ross' play during his first three seasons was his lack of attentiveness and focus. Too often he seemed to lazily drift through games, making it too easy for his man to blow past him or get open off the ball. Those space-headed defensive breakdowns are so much more annoying coming from a guy like Ross than, say, Luis Scola, because Ross' defensive ceiling seems so limitless when everything is clicking in unison for him.
Lately, those brain farts have been limited and Ross truly seems locked in, focusing on the tiny, barely noticeable things that translate into a strong team defender.
First, watch him not get crossed up by the Marcus Morris screen, briefly switch onto Brandon Jennings to give Joseph time to catch up, and then soar back over to Morris in time to be in perfect position when Morris tries to go to work in the post:
This next play is ever so subtle, but it's the kind of extra step that a more listless version of Ross may not even think to take. Watch how he angles his body just enough to dissuade Jennings from passing to Morris, limiting the options available to him:
These are minuscule additions to Ross' game, and it's just two examples from one game, but they illustrate Ross' renewed commitment to playing full-assed defense. Next time you tune into the Raptors, watch him closely. There's no more standing around or getting lost in the complexity of opposing team's actions.
Kalamian may be looking for multiple examples of eye-catching defensive prowess from Ross each night, but even if he can't produce them, the Raptors' assistant coach can rest assured that Ross is making a defensive impact with his more more cerebral and focused approach to stopping opponents.
What have you guys thought of Terrence's defense during the Rossurgence? I'm not sorry.