Before Thursday’s trade deadline, DeMarre Carroll held the mantle as the toughest dude in the Raptors locker room. This is the guy who defended LeBron James on one working leg in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals; the guy who has overcome personal tragedy, a rare liver disease and life as an NBA journeyman; the guy whose reputation for tenacity earned him $60 million from the Raptors in the summer of 2015.
If Friday’s 107-97 win over Boston is any indication, Carroll has challengers now. Toronto’s two deadline additions — P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka — instantly leveled up the Raptors’ grit quotient in their respective debuts, flashing all kinds of traits that would leave stars from the nineties salivating.
Basketball analysis has evolved, of course. We have better ways of understanding the impact of players than to simply point to surface-level tropes like toughness or leadership as reasons for a player’s success. Intangibles are great and all, but if they don’t come along with a clean shot chart, how much can they really affect winning?
Based on what took place Friday night, it’s possible the answer is: a lot.
Dwane Casey maintained his fatherly composure after Friday’s comeback win, but you could sense his jittery excitement in talking about the incalculable contributions of his two new players.
“I expected that type of physical play, and that’s what this league is about. The way we competed down the stretch with that group (Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Tucker-Ibaka), that’s the physicality we gotta play with against a very high powered offensive team like Boston. It’s not a finesse game, it’s not pretty ... nothing but grit, and grime and hard work and want-to was what that was about.”
From a strictly analytical perspective, the Raptors did not maximize their odds of winning Friday’s game. Without Kyle Lowry due to a fishy wrist injury, the Raptors were starved of reliable shooting for most of the night. Their 15 three-point attempts on the night were a season-low, and DeMar DeRozan dominated the offense with isolation plays and mid-range jump shots. Toronto’s shot chart on Friday could be considered as an affront to the Houston Rockets’ way of life.
Boston meanwhile jacked up 38 threes of their own. On a night where the Celtics attempted only three fewer field goals than the Raptors, the law of averages dictated that Boston probably should have come away with a victory.
Tucker bringing an extra ounce of give-a-shit was one of the keys that helped the Raptors mitigate the math problem. Tucker radiates nastiness without applying it to goonery. On Friday night, Tucker’s intangible qualities undeniably produced results. He scooped up a team-leading 10 rebounds against the Celtics, half of which were of the hotly contested variety. While most of the Raptors’ wings collect steals by jumping passing lanes, Tucker takes the more direct approach of ripping the ball from opponents’ hands. James Young and Isaiah Thomas can both attest.
It would be presumptive to assume that Tucker’s level of hustle in grabbing boards or defending is a transferable quality that seeps into his teammates. There’s simply no way to quantify how one player’s actions might influence another’s. But the Raptors had an air of forcefulness on defense against Boston that has been rarely been caught on camera this season.
Cory Joseph, for example, had his signature game of the season with Lowry sidelined. Isaiah Thomas has baffled opponents all season, particularly in crunch time. But on Friday, Joseph (with the help of Tucker and others) limited Thomas to just 20 points on 6-of-17 shooting, showing off why he garnered “best backup in the league” consideration last season in the process:
Thomas managed just four points on six shots in the fourth. All Al Horford could do after the game was offer praise for the job Joseph and the Raptors did on Thomas.
Horford said he thinks the Raptors defended Thomas better in the fourth quarter tonight than anyone else has.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) February 25, 2017
Toronto surrendered a Defensive Rating of 104.7 against the Celtics; in the 19 minutes Tucker, Joseph and Ibaka shared the floor, that number dropped to 76.9.
Limiting the number of points per possession allowed is the mission statement for every defense. The calculus behind what contributes to that tidy number in a column at game’s end, however, is complex. A coaches defensive scheme adhering to his player’s strength’s is crucial of course, as is a keen awareness of when opposing players sneak in to areas of maximum efficiency on the court. Open corner threes are death.
There’s no precision in figuring out how much elements like communication and toughness factor into the defensive equation. But denying their importance is to willfully shut off one half of your basketball brain. For Tucker, the secret to defense is simple.
“I talk too much,” said Tucker after his strong debut showing. ”Defence is half talking. Serge talks. DeMarre talks. DeMar doesn’t talk as much, but I got him talking a little bit.
“The more he starts talking, his defense will be a little bit better once he gets comfortable with it. Half of it is talking, communicating. We had a couple mistakes early on when they went on that run. And I think in that second half, we kind of cleaned it up and started to feel each other out.”
There’s another one of those intangible qualities — Tucker, on his first day in town, felt at liberty to point out a weakness in DeRozan’s defensive game. Who’s to say if it will result in DeRozan improving from paltry to adequate on defense. Role players holding stars accountable is refreshing, though.
Discussions about toughness in the NBA are too often boiled down to simplistic, machismo-laden appendage-measuring contests. There’s room for nuance. Being tough doesn’t have to equate to recklessly throwing elbows and getting into scuffles. On the other hand, just because we can’t quantify the effect of a little sandpaper doesn’t mean we can’t assess how it translates into on-court success.
For the undermanned Raptors on Friday, that greasy edge might have been the difference between sitting five games behind Boston for the two-seed, or three back with the season series tiebreaker in hand. Based on the comments of Casey and their new teammates, guys like Tucker and Ibaka led the way with their Memphis Grizzlies-inspired grit.
“They’re defensive minded, unselfish guys,” said Carroll. ‘“They don’t care about getting shots, scoring the ball. They just care about getting out there and doing their job and trying to help this team win.”
If Lowry’s wrist injury turns into a long-term concern, the Raptors are going to find themselves confronted with the same analytical predicament they ran into on Friday. Upholding an efficient offense without its best shooter and playmaker could prove difficult. Non-Boston teams might have the horses to better contain DeRozan’s drives to the rim. Norman Powell still looks uncomfortable as the focal point of reserve units.
Should the Lowry-less offense sputter, the Raptors are better equipped to handle it now than they were two weeks ago. The pieces are in place for defense to be this team’s calling card until Lowry is healthy and beyond.
At the very least, the new additions vault the Raptors near the top of the league’s “Do Not Trifle With” power rankings.
“Sometimes we gotta take a stand. We can’t just let teams rolls over on us, and we can’t let people think that we’re soft.”
Based on the new-look Raptors’ showing on Friday night, that’s not a problem this team will face anymore.