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The Raptors’ improvement on defense starts at the switch

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After falling just short against the Warriors, let’s recall the successes the Raptors found on defense when the game’s intensity went up.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of this season’s “culture reset,” the Raptors have noticeably increased their switching on defense. It helps when you’ve got versatility in the lineup, as the young Raptors bench mob has the necessary length and agility to hold their own in plenty match-ups thrown their way.

So far through just over half the season, the Raptors are the fourth-ranked defense in the league, with a rating of 103.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. On Saturday against the Warriors, the effectiveness of their defensive scheme was a tale of two halves.

With length at every position, the Warriors throw everything and the kitchen sink at teams. Often, they run off-ball screen action that will anticipate a switch and put the screener in good position to receive a pass, rolling to the basket  —  like in this early second quarter play for Draymond Green (with a beautiful pass from David West).

The Warriors have some of the smartest off-ball players in the league and with everyone always on the move, they can look to create that split-second advantage. Switching on a screen is a communicative process and lapses in that communication can come back to haunt you.

Here however, Jakob Poeltl bailed his teammates out. With three minutes left in the first quarter, he slid over and blocked Patrick McCaw’s wide-open dunk attempt.

As McCaw screens Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles switches onto Steph Curry. Missing that necessary communication, VanVleet also sticks with Curry, giving McCaw a great angle and an easy cut to the basket. Then, of course, Jakob Poeltl stepped in and the rest of that play is history.

The defensive intensity and communication felt absent in the first 24 minutes and by the end of the first half, Raptors fans might have been ready to turn the television off. 81 points is not a fun number in Raptors history.

However, the intensity and talking that once appeared to be lacking showed up in the second half in a big way. It’s been indicative of the types of games the Raptors can play when they’re in sync on defense.

It can be tough to stop the vast number of options the Warriors have. If you stop Kevin Durant or Curry, well, Klay Thompson and Green await. The task at hand becomes to force tough looks and make these All-Stars’ lives miserable.

Durant, one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA, happens to be a 7-footer — intensifying the need for a similarly long defender to keep with him. Those types of defenders don’t grow on trees, however, and the Raptors’ constant switching — and versatile defenders like OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — allows for sound defensive players to disrupt Durant’s flow.

On Saturday, OG Anunoby took the bulk of that task, with the prominent bench turn being handed to Pascal Siakam. The two have what ESPN’s Jay Bilas likes to call, you know, “wingspan.” Both did an admirable job.

Of course, Durant’s own positional flexibility meant that the length up and down the lineup was needed to keep him at bay.

In one instance, with the Warriors working to get Durant a height advantage, an off-ball screen set by Curry forces Anunoby and Delon Wright to switch. As Raptors fans know, Wright, the point guard, is no slouch in the height department himself. Capably, he bodies up Durant, contesting a shot and forcing a miss.

The defensive intensity ratcheted up in the second half on the turnover end, as well. The Warriors don’t make many mistakes, but you can force their hand by playing them tightly. After being forced to switch onto the larger Thompson, VanVleet plays pest here and steals the ball away in the early fourth quarter.

Given his height, VanVleet is often switched onto taller (and bigger) opponents. Much like Kyle Lowry, he makes up for it with a relentless energy and strong defensive instincts.

It’s right to say that there are no moral victories in the NBA. However, it’s worth commending the relentless nature of this Raptors team. Knock them down and they’ll get back up. Ultimately, it’s hard to lose by having too much heart in NBA.

To run with the high-powered offenses the NBA now has to offer, Toronto needs to match it with a defensive identity — including switching, communication, and versatility — and intensity to match. That the Raptors can play a second half like they did against the Warriors, and make a game of it, suggests they continue to move in the right direction as a team.