Can the new acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker provide defensive potential Raptors have desperately needed?
On Feb. 1, Isaiah Thomas continued his stretch of torching teams by lighting up the Raptors en route to a 101-94 Celtics win. The win gave the Celtics a half-game lead to take over second place in the Eastern Conference, a spot which they have yet to concede. Thomas’ counterpart Kyle Lowry was no slouch either; putting up 32 points on 20 shots and matching Thomas shot-for-shot until the final two minutes,
Eleven days later, the Raptors blew a sixteen-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Pistons. It was their tenth loss in the last 14 games, and Kyle Lowry voiced his frustration, saying that “something’s gotta change,” in the post-game interview. The change that Lowry was hinting at was help on the defensive end.
Even at the beginning of the season when their offense was performing at a historic level, the Raptors still had glaring defensive issues. Their 2017 slump magnified the issue, and the team ranked 17th in defensive efficiency heading into the All-Star break.
Enter the help: Masai Ujiri miraculously swung two deals that would immediately address the issues in the form of Serge Ibaka from the Magic, and PJ Tucker from the Suns. Ibaka addresses rim protection issues by virtue of being one of the best shot blockers in the NBA (11th in both blocks and block percentage), and PJ Tucker is known league-wide for his tenacious defense. In a Jan. 22 loss to the Suns, Tucker frustrated (and injured) DeRozan; holding him to a 6-17 night from the field.
On Feb. 24, the Lowry-less Raptors inserted their two new acquisitions against the Celtics. Despite the lack of familiarity, the Raptors overcame a 17-point deficit to win by 10. The most notable difference was the play of Isaiah Thomas who was held 1-6 shooting in the final quarter. With Lowry out, the Raptors gave Cory Joseph the responsibility of guarding Thomas. Joseph did a tremendous job of bothering Thomas, forcing him to make poor decisions out of the pick-and-roll. Here’s an example from this Feb. 24:
And here’s an example from Feb. 1:
In the game earlier this month, Joseph was matched up on Thomas for a few minutes before Casey made the switch to Powell (which made little difference). The one major difference in the first clip is that Ibaka as the roll defender (instead of Valanciunas) who shows up to discourage Thomas from a drive. Joseph closes out quick enough to force Thomas into an ill-advised pass, before the disoriented possession ends in a turnover.
Tucker’s defensive toughness is something the Raptors have desperately needed ever since their 2014 playoff run. His mobility gives the Raptors the option to switch and allow Tucker to guard shifty guards like on this play:
Even though it was their first game together, the lineup that featured Ibaka, Tucker, and Joseph was able to communicate on switches and guard screens much more effectively than in their last meeting. These two plays show the difference:
On the first play, Lowry and Joseph get confused on a simple switch which allows Thomas to get a wide open look. On the second, Thomas is sent through an off-ball screen and a hand-off, in which Joseph stays tight to the ball handler, while Ibaka and Tucker switch their matchup. Seeing the mismatch, Thomas recognizes and dishes to Crowder, but Ibaka’s mobility allows him to close out and inhibit the shot, while Tucker holds his own in the post against Horford. The Celtics do not end up utilizing either mismatch, and Thomas ends up jacking a contested three late in the shot clock. It wasn’t a perfect sequence—Crowder had room to take the three, and Horford had a height advantage close to the basket, but the mere presence of Tucker and Ibaka caused enough indecision to force a bad shot. This was the case for many of the fourth quarter possessions that saw the Celtics shoot 7-19:
In one of the game’s marquee possessions, Ibaka is able to stay with Thomas until a switch, and Tucker forces Thomas to pick up the ball with an effective stunt, all culminating in a badly missed layup.
The addition of Tucker and Ibaka created a defensive edge in Toronto that was able to shut down the league’s top fourth-quarter scorer in their first game. With Lowry now out until the playoffs, an even greater emphasis will be placed on slowing down the pace, and winning games by making big defensive stops. If the Raptors can consistently defend the way they did on Friday night, they will provide a unique challenge to the Cavaliers if they cross paths in the playoffs.
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