Raptors’ defensive plusses and minuses are evident in comeback win over Wizards

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TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors should be an awesome defensive team. They are built for it.

OG Anunoby is one of the best defenders in the league, especially on the perimeter. Dennis Schröder is not the biggest point guard, but he is annoying at the point of attack. Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam, with their length and speed, cover a lot of ground on the weak side. Jakob Poeltl isn’t an elite rim protector, but he is good enough to change some shots when things break down.

The Raptors’ floor is supposed to be set by the defence.

“If Scottie’s able to roam, and in kind of the Draymond Green situation in Golden State, it puts us in a spot where we have so much versatility defensively because Scottie’s so smart defensively IQ-wise,” veteran Garrett Temple said last week.

“(Anunoby’s defence) puts them in places to get creative defensively, cause more havoc — and that’s what they’re great at.”

Anunoby was missing on Monday after cutting his finger at home on Sunday, and you could tell. Anunoby sets the tone defensively; things can get only so bad when he is out there. Fortunately, they were playing the Washington Wizards, who submitted their “How to Blow a Game” performance art entry.

The Raptors cooked up some of their turnover-causing mayhem from a year ago to erase a 23-point lead, including a 16-point deficit in the third quarter, to record a 111-107 win. The Raptors finished the game on a 21-1 run in the final seven-plus minutes, a stretch that included five turnovers. The piece de resistance: Kyle Kuzma stepping out of bounds on a pivotal inbound play.

The Raptors deserve praise, with Barnes and Chris Boucher flying around the court to force turnovers by Washington. It wasn’t the desired road map to a win, head coach Darko Rajaković said.

“We fixed (our defence) at halftime. I talked to the players and I told them I don’t expect you to go out there and win the game, but I expect you to go out there and play with joy, play with fun and compete at a much higher level.

“We ended up winning the game tonight, but to be honest with you, I prefer not to dig up a hole of 19 points at halftime and then have to work double hard in the second half.”

It was bizarre, to the core. No Raptors starter hit a 3-pointer in the entire game, with the Raptors hitting just four in total. That was understandable, with the Raptors missing both Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr.

The defensive performance early on was less forgivable. The Wizards, who had the 19th-ranked offence coming into the game, scored on each of their first 11 possessions, save for one turnover.

There has been a desire to view Anunoby, Barnes and Siakam as elite defenders, but what Anunoby does is the most fundamentally essential part of the three. Maybe he’s not Jrue Holiday, but Anunoby is maybe the next-best “shutdown cornerback” in the NBA. Barnes and Siakam can make special plays, but usually away from the ball. Heading into the game, the Raptors were 10.5 points per 100 stingier with Anunoby on the floor compared to off. That’s notable because Anunoby tends to be on the floor against the opposition’s best players.

“We’re showing signs of greatness and we are also showing areas that we need to improve and get better,” Rajaković said before the game. “It really goes from game to game. I think our constant is that we’ve got to do a better job of protecting the paint. I think that on-ball defence a lot of times is very solid. … But I think overall, how do we protect the paint better? Because we’re not great at changing shots at the rim and blocking shots. So that’s why we got to do our work on the front end of all our defence.”

The Raptors’ offensive woes led to some easy Wizards buckets, but that excuses only some of it. The Raptors came in with the league’s eighth-best defence. There have been moments when they’ve looked better than that. There was some low-hanging fruit in terms of pure effort —  Barnes hanging around with his arms in the air while Bilal Coulibaly got his own offensive rebound, for example. This was not the Raptors at their sharpest. On one play, Tyus Jones crept open on the sideline and nobody bothered to challenge his floater. Another Jones 3 was uncontested when Barnes and Gradey Dick miscommunicated while recovering on a cross-court pass. They were also the victim of several back cuts.

However, there were some basic two-man action errors that shouldn’t have been so complicated. Poeltl had way too much space to cover too often, the sign of their individual defence faltering, after being good this year. Anunoby’s absence is obviously felt keenest there. Barnes looked poor defending guards, which was a theme last year.

Obviously, they still have their hair-on-fire defence in their back pocket.

“It says a lot about character,” Rajaković said after the game. “But also, we cannot talk about (character without talking about the) character in the first half, as well.”


• Boucher compared Siakam’s effort in this comeback to Kyle Lowry’s in the 30-point comeback against Dallas. Siakam had 39 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, and his mismatch on defense hunted the Wizards into oblivion.

It wasn’t quite the two-way performance that Lowry’s was, but he was unstoppable.

“Just looking at everyone’s body language, I just thought obviously you get down,” Siakam said. “You want to come back and it’s like every possession, it feels like it weighs a lot — like any mistake. And it’s like the crowd won’t help you either. It’s like, ‘Ooooohhh’ (when there is a mistake). And everything feels like you are getting stabbed every second, every time something (bad) happens. One thing I was trying to tell everyone is you can’t get everything back all at once.”

• In order to get the offence going, Rajaković went to a lineup featuring both Schröder and Malachi Flynn. You only have so many options when your only two proven shooters on the wing are out of the lineup.

It worked fine enough, despite some predictable rebounding issues. It was more a product of the Raptors’ lack of offensive firepower than anything else. Flynn did not have a perfect night, but he had some nice moments down the stretch. He also was only one of three Raptors to hit a 3.

• The Barnes-plus-bench lineups are just not working, in any form. There is only so much you can do to avoid them over the course of a game, but perhaps pairing him with Schröder while Siakam takes the bulk of the minutes without the starting point guard is wise. Obviously, not having Anunoby or Trent makes those lineups even less reliable.

• I feel like Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr., probably wasn’t thrilled when Kuzma ran down to him to try to get him to challenge an out-of-bounds call, while the Raptors were set to inbound the ball under Washington’s net. Not what you want as a coach, typically.

• I thought Dick passing up his first look at the rim might have cost the Raptors the best shot they would get on that possession. Instead, it might have been the prettiest possession they have had all year. Hell of a pass from Siakam. Dick also made a nice play to rebound one of Siakam’s missed free throws, helping the Raptors get two extra points at the end of the quarter.

“He’s such a live body out there,” Rajaković said.

• This, conversely, might have been the ugliest.

(Photo of Pascal Siakam and Kyle Kuzma: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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