TORONTO – It’s funny how hats can change in the NBA – and reputations along with it.
The easy story when Nick Nurse was Dwane Casey's assistant coach for five seasons is that his thing was offence.
In the 2017-18 season, it was Nurse, who was perceived to be the architect of the makeover because the Raptors over-hauled their offensive approach. The Raptors ’three-point frequency had jumped from 30 per cent of their field goal attempts (21st in the NBA) to a more modern 39 per cent (fourth) in Casey’s last year in Toronto, among other developments.
Casey was the defensive guy, was the standard explanation and Nurse was the offence whisperer. There's a little bit of truth in everything, but what is evident is when Casey is out of the D-League to help Spruce up the Raptors analytically-pleasing shot spectrum (more threes; less contested long twos).
The Raptors championship was forged in part by Nurse's leadership and his team embracing a defense-first identity. And in the early days of their title defense, it’s Toronto’s defense that is closest to Nurse’s coaching heart.
’I'm pretty happy with how we're playing defense and how we're competing,” he said before his Raptors took over Casey’s Pistons for the fourth time since Casey was fired in the summer of 2018.
“I think we’re a good way to get away, but I think our defense is really good.”
It was certainly during the critical junctures of the Raptors ’125-113 Detroit Pistons – Nurse's first win over his former boss.
The overall numbers aren’t as flattering as Nurse would like – the Pistons shot 46.6 from the field and 14-of-30 from deep – but the Raptors were able to defend when they needed to. And the Raptors were able to score almost at will, as they shot 59.3 per cent from the floor and 13-of-27 from the arc.
Toronto took control of the game in the third quarter, holding Detroit to a fairly ordinary 45 per cent shooting while forcing seven turnovers. Those stops, and especially the turnovers, turned into some easy offence for the Raptors with no one benefitting more than Pascal Siakam, who scored 19 of his game-high 30 points in the third as the Raptors took a 16-point lead into the fourth . At that point, the Raptors ’defense got even tighter and the Raptors were able to extend their lead and hold the Pistons at arm’s length the rest of the way while improving to 4-1 on the year.
The Raptors ’emerging defensive identity is helped considerably by the rise of Siakam as a potent first-option scorer. His ability to guard multiple positions was supposedly going to be his ticket to regular NBA work, but he’s far surpassed that narrow job definition while maintaining his core defensive abilities.
His defensive effort hasn’t waned as his offensive responsibilities have ramped up.
The reality is there may be no limit to what Siakam can do. Coming into the game, he was shooting 42.9 per cent from three on 5.3 attempts per game – unheard-of numbers when he broke into the league under Casey. He hits another three triples on six attempts in front of his old coach Wednesday night.
“When he started for 38 games or something like that (as a rookie in 2015-16), he did a great job of learning, picking up; last Casey said before the game. “And it came because the young man worked. If any young men out there, you thereve got him as an example. Because he worked on his shooting, now he’s one of the top three-point shooting.
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But Siakam can guard, too, and the way he does. The way he does. The way he does. steals and countless other pressures while chipping in 13 points on 10 shots.
Certainly the Pistons were hampered offensively in that there were missing Blake Griffin (Hamstring), the gifted power forward who makes everything go for them, and Reggie Jackson, their starting point guard. In theory, those absences should have been allowed to assert themselves even more thoroughly.
There were certainly signs of that. The Raptors were able to build up an early 28-20 lead by a steal by Norm Powell that led to a score by Serge Ibaka, who continues to be a spark off the bench for the Raptors. A moment later, Anunoby – who's looking for an inch of an all-NBA defender in the early – blew up a Pistons' attempt at a dribble to a nine-point first quarter lead.
The defensive intensity slipped in a second quarter, in large measure because Pistons guard Derrick Rose – the 2011 NBA MVP, who has shaken off a career’s worth of injuries to turn into one of the league’s most dangerous bench scorers – got rolling.
The Raptors struggled to contain the ability to beat the first layer of defense and score at the rim or the paint on any variety of floaters and lay-ins. He scored 14 of 16 points in the first half and helped create space for Markieff Morris, who scored nine of his 16th in the second quarter, in which the Pistons outscored the Raptors 30-27 and shot 52.7 per cent.
Still, Toronto was able to take a 64-58 lead into Kyle Lowry chipped in with nine.
But their second-quarter slippage was uncharacteristic for Nurse’s Raptors, who came into the game ranked third in defensive efficiency, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions – impressive considering they allowed 106.8 points / 100 last season and 104.2 during the playoffs.
“That’s going to travel,” said Nurse. “And that’s going to keep you in a lot of games.”