The Raptors have survived a pretty rigorous schedule so far, and with some bumps and bruises, slumping shooters and a need to just become more familiar with each other, I would say they more than stayed afloat. There were losses, some hard to take, a couple hard to watch, but learning does come more from losing than winning.
What I think they might be learning the most, is what pace suits them best. They have started most of their games pushing the ball and the pace quite a lot. They enjoyed great success looking for early offense, and the early offense in return has brought nice dividends like more than just Bosh going to the free throw line, and a good number of assists piling up. That in itself should be enough to improve this team’s record over the past two seasons, but it hasn’t been quite as easy as that.
With the fast pace to start games, the team has quite often failed to run back the other direction well enough to defend any team capable of mounting their own attack in transition. This doesn’t always lead to quite the same offensive prowess the Raptors have demonstrated, but there are too many fouls given up, or second chance points allowed thanks to poor defensive positioning with defenders broken down before they can even get set, and scrambling rather than recovering.
So great offensive starts have brought only slim margins, and starts with poor shooting has brought big holes early, all thanks to poor transition defense which mucks up the whole idea of covering for one or two weaker defenders through solid team defense. If the team isn’t able to get set defensively, then they are generally in trouble. Mike Holmes would look at the whole concept of defending the “house” and just shake his head.
Then I look at what has generally transpired as games move along. The pace usually slows down some, with a little bit more reliance on isos and playmaking than attacking early in the shot clock. At the same time the defense is able to get back and get set and get some stops. Sometimes it appears to just be the result of better defenders being subbed in off the bench. But I think it’s more than that. They play at a less tiring pace and have more left in their legs and lungs to get back and put up some good resistance defending as a team. So whatever weaker defenders that might remain on the floor, are helped by more than just one or two stronger defenders coming into the game.
From there I noticed that third quarters have generally been complete opposites of the first quarters, with starters looking stiff and sluggish in both directions, and too much reliance on trying to grind it out with isos. You watch these guys motoring in the early minutes of games, and you can almost start to read gauges on each of them plummeting to E. That doesn’t leave much left to bring them home. In the early losses they just had nothing left at all, and their defense was miserable for a good three quarters. In some games the bench has helped to keep them competing to the end, and more recently they look like they could almost play complete games mixing up the pace and concentrating on getting back in transition. They’ve shown lately that they can have enough left to get stops at the end of games when it matters most. Some of that is probably due to finding a pace that uses up a little less energy early on, and some of it is likely due to getting into better and better gameshape as they push through a very tough early schedule.
Now I’m imagining how they might look once the schedule lightens up a bit, they get some hurt bodies feeling good, and they maintain the conditioning that is starting to show signs of developing. If this team can play at a high pace, and have enough left in the tank to get back and not get abused in transition, for a good part of every game, then they are going to start to see the kinds of results that I was hoping for. Barring that possibility for whatever reason, then they have to put more energy into defending in transition, than they do in pushing the ball up the court for early offense. That’s what worked for them pretty well in Phoenix, and it is also what they lacked in losses to teams that could exploit them otherwise. They are going to need to pick their spots to fire up the jets, and always leave themselves more than fumes to run back and work on D. It’s how they need to look for wins on the road, and likely what they will need to do come playoff time. In any case it is nice to see that they can play different styles, in high and low gears, and make the best use of the depth they have. They’ll give themselves a chance in every game if they can expend their energy properly: if they’ve learned anything so far, I would hope that is one of the big lessons. It has allowed an identity to take a shaky hold so far. I’ll be watching the speedometer and the fuel gauge to see how well that identity firms up from here. I’d love to see them rolling downhill by the time February arrives.