Raptors Regroup, Focus on Defense – And An Honourable Mention…

Sports fans! For those returning to campus from co-op, welcome back to another term of sports coverage. To kick off this terms’ Benchwarmer Report, the Raptors are well on their way to another playoff clash with the Eastern Conference Titans, the Cleveland (LeBron) Cavaliers. However, before getting into that, the Canadian World Junior Hockey team deserves at the very least an honourable mention, if not an entire article.

This year’s IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship returned to Toronto in Montreal, after being held in Helsinki, Finland last year, where the Canadians had a disappointing sixth place finish. In 2015 at the ACC in Toronto, Connor McDavid et. al. took gold in a breathtaking final featuring an epic Canada-Russia rivalry matchup for World Junior Hockey supremacy. The excitement this year was no different, as the Canadians dropped only one game in the preliminary around, on New Year’s Eve against Team USA. Despite strong tournaments from fellow powerhouses Sweden and Russia, the battle of North America would resume in the final. Led by stellar performances from defencemen and Senators draft pick Thomas Chabot (tournament MVP), goaltender Carter Hart and “third-line” centre Anthony Cirelli, the Canadians mounted a true team effort with a roster that may have otherwise featured superstar talent in the form of Connor McDavid. However, the gold would prove elusive this time around, as USA forward Troy Terry came gave his team a shootout victory for the second straight night.

With that, we return to the scheduled programming for this issue. It’s been a great first half of the season for the Toronto Raptors, who currently sit 2nd in the Eastern Conference, a mere 3 games back of the Cavs. Behind superstar-pedigree play from shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors have lost only 13 games this season—credit powerhouses Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio and 3-point dynamo Houston for six of them. Overall, not bad, but this stat does reveal some pressing issues for the Raptors down the stretch if they are going to compete with the big boys.

Those that have read my commentary before will certainly guess the most critical issue: DEFENSE. The Raptors were an offensive machine in December, averaging well over 100 points in many games. While it’s nice that their elite scoring seems to be “carrying” them at the moment (and it sure makes for exciting basketball), it simply will not work without defense come playoff time. If you want to compete against teams like Golden State, you’ve got to limit their every possession because most of the time, these guys find one way or another to sink a basket—or get a foul call trying. Boxing out the man under the rim and limiting second-chance opportunities is another critical element, an area where the Raptors have struggled considerably, though big man Lucas Nogeira has proven himself as a reasonably dangerous shot blocker. Defending the three is also going to become crucial down the stretch, as the NBA seems to have shifted to a jaw-droppingly high rate of three-pointers taken per game.

Speaking of the three-game, it has given the Atlantic Division rival Boston Celtics a huge boost of late, who are right on the heels of the Raptors in the standings. The Raptors recently beat the Celts at the ACC, but only took care of business in the fourth quarter when (you guessed it) they played some defense. Prior to that loss, the Celts had won five in a row. Look out!

Nevertheless, the Raptors have shown flashes of defensive prowess, particularly Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell, and defensive specialist DeMarre Carroll. Their agility and overall ability to force opponents to turn the ball over gives the Raptors the chance to literally run their opponents off the court. It would be nice to see a bit more of the fast break, since elite teams’ defense can be so tough to break through, particularly on the road.

Going forward, the Raptors need to continue to listen to coach Dwane Casey’s defense-first strategies and follow them to the letter. Then, and only then, will they be able to truly compete with NBA’s elite.

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