The one thing that makes the Toronto Raptors' defence so special is its inconsistency.
On any given night the Raptors are liable to throw dozens of different looks at opposing teams. It's not so much inconsistent between good and bad — though that has been a problem for Toronto at times — it's more about how variable and adaptable the Raptors' defence is. One night they'll play straight man defence for most of the game. The next night they'll run their famous box-and-one or blitz pick-and-rolls and double team all night to slow down a superstar. It's why they've been so successful at times this season holding superstars like Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic in the check.
"We obviously were mixing up up a lot of coverages," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said following the team's 116-93 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.
For the second year in a row, the Raptors were able to frustrate Doncic by swarming him whenever he got the ball. It started in the backcourt usually with Stanley Johnson picking him up as soon as the Slovenian superstar touched the ball. Once he crossed half court, the Raptors defensive games began.
"I think we worked hard, first of all, to limit his touches," Nurse said. "We did do some blitz and again, when he did have it to take it out of his hands, you know again just probably less opportunities down there and then [we] probably did a decent enough job when he did get down there to, to kind of move multiple bodies in front so he's not in the pump fake one on one scenario and he kicked it out a lot, which is what we wanted to do."
On the surface, Johnson deserved a lot of credit for frustrating Doncic. It got to the point midway through the fourth quarter that Doncic was so annoyed that he swung an elbow into Johnson's chest, strangely leading to a technical foul on Fred VanVleet.
"I’ve got hit harder before," Johnson joked. "We’re playing basketball. We’re not gonna like give each other hugs. He got me. It didn’t hurt."
But Johnson's defence was more than just frustrating for Doncic. He defended the Mavericks star for nearly four minutes over 13.07 partial possessions, according to NBA Stats, and didn't give up a single point. Johnson, however, repeatedly refused to take credit for slowing Doncic down.
"The fact that you guys thinking I'm probably guarding anybody by myself is a good thing because it's far from the truth," he said. "We play some of the best team defense I've been around in my career so far. So it's pretty easy when you go out there and you playing one guy with five guys."
That's both what makes Toronto's defence so special and why it struggled to start the season. When it's at its best, the Raptors' defence is five guys playing as one. It moves like a sea anemone, shifting back and forth from side to side as the ball moves around the court.
"I think for us it’s flying around, helping each other, contesting, fly bys and different things we do that maybe a lot of other teams don’t," Pascal Siakam said.
When the Raptors are on, they're elite, but if one player has a misstep, miscommunicates, or doesn't know what he's doing out there, the whole creature dies.
That's why Nurse cares so much about what his rotation does on the defensive end. He's OK with an off shooting night, but if you can't hold your own on the defensive end, you can't play. Put simply, you're hurting the team.
"If anybody watched last year me trying to figure out the system, it was pretty bad to start off with," said Johnson who averaged just six minutes played in 25 games last season.
This year Johnson has figured out Toronto's defence. He's gone from being a liability on the floor to the kind of versatile defensive-first wing Nurse loves.
"It’s complicated, but it’s something you can learn," Johnson said of Toronto's defensive schemes. "It takes reps. It takes time. I’ve been here over a year and a half and I just got it."
Considering how much turnover the Raptors had this offseason with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka heading west, it's understandable that it took some time for Toronto to find its footing this season. None of the new guys has really become a defensive difference-maker for Toronto the way the front office surely had hoped. Instead, it's been the holdovers that have shown development. But eventually, some of those new players will get the hang of things and when they do, Toronto should have even more depth to pull from.