Thursday afternoon's practice had a training camp feel to it for the Toronto Raptors
For the first time in ages, the Raptors had everyone back healthy and participating in team activities. It was a wonderful sight for Raptors coach Nick Nurse who was finally able to form multiple groups to run through each workout activity.
These are the things the Raptors have been lacking for so long. Of their 40 games this season, only 14 have been with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Norman Powell healthy at tipoff. It's forced Nurse to run out 16 different starting lineups this year.
"We were just trying to get everybody back and it almost feels like we're going back to trying to build the foundational parts of the things," Nurse said after Thursday's practice. "It's nice to have everybody out there."
The problem for Toronto is it's mid-March and they're over half way through this truncated 72-game season. The Raptors are sitting at 17-23, six games below .500, and they can't be starting over with the basics as if it were the start of the season. The games, as Nurse acknowledged Thursday, just keep coming and nobody is going to wait for the Raptors to figure things out.
So what now? Well, Nurse said the team has a lot of work to do. After being one of the NBA's best defensive teams last season, the Raptors have fallen off precipitously this season and, knowing Nurse, that isn't going to cut it.
“The bad news is there are a lot of things. OK. That’s the bad news," he said. "We’ve got to get our defence set better. We are doing a really poor job in transition, really poor job when we’ve been as good as anybody in the league at that as a focus."
Nurse is right. When the Raptors have been at their best they've been one of the NBA's best transition teams on both ends of the court. Last season they ranked fourth in the league transition defence, according to Cleaning the Glass, and in 2018-19 they ranked tenth. This year, Toronto's transition defence hasn't just been bad, it's been horrific. The Raptors rank dead last in the NBA in transition defence, per Cleaning the Glass.
Some of that drop off might just be an effort thing and not hustling back in transition, but most of it is just due to miscommunications and people picking up the wrong assignments in transition.
On that last play, Norman Powell rotates over to the weak side — away from the ball — to cover Jerami Grant, leaving three Raptors defenders covering two Pistons players while the ball is left virtually undefended.
"There are 20 points of getting back better," Nurse said. "You can take off the board 20 [points]. You can’t take them all [off], but you can take — I showed them the clips. Do this better, do this better, do that better and we got our defence set and it’s off the board."
Then there's the defensive rebounding issue that has plagued Toronto all season. The Raptors rank 29th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. Opposing teams are grabbing 27.5% of their offensive misses against Toronto forcing the Raptors to continue defending possessions over and over and over again.
"There’s 25 [points opposing teams are scoring] on second shots," Nurse said.
When you boil it down, Nurse said the issues are really just the start of possessions, i.e. getting back in transition, and the end of possesions, i.e. defensive rebounding. In the middle, he said things aren't too bad. The team actually defends pretty well in the half court and the Raptors can hold their own when they're set on first-chance opportunities. They rank seventh in the league in half-court defence this season, allowing just 94.6 points per 100 half-court possession, per Cleaning the Glass. It's just the other things that are killing Toronto right now.
"We’ll get there. We have already done it with this team this year and we have done it at super high levels [in the past]," Nurse said. "We’ll get there if we can just keep everyone on the floor for a little bit. Get to the practice gym a little bit. Get to the ballroom a little bit. I think everybody is committed and focused to try and get back our foundational principles here as quickly as possible."
If this were three months ago it wouldn't be much of a problem if the Raptors were still working out some early season kinks. But Toronto has lost its wiggle room for error. Those final 32 games, as Nurse said, are coming quick and the Raptors better get things sorted out in a hurry.