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Stopping Bigs May Come at Big Price for Raptors this Year

The Toronto Raptors are going to have to send help against bigs like Joel Embiid this season, but it's an aggressive strategy that could prove costly
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The Toronto Raptors have always made life miserable for Joel Embiid. They’ve traditionally played him more aggressively than any other team in the league, sending double and occasionally triple teams his way the moment he touches the ball anywhere near to the hoop. It’s been part of Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s strategy for stopping Embiid ever since Game 3 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semi-finals, the so-called “airplane game.”

“Embiid wants to roll and create havoc and we’re not going to let him,” Nurse recalled telling his team in his book Rapture. “In this first stretch of the game, I don’t care what he does. I don’t care what the rest of their guys do. I just want us to keep Embiid quiet”

In the past, Toronto has had a big like Marc Gasol, Jonas Valanciunas, or even Aron Baynes who could single-handedly frustrate Embiid. Sending pressure his way was just an added irritant meant to pester him early in games.

This season, though, without a traditional big who can man up against Embiid, that extra help isn’t just a luxury, it’s going to make-or-break Toronto’s small-ball philosophy.

While Nurse wasn’t going to reveal any of his complex Embiid-stopping strategies in Thursday night’s preseason game, there’s no doubt the Raptors are going to continue sending pressure his way when the regular season rolls around. Every time he touched the ball inside the arc, Toronto’s entire defense was on red alert. If he was anywhere close to the basket or picked up his dribble, there was a second defender beelining over in support.

Against Embiid, it worked relatively well. He shot 4-for-10 from the field and scored 10 points in his almost 20 minutes of action. The problem, however, was everyone else.

Whenever the double team came Embiid or whoever had the ball inside just made the easy kick-out pass, sending the Raptors in rotation. Traditionally, Toronto has been very good in rotation, staying poised as they chase around open shooters. That was not the case on Thursday. The 76ers shot 18-for-37 from behind the arc in the second preseason game and six of those three-pointers came immediately following a Raptors double team inside.

For now, that’s OK. It’s preseason and most of Toronto’s young roster is still trying to learn the defensive schemes. That’s not to mention both Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher are out for the preseason with various injuries are two of Toronto’s best close-out defenders. But if this small-ball strategy is going to work this year, the Raptors roster better be ready to help inside and recover in a hurry.

Further Reading

Takeaways from Raptors 125-113 loss to red-hot 76ers

Raptors' depth has shown fight with rotation spots still up for grabs

Picking Toronto was a 'no-brainer' for Justin Champagnie and it's easy to see why