• Toronto’s defensive execution and schemes were vital in the team’s championship run last season, and in the wake of major personnel changes the team is up to its old tricks.

    Thursday night’s tilt with the Rockets was their latest foray into NBA unorthodoxy, as they whipped out the tried-and-true box-and-one as well as some triangle-and-two zone defense, though their most notable departure from convention came in the form of aggressive doubling as soon as James Harden got the ball, with the defense morphing into different shapes behind the pressure.

    OG Anunoby was tasked with sticking to Harden all night, occasionally denying him so far out that the game was essentially played as a four-on-four for a few possessions. In the instances where Harden did get the ball, Fred VanVleet would run right over to force a pass. While that left the Rockets with four-on-three looks, it did accomplish Toronto’s main goal of preventing Harden from killing them singlehandedly.

    The gambit was simple. Force the ball out of Harden’s hands and make literally any of the other Rockets do literally anything that they don’t usually do. Make PJ Tucker put it on the floor. Make Clint Capela do something other than throw down lobs. Make Ben McLemore play like a primary scorer.

    With Anunoby and VanVleet playing the scheme diligently, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol were left to do the scrambling. There’s a fantastic blend of athleticism, savvy and basketball IQ in there, and not many teams have the players to execute such a calculating defensive strategy.

    You can see how effectively this staggered the Rockets early on, with Harden basically out of frame after getting rid of the ball, none of his teammates doing much to move, Capela forced to maneuver just a little bit and Gasol picking up an easy steal.

     

    Turning the Rockets into a team that would have to rely on ball movement would play into Toronto’s length and it resulted in 21 credited deflections for a team that averages 16.1 per game. Nick Nurse indicated that their internal count of the figure was much higher.

    They were able to funnel things away from Harden, and got the other Rockets way more involved than usual. Tucker has averaged 41.8 touches per game this season and got 65 on Thursday. Austin Rivers went from 30.5 to 48. Danuel House went from 31.4 to 42. McLemore went from 26.0 to 49, though that’s skewed by his much-larger-than-average workload to an extent. Notably, Russell Westbrook, who was not on his A-Game, racked up a staggering 106 touches, well up from his average of 75.8 per night.

    Although Harden was above his season average of 88.6 with 95 touches, most of those were passes. The Beard made 77 passes against the Raptors compared to his average of 49.6 per game.

    And yet, the Raptors lost. The Rockets hit 22 3-pointers and crushed Toronto on the offensive glass. NBA players should be able to make hay out of uneven numbers eventually, even if some of Houston’s output looked a little on the fluky side. Full marks to Houston for making all of the necessary adjustments.

    Even so, the Raptors had to know the perils of their choice going into the game. It was always possible that the Rockets would get hot. Maybe the Raptors felt it prudent to punt on rebounding since it was already an area of weakness to begin with if it meant slowing Harden. From Toronto’s perspective, the commitment to the plan was the most impressive part of the night.

    In the most basic sense, no, the strategy didn’t “work,” as a loss is a loss. On a more nuanced level, any team would probably love to see James Harden limited to 23 points on 11 field goals and 17 free throws in over 40 minutes of play. The Raptors executed properly and were beaten by the shots that they were more comfortable conceding. It’s not always about the wins and losses, especially when you’re on solid ground in the standings, and in a lot of ways it was an illuminating experience. Even in a loss, the Raptors learned a lot about a new way that they can not only play, but execute at a high level, and make adjustments from there.

    The real answer to the question of whether or not the strategy “worked” is another question: Would they play it out the same away next time? It’s hard to call for a total abandonment.

    The NBA is very much a copycat league, which is what makes the Raptors’ defensive adventures so interesting. It’s also not lost that Nurse is deemed “innovative” for simply not doing the same thing that everyone else is. The schemes are ruthless and opponents’ secondary players should be taking them as a major affront, but it’s a simple, educated bet that other teams won’t play as well running their own secondary actions.

    Nurse’s bag of tricks may be called “gimmicky,” but at the core these strategies are exceedingly simple. Most teams talk about taking away another team’s top options, and even if you account for Thursday as being the most ruthless of approaches, it’s clear that a lot of that ends up being more bark than bite. There are creative ways to attack that problem, but most teams trend more conservative in their decision making, and understandably so in a results-based business.

    In a macro sense, these choices shouldn’t be notable at all considering what they’re designed to do. It’s not so much defensive genius as it is pragmatic and aggressive decision making. More than anything else, it’s just refreshing to see something different. Being willing to try new things has made the Raptors stick out like a sore thumb, and so far the team should be happy with the results.

Fantasy News

  • Enes Kanter
    C, Boston Celtics

    Enes Kanter (right hip contusion) will not play against the Magic on Friday.

    Kanter, along with Jayson Tatum, limped off the court on Wednesday and did not return to the game. It seems like Kanter's injury was a bit more serious and he was seen limping as he left the stadium. Kanter had been clinging onto 12-team value by a thread, but take this a sign to move on from him and add any hot, low-end big man, such as Ivica Zubac, Jerami Grant or teammate Daniel Theis, who should produce top solid top-100 value as the lone viable center on the roster.

    Source: Boston Celtics on Twitter

  • Jayson Tatum
    SF, Boston Celtics

    Jayson Tatum (right groin strain) has avoided major injury and is being listed as questionable for Friday's game against the Magic.

    Tatum injured his groin on Wednesday and did not return to the game. As with any soft tissue injury, short return-to-play timetables can be a relief, but they can also place a player in position to reaggravate the original strain. Check back in before game time on Friday, but we wouldn't be surprised to see the Celtics hold their star forward out at least one game.

    Source: Boston Celtics on Twitter

  • Jaylen Brown
    SG, Boston Celtics

    Jaylen Brown (right ankle sprain) is being listed as questionable for Friday's game versus the Magic.

    Just as expected, Brown's absence won't be a long one. He's picked up a few injuries to his ankle and thumb since returning from an illness, so 2020 hasn't gotten off to a great start for Brown. With the Celtics nearing full health, don't expect the same statlines he was putting up about a month ago, but Brown's proven that his early-career statistical inadequacy is a thing of the past. Of course, he's still no dynamo, but he should be able to cruise as a top-60 or so asset moving forward. Check back in before game time tomorrow.

    Source: Boston Celtics on Twitter

  • Cameron Johnson
    SF, Phoenix Suns

    Cameron Johnson (right quad contusion) is considered uncertain for Friday's game against the Grizzlies.

    Johnson is only a 3-point specialist at this moment in time but could find himself in a more significant role if the Suns decide to be sellers at the trade deadline. Keep an eye on the situation in the coming weeks.

    Source: Gina Mizell on Twitter

  • Aron Baynes
    C, Phoenix Suns

    Aron Baynes (left hip soreness) is being listed as uncertain for Friday's game against the Spurs.

    Coach Monty Williams added that he is hopeful to have the big man back. The Suns' experiment of trying Deandre Ayton at PF next to Baynes didn't pan out as hoped, and the big man has returned to being a role player off the bench when healthy. While the team isn't actively shopping Baynes, he is a name that will be floating around for teams looking to acquire size.

    Source: Gina Mizell on Twitter

  • Tim Frazier
    PG, Detroit Pistons

    Tim Frazier (illness) is expected to play against the Grizzlies on Friday.

    With Reggie Jackson re-entering the guard rotation, Frazier's minimal role will take an even bigger hit. He is not on the fantasy radar.

    Source: Keoth Langlois on Twitter

  • Bruce Brown
    SG, Detroit Pistons

    Bruce Brown Jr. is expected to return to the lineup for Friday's game against the Grizzlies.

    Brown missed Wednesday's game with the illness, which coincided with Reggie Jackson returning to the lineup. Jackson went off for 22 points in limited minutes, and the roles and usage od the Pistons backcourt is something to monitor closely moving forward.

    Source: Keith Langlois on Twitter

  • Andre Drummond
    C, Detroit Pistons

    Andre Drummond (lip) is expected to play against the Grizzlies on Friday after missing Wednesday's game.

    Drummond will wind up missing one game after losing a tooth on Monday, and he should resume his usual dominance in the paint in this one. Drummond is a top-10/5 player in 9/8 cat leagues on the season, but that drops to top-50/30 over the past month as his name has been swirling in trade rumors. A change of scenery may be the recipe to get Drummond over the recent slump.

    Source: Keith Langlois on Twitter

  • Ivica Zubac
    C, Los Angeles Clippers

    Marc Stein of The New York Times is reporting that the Clippers are exploring the trade market to add a dependable big man and wing depth to the team.

    The Clippers could use another big man to pair with Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell, as well as another wing defender to play behind their superstar forwards. The Clippers are set with their core and will be doing their due diligence to round out the kinks of the roster before the stretch run.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • DeAndre' Bembry
    SF, Atlanta Hawks

    DeAndre' Bembry (personal) will miss Friday's game against the Thunder as he deals with the passing of his aunt.

    Our prayers go out to Bembry and his family. De'Andre Hunter could see a few extra minutes in his absence.

    Source: Jameelah J on Twitter