To make a long story short, the Toronto Raptors have made life miserable for Caris LeVert.
LeVert was a bonafide star in the seeding games, averaging 25 points per game and earning All-Bubble Second Team honours while leading the walking wounded Brooklyn Nets to a 5-3 record. He scored 37 and went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard as the Nets nearly knocked the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers out of playoff contention.
However, it’s been a different story against the Raptors. Through two games, LeVert is shooting 10-for-36 from the field and averaging 15.5 points. In Game 2, LeVert shot 2-of-14 from the first quarter onward as the Nets fell into a 2-0 series deficit against the defending champions. LeVert’s shot chart so far looks like a literal bloodbath.
The Raptors, of course, have made LeVert the focus of their second-ranked defence. And in keeping with how they guarded all season, head coach Nick Nurse is throwing the book at LeVert. In two games, Nurse has used at least seven different strategies against LeVert, which is ludicrous even by his standard. Here’s what those schemes have looked like.
1) 1-on-1 defence
The most straightforward way the Raptors have opted to guard LeVert is in isolation. The Raptors have a number of capable perimeter defenders, with each one of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby taking turns on LeVert.
The most successful defender thus far has been Anunoby. LeVert stands 6-foot-6 and can shoot over Lowry and VanVleet if there is no help in the paint, and his shifty footwork allows him to get shots off at acute angles to avoid the contest. Anunoby has the size advantage (two inches taller, 30 pounds heavier) and has been able to coax LeVert into heavily-contested looks.
2) Helping one pass away
The first style of defence the Raptors tried in Game 1 was to put their point guards on LeVert, while Anunoby was assigned elsewhere. Lowry and VanVleet were physical and swiped away at LeVert’s dribble, but credit LeVert for handling the pressure.
The strategy was to send a second defender on LeVert as he attacked from the top of the floor. Nurse assigned whoever was on the opposite wing to dig into LeVert as soon as he broke through the 3-point arc. This was a high-risk, high-reward strategy as the Nets have capable shooters who were instantly open one pass away. Joe Harris and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot made the Raptors pay in Game 1 with nine 3s between them.
The Raptors use this move against most superstar wing players. It works best when the attacker isn’t expecting the extra man, which usually leads to the scorer picking up their dribble and having to reset, or even losing the ball. Toronto ranked second this season in deflections per game, and were the most efficient transition offence in the league.
3) Trap defence
Credit LeVert and the Nets for adjusting in Game 1. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn stationed shooters next to LeVert when the Raptors swarmed him, which is why he finished with 15 assists. It didn’t matter so much in the first half when the Raptors offence exploded for 73 points, but Nurse did have to make adjustments after the Nets closed a 33-point lead down to eight.
Nurse went to an aggressive trapping defence in the fourth quarter. He sent Serge Ibaka to the 3-point line to double team LeVert each time he attacked through the pick-and-roll. The counter caught LeVert off guard and it resulted in stagnant possessions for the Nets. Even after they adjusted, the Raptors were able to scramble and rotate back to their base coverage. Brooklyn scored just 24 points in the fourth as the Raptors reestablished the lead and closed out the win.
4) Switching defence
Game 2 presented many more issues for Nurse, as the Raptors had to get even more creative on defence to stay in the game while they struggled to score over the first three quarters. Nurse admitted post-game that he was searching for answers and that it took them a while to find the right solution.
“We had to switch a lot of things on the fly. A lot of coverages, and a lot of matchups, a lot of stuff because it just wasn’t, it was funky,” Nurse said. “That’s what you do, you keep searching and searching, and searching, and searching... We went to some zone, we went to some triangle-and-two, we were searching for a spark but we finally found it.”
What the Raptors ultimately settled with was to switch on defence. Nurse closed the game without a centre on the floor, instead opting for Siakam and Anunoby as his two de facto bigs. The main goal was to shut down the pick-and-roll game between LeVert and Jarrett Allen without sending extra defenders that would leave 3-point shooters open.
This is where having versatile defenders really comes into play. Most bigs aren’t quick enough to stay with LeVert, but Siakam isn’t most bigs. He stands 6-foot-9 and has the dexterity to dance with LeVert on the perimeter without getting shaken. LeVert mostly settled for perimeter jumpers against Toronto’s bigs, which is a win for the defence as LeVert is not a great 3-point shooter (26 percent inside the bubble, 0-for-6 in Games 1 and 2).
5) Pre-switching defence
Before closing with the smallball lineup, Nurse threw a wrinkle into the playbook by having his centres switch off the ball to prevent the mismatch on LeVert. Both Marc Gasol and Ibaka were clever in this regard, as they would anticipate LeVert calling for the screen from Allen and send a smaller teammate to cover the play while they swapped assignments. This way, there was still a like-sized defender on LeVert on the switch, instead of creating the mismatch against a centre.
The added benefit of this move was that if LeVert had beaten his man on the perimeter, the Raptors still could provide help at the rim from Gasol or Ibaka. It also helped to win defensive rebounds, as the center wouldn’t be guarding LeVert at the top of the floor.
Brooklyn went on a 10-0 run to start the third quarter and threatened to take control of the game. Frustrations were boiling over, as Gasol picked up a technical foul for roaring at the ref, and the Raptors were getting sliced apart on defence.
When the going got tough, Nurse got funky. The Raptors experimented with several zone looks in the third, which produced mixed results. But sometimes with defence, the goal isn’t necessarily to solve the situation altogether, but rather to just stop the bleeding. To borrow a baseball analogy, Nurse junked up the game by tossing in a submarine-throwing reliever who only hurls off-speed pitches, and it did just enough to keep Brooklyn from building on its lead before someone else could close.
One of Nurse’s strange zones was a triangle-and-two defence, which he used in last year’s Finals against Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. In this case, LeVert and Harris were the dollar store Splash Brothers, as they were essentially face-guarded by their defenders, while the other three Raptors worked together in a soft zone to cover the paint.
With Harris leaving the NBA bubble for personal reasons, there will be less of a need to play triangle-and-two defence since Brooklyn’s other wing players aren’t nearly as capable. Luwawu-Cabarrot is a great catch-and-shoot player, but he isn’t as dangerous as Harris when attacking on the move.
Without Harris on the floor, the Raptors condensed their zone down to a box-and-one against LeVert. It wasn’t well-executed at all, as LeVert got all the way to the rim with minimal resistance, but when Nurse is selling personal merchandise with the Box-and-One insignia on a sweater, he just had to stay on brand.
By all measures, using seven different defences in two games against the Nets is equal parts impressive and sadistic, but it’s par for the course. This is the main reason why the Raptors rank second to only the Milwaukee Bucks in defensive rating. Going back to the baseball analogy, the Bucks are like Mariano Rivera, where packing the paint is their version of the cutter and they’re throwing it every time. In that sense the Raptors are more like Roy Halladay, where they can beat you with four or five different pitches. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, but the Raptors always have a plan B, or in the case of LeVert, a plan G.
“It’s not any different than what we would do for most teams’ leading scorer or player. We like to send a couple of people at guys, and sometimes it goes down the list with four or five guys getting cracks at him,” Nurse said.
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