Let’s be clear right off the top, the Utah Jazz are an elite defensive team.
With Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert as the hub of an extremely disciplined defence (they rank dead-last in deflections and second-last in steals), the Jazz entered December ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, third in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) allowed, and fifth in offensive rebound percentage allowed.
For one half on Sunday night — which turned out to be all they needed — the Toronto Raptors showed how a smart offence with the ability to improvise can slice all that to shreds.
Gobert controls so much for the Jazz on the defensive end as their linchpin. Opponents scurry away from the basket upon the mere sight of his lanky figure, the history of his timing on meeting shot attempts at their apex sparking a constant fear of embarrassment and a fear of failure for the most efficient shot in the game.
But in Marc Gasol, the Raptors present the perfect foe. Utah looked to contain Pascal Siakam early by having Gobert help off the usually shot-averse Spaniard. They also did this because Gobert to the paint is an amphibian to water. Gasol’s ability to keep Toronto’s offence in a rhythm from the top of the arc — or keep the wheels in motion as head coach Nick Nurse likes to call it — is a counter that is most effective against the Jazz, or any team for that matter, when teams have to consider that he could be the final destination.
On the very first possession of the game, the Jazz defended as though they were playing 5-on-4, completely ignoring Gasol and he obliged by hoisting a three. He missed, but it was a shot he needed to take. The next trip down the floor, he passed up three opportunities — two from the right corner (albeit one just inside the arc) and then the right extended elbow — and the end result was Gobert contesting a Norman Powell floater and forcing a miss. Perhaps Gasol needed to see that.
When OG Anunoby drew a double team with Gobert as the help defender soon after, a kick-out to Gasol followed and he opened the scoring from beyond the arc. Gasol had Gobert’s attention, so much so that Siakam burst to the basket after looking for Gasol to grease the wheels from up top, and the Cameroonian finished an easy lob with no one around to contest his shot inside.
Then, as if to further put Gobert and the Jazz on their heels, with Siakam posting up on the right block, Gasol cut to the basket and finished with a dunk to tell them they absolutely had to pay attention to him. Assuming he was either going to shoot or facilitate from up top was the wrong one to make.
Toronto and Gasol challenged the Jazz to improvise, but a defence that thrives on one-man rim protection and dictates terms on where an offence generates its shots from looked to be in no man’s land without both.
Toronto also shot the lights out from beyond the arc in what can be attributed to regression to some degree from their wretched night from the field against the Orlando Magic on Friday. Fred VanVleet and Siakam combined to shoot 10-of-16 from downtown, the former turned the ball over just once, and Norman Powell extended his longest stretch of consistent play with a quiet 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Ah, yes, the Raptors also showed the Jazz they can defend with the best of them, too.
In the first half, they limited Utah to 68.5 points per-100 possessions on 31.9 eFG% (43.8 points per-100 halfcourt possessions). The Raptors also forced 12 turnovers, 11 of which came off steals. Seventy-seven first-half points were a season-high for the team and while it’s easy to get caught up in the offence, the defence played a vital role along with Gasol’s spacing in setting the tone. Usually 18.5 percent of Toronto’s offensive possessions come in transition. In the first half, that number ballooned to an entire third.
“We had a lot of energy on defence,” Siakam said after the game. “I think it kind of helped us on offence, running in transition. We’re at our best when we’re in transition so just getting stops, turning them over and getting easy buckets, kick-outs for threes in transition, the game is always easier that way.”
This isn’t usual for the Raptors in the absence of Kyle Lowry. While the offence can still stall for moments at a time, it’s more accustomed to hitting a brick wall when he’s not on the floor. And that’s normal for teams that lose their offensive fulcrum. Think of the recent Cleveland Cavaliers teams when LeBron James wasn’t on the floor or the Houston Rockets now without James Harden. They are such central parts of the offence that the team completely loses its identity. Sort of like when Gobert can’t be Gobert for the Jazz on the other end.
In Gasol, VanVleet and Siakam, and of course Nurse’s aggressive playing style, Toronto has found a way to keep things moving, quite literally.
Lowry will likely be back Tuesday against the Miami Heat, another team that ranks in the Top 10 defensively, but having now gone 9-2 in his absence, the Raptors figure to be even stronger as a whole than the parts indicated three weeks ago.
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