The Raptors aren’t big on following NBA trends. They’re gambling on the offensive glass and making it pay off
It was only a few years ago that the NBA orthodoxy seemed to declare the offensive rebound a lost cause.
Crashing the boards in search of putbacks was deemed too risky a tactic by coaches horrified by the prospect of giving up easy fast-break baskets. There was a feeling that whatever you’d gain in second-chance buckets you’d more than lose in transition. Teams collected a record-low number of offensive rebounds per game in 2017-18. The rate hasn’t ticked up much since.
If the Raptors, under head coach Nick Nurse, have never been much for following the conventional wisdom, here’s a stat to underline their contrarian streak: Three weeks into the season, the Raptors aren’t just leading the NBA in offensive rebounds per game. They rank second in preventing opponents from scoring fast-break points (all numbers heading into Tuesday night’s slate of games).
In other words, contrary to the fears of the NBA orthodoxy, they’re effectively manufacturing second-chance points — the fourth-most per game — while limiting the damage on the other end. It’s possible they’re also taking advantage of the fact that opponents, knowing the Raptors like to crash the glass, are spending too much effort attempting to box them out to effectively run the break.
Whatever is the case, Toronto’s relative effectiveness comes down to one thing, according to Nurse: “It’s effort.”
“It takes a lot of effort to get on the glass, and then, if you’re getting on the glass, to still get back,” Nurse said. “These guys play really hard.”
None of this is to say the Raptors, with their 6-5 record, are setting any trends. And certainly Nurse isn’t exactly reinventing the sport. Emphasizing offensive rebounding isn’t a statement of ideology as much as it’s an admission of necessity. With the Raptors bereft of a bankable, shot-creating star, they’ve essentially turned their attention to the merits of on-court gambling in an effort to manufacture easy offence.
They’re not only all-in on chasing tap-ins and kick-outs on the offensive glass. They’re leading the league in steals and loose balls recovered. While Nurse acknowledged that there’ve been games when their defensive aggressiveness has backfired — particularly in Friday’s loss to the Cavaliers — the Raptors rank third in the East in creating points off turnovers. Which is a good thing considering Toronto’s offence often looks hard-pressed to create points off its own schemes.
It helps that they’ve got three players ranked among the league leaders in total steals: Gary Trent Jr. (first), OG Anunoby (tied for 12th) and Fred VanVleet (tied for 18th).
“Having great defenders on your team and guys that can help you on the defensive end, you can miss certain gambles and still recover, still get a stop,” said Trent. “So it’s a good thing to have teammates like that.”
Said Nurse: “I think we’re tough to beat. I think we’re young and scratching the surface. I think we’re a long way away from our ceiling with this team.”
The precise height of that ceiling, of course, is up for debate and is perhaps directly correlated to the improvement curve of rookie phenom Scottie Barnes, who leads the team in second-chance points. It’s also safe to assume the Raptors won’t reach their potential until Pascal Siakam returns to something resembling top form. One game into his return from off-season shoulder surgery, Nurse said Tuesday that, while Siakam is expected to play in Wednesday’s game in Boston, his availability for Thursday in Philadelphia is unknown. Perhaps a back-to-back, so early in Siakam’s minutes-restricted comeback, would be too much to ask.
What’s for sure, Nurse said, is that Khem Birch, who missed Sunday’s loss to the Nets with right knee swelling, will not play in either leg of the two-game road trip.
In more Raptor-friendly injury news, the Celtics are expected to play Wednesday without Jaylen Brown, who’s out one to two weeks with a strained hamstring. The Sixers, meanwhile, were slated to play Tuesday’s game against the Bucks without the services of Joel Embiid, who has reportedly tested positive for breakthrough COVID-19, which suggests he could miss several games. Also out for the Sixers due to health and safety protocols were Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe.
Visiting a pair of potentially short-handed opponents figures to help Toronto, as does the location of both games. The Raptors are the only team in the East that’s yet to lose on the road, where they’re 4-0.
As for exploiting opponents’ shortcomings: If offensive rebounding remains a focus for the Raptors — and the absence of Birch, who leads the team in the category, figures to put a dent in it — defensive rebounding is a weakness of both the Celtics and the Sixers, who rank 22nd and 28th in that category.
Precious Achiuwa, Birch’s backup, said Toronto’s ability to vie for second-chance possessions while limiting opposing fast breaks is a testament to team chemistry.
“We play together, not just on offence but on defence as well. We’re able to cover for whoever goes for the offensive rebound until they get back on defence,” Achiuwa said. “It’s all effort. If you go for the offensive rebound you’ve got to scramble back on defence, whether you get your matchup or not, and play from there.”