This article appeared on VICE Sorts Canada.
The timing could not have been worse.
Or perhaps it couldn't have been better, if injury was going to strike at some point.
The gut-wrenching loss of Kyle Lowry poses a serious threat to the Toronto Raptors, and one of the biggest impacts is that Lowry won't get much of an opportunity to develop a chemistry with the team's two big deadline acquisitions, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Considering both players were brought in to help boost a potential playoff rotation, entering the postseason without all the pieces having spent significant time together will be an unfortunate situation.
At the same time, though, Tucker and Ibaka come advertised as quality defenders. There's never a good time to lose a player of Lowry's caliber, and while Ibaka's new position as the team's No. 2 or 3 option is important, it's what the two newcomers can provide defensively that makes the timing of Lowry's injury a little easier to digest. It's going to take some time to figure out, but Tucker and Ibaka afford the Raptors the potential to win at the defensive end of the floor with Lowry out, an important consideration with the offense likely to struggle.
The early returns are encouraging. The Raptors are 3-1 since the All-Star break, and both acquisitions have played well. The Raptors are only giving up 96.9 points per-100 possessions in Tucker's 97 minutes on the floor so far, the best season-long mark on the team other than Fred VanVleet and Bruno Caboclo. The team is also outscoring opponents by 9.2 points per-100 possessions with Ibaka on the floor, a terrific mark that's 24.5 points per-100 possessions better than how they've played without him.
The individual success is encouraging. It's always better for players to hit the ground running, even if the on-off comparisons may be inflated by their teammates playing particularly poorly for long stretches of late, or if their strong starts have left them unimpressed with themselves.
"I need it," a drenched Tucker said Wednesday following an arduous pregame workout. "I'm trying to get myself going. I'm still trying to get it, still trying to figure it out, still trying to get better, still trying to figure out my place on both ends, defensively, offensively. I feel like I just gotta keep getting better, man. I wanna win. I want to win every game."
Perhaps even more encouraging is that Tucker and Ibaka have worked exceptionally well together as part of defense-first units, especially to close games. In the 58 minutes the pair have played together, the Raptors have held opponents to a paltry 90.5 points per-100 possessions while scoring 110.6. When the two newest Raptors share the floor, Toronto has been untouchable.
It's little surprise, then, that head coach Dwane Casey quickly settled on a closing lineup involving both. On paper, a Patrick Patterson-Ibaka frontcourt pairing seems to be Toronto's best. But a mixture of some shaky play from Patterson, the freedom to downsize against these particular opponents, and Tucker's ability to share duties at power forward with DeMarre Carroll has Casey leaning on a smaller closing look.
Cory Joseph, DeMar DeRozan, Carroll, Tucker, and Ibaka closed out all three of the team's wins out of the break. Against Boston, they played the final 7:30 of play, turning a one-point deficit into a 10-point victory. Two nights later against Portland, it was a four-point lead held and nudged to six over the final 4:41 of play. The next night in New York, that group turned a tie with 4:47 to play into a one-point victory (save for one second of play where Lucas Nogueira entered to defend an inbound).
All told, Casey's new closing lineup has posted a ludicrous 57.3 net rating in 17 minutes together.
The biggest key for that group has been its ability to switch all over the floor. With three wings of roughly similar size in DeRozan, Carroll, and Tucker, there's freedom to switch across multiple positions. Add in a point guard in Joseph who plays larger than his stature and is freed to press up on the ball more with help behind him, and a center in Ibaka who can protect the rim, hedge out, or even switch on to guards, and the Raptors' options in defending an Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard, or Carmelo Anthony expand significantly.
"There's only a few teams that can truly do that," Tucker explains. "We've become one of those teams. I think for us, how good we are offensively, especially when K-Low gets back, that defensive ability to be able to switch, still be able to rebound out of the small unit is huge. I think the better we get at it, the better our team's gonna be."
The rebounding Tucker mentions has been a big element for that group. Normally, downsizing means giving something up on the glass, but that fivesome has pulled in 64.3 percent of rebounds, including 81.3 percent on their own glass. They've also been able to grind the pace down to 92.2 possessions per-48 minutes (the Raptors average 97.4, 23rd in the NBA, and 92.2 would be the lowest mark in the league), in large part by anticipating opponent action and forcing them to eat precious clock getting into their sets.
"That's the key. It's not size. It's defensive smarts, being able to read and react," Tucker says. "That's probably the biggest thing: Read and react. To see a play developing, switch out, deny it, front the post or three-quarter the post so they can't throw it in. Make people play one-on-one and take tough, contested, 2-point shots."
Tucker is a master in that regard, with the strength to bully opponents off their spots, the control to angle his body to deny the ball, and the quickness to still recover back to his original spot.
"It's using my strength but being smart at the same time," he says. "If not, you leave yourself open for back doors. It's tough, it's hard, and not a lot of people can do it, but I pride myself on being able to do it, and our team is starting to pride ourselves on that, too."
So far, the pieces fit, and there's a hope in the locker room that those defensive successes will snowball. Tucker, Ibaka, and Casey have all given lip service to improved defensive communication (Carroll and Patterson were really the lone frontcourt communicators before), and the amount of yelling, pointing, and timeout instruction is plainly increasing. There's a belief that such things are contagious, and Tucker went so far as to suggest the new blood will help improve DeRozan's defense, too. It's harder to know how much this will trickle over to the rest of the roster, but it's clear the Raptors have at least one defense-first closing group they can turn to.
The lineup has been good enough that Casey may want to find places for it beyond the closing stretch. He can't play them 48 minutes, of course, but playing them zero in an awful game against Washington while he searched everywhere else for answers seems like a missed opportunity. A preferred closing unit is great, but that group should be great at other points in the game, too. There's no saving your closer for the ninth here, and even if there were, there's no sense in Casey playing Buck Showalter and leaving his Zach Britton Lineup unused just in case there was a lead to close out.
The Raptors will continue searching for answers in their post-Lowry reality. There's not great reason for confidence that the offense will roll when DeRozan isn't turning in Herculean performances, and so it's the defensive end where Toronto may have to win games. Tucker and Ibaka were brought in to help raise the ceiling, and their immediate defensive impact may help save the team's floor from bottoming out, too.