A renewed commitment to defense should be changing the way bettors handicap the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors held their third straight opponent under 100 points Sunday night — a 102-90 win over the Washington Wizards — and have now played under the total posted by Canada’s legal sports betting industry in four consecutive games. Toronto is holding opponents to 97.5 points per game during the under run, moving its O/U record on the season to 12-12.
With his team now four games into a seven-game homestand, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is using their practice time to try and hammer down a new defensive identity for his struggling squad.
“That’s all we do in practice,” Raptors forward Chris Boucher told The Athletic’s Eric Koreen.
Now, it’s important to note the Raptors dodged a pair of bullets during this defensive stand. The Milwaukee Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo, by far the team’s best scorer, averaging 27.6 per game but out due to a calf injury, and the Memphis Grizzlies didn’t have star guard Ja Morant against the Raptors because of his ailing knee. Still, though, the improvements on defense are impressive.
Raptors' suddenly improved D picks up where it left off. After holding (Giannis-less) Bucks to 93 points on 38% FG Thursday, they just held the Wizards to 12 pts in 12 1st-quarter mins on 23% FG (1-7 3P). Best extended stretch of defence we've seen from them in more than a month
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 5, 2021
Toronto struggled mightily defensively during its last six-game road trip, surrendering 112 points per game. The Raptors went 2-4 during that stretch, which included games against Utah and Golden State — two of the top teams in the Western Conference.
“Youth — maybe inexperience,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told Koreen after the disappointing road swing. “Defense is hard to do every night, every play, every possession. Especially for young players who may not understand what the concept of winning basketball actually means. You know what I mean?”
Nurse and Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri built the 2019 championship-winning roster with an emphasis on defense, and this year’s team is no different — but is inexperienced. Forwards Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes are new to the club this season, but both were brought in because of their shared abilities to guard multiple positions at a high level.
Achiuwa, a key piece coming back to Toronto in the trade that sent fan favorite Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat in the offseason, is just 22 years old and seems to finally be getting comfortable in his new surroundings. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder is now averaging over 30 minutes of action a night and leads the team with 8.2 rebounds per game. His presence in the paint on the defensive end is a key factor in Toronto turning things around.
PRECIOUS SAID NIZE THAT pic.twitter.com/MNOuv1INLK
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 3, 2021
Barnes, whom the Raptors selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, wasn’t initially received well by the Raptors fan base. Toronto shocked the basketball world by bypassing Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and electing to go with the upside and defensive versatility of Barnes instead. Well, that’s all water under the bridge now, as Barnes has quickly won over the city with his charismatic demeanor and defensive energy on the court.
Barnes ranks among rookie leaders in many statistical categories, including points per game (15.1, 1st), rebounds (8.0, 2nd), blocks (0.8, 3rd), steals (1.2, 3rd), offensive rebounds (2.9, 1st), and minutes (35.6, 1st). Toronto expected many of these defensive metrics from the rookie, but his 15.1 ppg mark has been a pleasant surprise.
35 seconds of Scottie Barnes raising hell on Kevin Durant and James Harden pic.twitter.com/d8mY8i9cxZ
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) November 7, 2021
Rookie of the Year odds
Barnes’ breakout season has him rocketing up the outright odds for Rookie of the Year. Prior to the start of the season, Barnes had around +1300 odds, depending on where bettors were shopping. Now, he’s right up at the top with Cleveland Cavaliers big man Evan Mobley and first overall pick Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons.
- Evan Mobley +200
- Scottie Barnes +250
- Cade Cunningham +250
- Jalen Green +800
- Josh Giddey +1400
- Chris Duarte +1800
- Franz Wagner +3000
- Davion Mitchell +6000
How long could Toronto’s under run last? Well, in the short term, it looks favorable. The Raptors will host the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, and Sacramento Kings to round out their current seven-game homestand.
Oklahoma City was thumped 152-79 by Memphis (favored by 11 points) on Dec. 2, the worst loss (73 points) in NBA history. That result came in the absence of OKC’s best player, Canadian guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and his starting backcourt mate, the impressive rookie teenager Josh Giddey, and the Thunder bounced back to beat Detroit with both of them on the floor Monday. It’s worth noting the Thunder have been playing under totals all season, recording an 8-14 O/U record to date.
THE GRIZZLIES WON BY 73 POINTS – AN NBA RECORD 🤯 pic.twitter.com/e2EAfkXHMO
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 3, 2021
New York was averaging 106.5 points per game (18th in the NBA) heading into Monday night and is slightly trending toward the under with a 10-13 O/U record coming into the week.
Sacramento, just like the Knicks, is 10-13 O/U despite averaging 109.8 points per game — the ninth-best mark in the league — and allowing 112.8 points per game (28th).
It’ll be interesting to see the numbers oddsmakers post for the totals in Toronto’s next three games, all things considered.
Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY