The Toronto Raptors look like a cohesive unit, something that appeared unlikely in the absence of Kyle Lowry.
From DeMar DeRozan’s scoring, to Serge Ibaka’s consistency, to Jonas Valanciunas’ rebounding and Cory Joseph’s steady hand at the point; the pieces were always there, but not necessarily the functionality.
For a butterfly to emerge, the caterpillar must first do the work. There are many working pieces, but the three-dimensional silk mesh it forms from the end of a leaf or branch to begin the process is critical. The mesh is like Velcro on steroids, and gives what’s known as the chrysalis (a hard shell that softens as the butterfly emerges) something to hang on to as the butterfly forms.
The acquisition of P.J. Tucker has given the Raptors their 3-and-D mesh.
He can play both forward positions, defend both guard positions, and hit the open three.
“I think P.J. is an excellent two-way player for us,” head coach Dwane Casey said after their victory over the Indiana Pacers. “Defensively, he’s drawing the top matchup, got a little anxious with the turnover at the end going full court, but he’s been solid.”
The turnover Dwane Casey referred to occurred with 1:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Raptors holding a 104-95 lead. The play that happened before that, though, was a microcosm of why they acquired Tucker. The Pacers isolated Paul George against the former Texas Longhorn, only to see Tucker envelop all of George’s air space before batting the ball away for his 14th steal in eight games.
The Raptors former second round pick has been a revelation on that end of the floor, and the main inspiration behind their defensive turnaround. Only behind the Warriors and Spurs in defensive efficiency since the all-star break, it’s Tucker who has proven a nightmare to opposing players Casey referred to as “the top matchup.”
When opponents try to go to the well, Tucker is the one that makes sure it’s empty. In the video below, the Chicago Bulls put the ball in the hands of their star swingman Jimmy Butler to close out a tight game, but you can see the impact Tucker has on him.
Tucker continually prevents Butler from getting to his spots, switches when he needs to, and gets on the boards as well. These are the types of possessions that will prove decisive in the playoffs, and have been a common theme since his arrival.
After Toronto lost in embarrassing fashion to Oklahoma City on Mar. 16, Tucker was one of the more vocal voices in a “players only” meeting after the game. He understands what’s at stake here and the leadership that’s needed to scale the heights of last year.
“It’s easy to fight for these guys and try to win for these guys,” he said before taking on the Pacers Friday night. “They made the Conference Finals last year so I’m just trying to do my part to take it as far as possible.”
The Raptors lacked an offensive identity as they tried to figure things out without Kyle Lowry, and the Raptors’ latest addition has led the charge of role players finding their niche around the colossal efforts of DeMar DeRozan.
Since that loss to the Thunder, Tucker has made 14 of his 30 three-point attempts, and talked about the importance of imposing himself on that end of the floor.
“DeMar, JV, those guys going one-on-one, people gotta help,” he said. “For me, it’s just keeping them (opponents) honest, space the floor, and take open shots. It’s just playing hard, playing for your team. When you really wanna win, you set hard screens, you do all the little things that may not show up on the box score that result in wins.”
He’s only averaging eight points over the past eight games, but providing an outside threat is all that’s needed for the team’s superstar to go to work.
“I credit everything, my scoring, to them guys giving me the opportunity to play my in-between game,” DeRozan said after scoring 40 against the Pacers. “Guys have to worry about the outside three so I credit everything – my scoring ability to them guys because they give me the space that I need.”
The return of Kyle Lowry is imperative towards the team’s hopes of forming a full-fledged butterfly that can take flight, but Dwane Casey knows the value of their mesh.
“There’s not enough I can say about P.J, how important he’s been to us, how important he’s going to be to us down the road.”