For the third straight game, the Toronto Raptors put the clamps on a superstar.
Damian Lillard struggled all night on Wednesday against the Raptors, finishing just 2-for-12 from the floor for a season-low nine points, a shockingly low total for a player that entered averaging 32.5 points per game and had scored at least 22 points in every game up until the home date with the Raptors.
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Although he did finish with 10 assists, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse was more than happy to make someone else on the Blazers try to beat his squad.
"You know, we're rolling the dice a little bit with these schemes, right?" Nurse said. "But if you do the work on the primary player first of all, and then you get the rest of the guys to do what they're supposed to do in their help situations on them, whether it's blitz or drives or whatever, and make it difficult for them, you're opening up some other stuff. But we rolled the dice here on these guys and it turned out pretty good."
It had a similar feel to Monday's loss to the LA Clippers in which the Raptors sent multiple defenders at Kawhi Leonard, who finished with just 12 points on 2-for-12 shooting to go along with nine assists. Although the Raptors couldn't capitalize, there's no denying they successfully executed the most fundamental aspect of their defensive game plan.
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The low-hanging fruit is to connect the dots from those two games and even Sunday in which LeBron James also struggled to get going. He didn't reach double digits until midway through the fourth quarter, putting into serious jeopardy his NBA record streak of scoring in double figures, a streak which dates all the way back to 2007.
Lillard, Leonard and James between them tallied 34 assists, a gaudy number but one that Toronto's own assist king is more than happy to concede.
"The good thing about our game is most of the superstars are pretty unselfish," said Fred VanVleet, who finished with a team-high seven dimes of his own against Portland. "So we throw two or three guys at the names you just mentioned and we just want to make them pass and make somebody else make the shots. Rodney Hood came in and made some big shots and got hot but overall, we just didn't want to let Dame Lillard shoot. That's the best way to guard those guys on not many attempts."
Here's the thing about what these Raptors are doing: it's not a recent trend.
While slowing down stars might ultimately prove to be the defining trait of what's so far been an impressive west coast road trip with one game left against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Saturday, it's merely a continuation of what they've been doing all season long.
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It's only 11 games into the season and yet the Raptors have already faced eight players who made the All-Star team last season. Those players have combined to shoot just 36.8 percent from the floor, including just 8-for-35 from beyond the 3-point line. A group that's collectively averaging 25.7 points per game against everyone else is scoring just 16.9 against Toronto's "stop the star" D.
Of those eight, only reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo managed to have an above average game relative to their standards.
There's a stat called Game Score that takes into account everything in the box score… points, shooting percentages, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks and turnovers, among other things. Here's the Game Score for each of the eight 2019 All-Stars the Raptors have faced and as you can see, what happened to Lillard on Wednesday is no isolated incident.
|Date||Player||vs Raptors||vs All Others|
|Oct. 25||Kemba Walker||14.4||19.5|
|Oct. 28||Nikola Vucevic||2.1||16.7|
|Nov. 2||Giannis Antetokounmpo||36.9||24.7|
|Nov. 2||Khris Middleton||6.1||13.3|
|Nov. 10||Anthony Davis||20.9||22.3|
|Nov. 10||LeBron James||17.6||22.0|
|Nov. 11||Kawhi Leonard||7.9||21.8|
|Nov. 13||Damian Lillard||6.9||25.9|
With the Raptors shorthanded due to a rash of injuries to players who are all difference makers on the defensive end, it's a testament to the entire team that they've been able to consistently take away No. 1 options on a nightly basis.
There's no doubt that Luka Doncic will present quite the test on Saturday in Dallas. And while he conveniently does not fall into the camp of "2019 All-Star," there's no denying that he fits the bill of the exact type of player Toronto is hell bent on stopping.
If recent history is any indication, the Raptors stand a good chance of slowing down the sophomore sensation.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.