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Locking down the stars has been key to Raps' recent success

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard was held to just nine points by the Raptors on Wednesday night. (USA TODAY SPORTS)
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard was held to just nine points by the Raptors on Wednesday night. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

DALLAS — Defence wins in the playoffs, but that’s a misnomer. It also wins in the regular season, the pre-season and just about any time it is played at a high level.

The Raptors have been winning games with their defence and it’s operating at a very high level right now.

With two starters out in Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby, two rotation players also sidelined in Serge Ibaka and Patrick McCaw, these Raptors, quite frankly, have no business being 3-1 through the first four games of this five-game trip.

They were 10 1/2-point ‘dogs to each of the Los Angeles teams, a three-point underdog last night in Portland and a two-point favourite in New Orleans, the only game that really followed the script.

Defence — the kind of defence that takes primary scorers off the scoresheet and forces secondary scorers to pick up the slack — has been on point for the Raptors.

Fred VanVleet scored 30 points in Wednesday’s win over the Trail Blazers, but it was the defence he took the pride in.

“Offence comes and goes,” VanVleet said. “The defence has been pretty consistent for us, except for a lack of defensive rebounding. In spurts, I think we did a really good job of following our coverages and game plan and just trying to make it tough for them. Two of the best scorers in the game (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum), so I think we did a decent job.”

For three games in a row now, the Raptors have targetted the opposing team’s best player and simply refused to let him shoot, let alone score.

LeBron James took 15 shots and made five in a 13-point loss to the Raptors on Sunday. Kawhi Leonard took 11 shots and made two in a 12-point win over Toronto that only happened because the Raptors couldn’t get two former teammates under control in Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson, who combined for 33 points or the Raptors would be unbeaten on this trip.

Lillard, the very definition of a volume shooter and scorer, had just 12 shot attempts and only nine points in the loss to Toronto.

The success is a result of some tenacious on the ball defence and five guys working together on a string as multiple bodies are sent at the marquee scorer while the remainder adjust to cover up the next-most likely options.

As good as VanVleet was against Lillard on Wednesday night, it doesn’t matter if Rondae Hollis-Jefferson isn’t there to deny the outlet to McCollum or Pascal Siakam isn’t there keeping Rodney Hood from an open three. Lillard has great court vision and is a proficient passer. He wound up with 10 assists, but the Raptors can live with that number if they are keeping the main scorers from finding any rhythm.

Nurse sounds like a man who knows this approach has been good for him to date but is wary of going to the well too often.

“You are rolling the dice a little bit with these schemes, but if you get the work on the primary player first of all and then get the rest of the guys to do what they are supposed to do in their help situations, whether it’s blitz or just help on drives and make it difficult for them, like I said you open up some other stuff,” Nurse said. “We have rolled the dice on these guys and it has turned out pretty good.”

With the Mavericks and head coach Rick Carlisle and superfluid Luka Doncic the last opponent on the trip, it will be interesting to see if Nurse takes this approach again.

Nurse is well aware how opponents adapt to tendencies and he’s normally ahead of the curve when it comes to keeping opponents off-balance with different looks. Carlisle, a former coach of the year in the NBA and a veteran in the coaching ranks, has both Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis at his disposal. He’s also got the No 2 offence in the NBA in terms of offensive rating (points per 100 possessions), so shutting the Mavs down will be no easy feat.

“We’ve got pretty good individual defenders, and we’re just saying you guys aren’t scoring,” VanVleet said of the approach these past three games. “ Make someone else score. The good thing about our game is most of the superstars are pretty unselfish. We just want to make them pass and make someone else make shots.”

The approach has been stunningly effective these past three games. Will it remain in play against a Mavs’ team that should be ready for it?

RAPTORS’ TOUGH TALK

DALLAS — Nick Nurse didn’t just see this coming. He coached it, willed it and in some cases talked it into existence.

Every time Nurse was asked the inevitable question of what this team could be like without Kawhi Leonard and without Danny Green, he talked up their toughness.

Knowing he had a team capable of playing this tough, grind-it-out defence, and knowing they would need it with the offence lacking after those key departures, Nurse pushed this team hard in the early stages.

Now that toughness isn’t just talked about. It’s on the floor every night.

“We’re going to be a tough team to play,” Nurse said back in training camp. These past three games have been proof of that and the players recognize it.

“For us, this has been battle after battle and I think it just shows the toughness of the team,” Pascal Siakam said following the win over Portland. “We are banged up but we just don’t give up. We continue to go out there every single day, give our best effort and whatever comes after that comes. We can’t control that. All we can control is what effort we have and I think we have been having pretty good efforts so far.”

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