Nick Nurse (The Magician) does it again for Toronto Raptors with small-ball lineup

Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors, Nick Nurse (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Game 6 was a must-win for the Toronto Raptors, and they did so in the fashion they have never done before. Playing with no traditional center in the lineup.

When people watch magicians do tricks they are left in awe. When you watch the Toronto Raptors play playoff basketball, you are filled with trepidation. However, yesterday we felt both of these sentiments with Nick Nurse pulling yet another rabbit out of his hat by electing to go to his small-ball lineup late in the game — a lineup that has never played together all season besides in Game 5 the other day.

The problem

At the 11:04 minute mark, with the Toronto Raptors up 84-77, the Celtics decide to go back to something they have been doing all series long, to attack Serge Ibaka on the pick and roll.  This led to three consecutive corner threes and a stepback Tatum three. Just like that, the Celtics took an 89-88 lead in a space of fewer than three minutes. That is the moment Nurse made his move, deciding to take out Ibaka and play OG Anunoby at the five.

Why go Small-Ball?

When Nurse decided to go to small-ball, it was obviously for defensive reasons. Ibaka continually got picked on in pick and roll situations because he couldn’t stay in front of Kemba Walker. This would continually prompt for side help off the weak side which would leave a Boston player ready for an open corner three like this play here or this one if you’re not convinced still.

So why does a small-ball lineup work in this situation? Well, the biggest problem with Ibaka is that he is too slow and he is a weak perimeter defender, making him an easy target to score on given the quality of the Celtics perimeter players.

A small-ball lineup allows for better perimeter defense and more movement thus making the pick and roll harder to execute since everything is being switched in that situation — much like the Houston Rockets.

The one downfall of small-ball is the lack of size which makes for easier points in the paint. But Nurse knows that the Celtics don’t play through Theis even if he has VanVleet on him. Theis would eventually get his way but much later on in the game, first, let’s look at how everything developed.

Toronto Raptors shut down the Celtics offense

At the 8:22 minute mark in the 4th quarter, after allowing 12 points in nearly two minutes and Ibaka getting picked on. Nurse made his move to go small and it would change the pace of the game entirely. This is how it would happen:

  • 7:42 – Smart forced to take a quick shot with time winding down and missed
  • 7:13 – Walker isolation and misses the mid-range shot
  • 6:44 – Brown misses open corner 3
  • 6:31 – Tatum post up and airballs fadeaway
  • 6:06 – Shooting foul Tatum, makes both free throws
  • 5:19 – Tough layup made by Smart plus the and one
  • 4:36 – Theis corner 3 missed
  • 4:02 – Brown contested corner 3 miss
  • 3:09 – Tatum contested long two fadeaway

For almost six minutes, the Toronto Raptors allowed only one field goal and five points following Nurse’s small-ball lineup adjustment. A huge part of the Boston Celtics offense is made of pick and rolls — they rank second-best and third-best in the playoffs and regular season, respectively.

Once the pick and roll is cut out, their offense becomes stale. Lots of isolations, Tatum post-ups, and hero ball. The type of plays you’ll live with if you’re Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors.

The lineup only got punished at the end of the game when they finally opened their eyes and realized they had a big on the court and the other team didn’t. Theis would get an easy putback the first time around, and the second time he had established position in the paint and got the entry pass for an easy dunk to tie the game up 98-98.

Nurse would continue with the same lineup until the very end of the game, except for two seconds of play where Gasol was inserted to inbound a pass and to get a rebound off a three throw.

No more open corner threes

Although Theis would continue to punish them and be their lead scorer in overtime with 8 points, it wasn’t enough. Following the 8:22 mark and onward, the Celtics would only shoot 2/9 from three, and had only four corner three attempts, making one of them.

Prior to that minute mark, the Celtics were shooting an exceptional17/37 from three,  including 10/18 from corner threes. The small-ball lineup completely neutralized the corner three and forced them to take difficult shots at the end of the shot clock. The Celtics did shoot 9/11 from the rim but if Theis is shooting more than half of those shots than it’s something they’ll live with.

Does Nick Nurse have one more magic trick left?

Now with Game 7 in their minds, how does Brad Stevens respond to this new lineup and what magic trick does Nick Nurse go to now. All we know for sure is that it’ll be a heck of a close game and just like today, it will come down to the wire. We can only be optimistic from here on out and we have to just hope that Nurse has something larger in his hat this time around, perhaps a Raptor?

Next: Pascal Siakam showing he can’t be a Number one for the Toronto Raptors