To stop the unstoppable, you usually have to do something unusual.
And there’s no question the Toronto Raptors did that in Game 2 of the NBA Finals Sunday night.
With 4:42 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Warriors leading by nine points, Raptors coach Nick Nurse switched up his team’s defense.
He went deep into his bag of tricks and brought out a defense that is usually played by middle schoolers.
But I’ll be damned if it didn’t work.
The Raptors ran a box-and-one defense – a variation of the 3-2 (or 1-2-2) zone defense they would run, on occasion, in the regular season – in crunch time Sunday, and in that bold, but effective move, Nurse provided Curry the ultimate sign of respect and, in the process, told us so much about this series (and the modern state of the game).
Zone defenses were strictly prohibited in the NBA before 2001 — the Association was all about man-to-man defense. But as the NBA game has homogenized towards a perimeter-based, pick-and-roll, penetrate-and-kick style of ball in recent years, zone defense is starting to find its way into playbooks. This season, there was a zone boom – per Jared Dubin’s research, teams ran zone defense nearly twice as often as the prior two seasons combined.
It’s still a quirk – only the Nets and Heat came close to running zone defense 10 percent of the time – but the trend is clear. The zone has arrived in earnest.
The box-and-one defense is aptly named. Four men create a box around the lane (two men at the corners of the free throw line, one on each block by the basket) while one man plays man-to-man defense against the team’s top offensive threat.
In this case, that man on the island was the dogged Fred VanVleet, who has hounded Curry in the first two games of this series.
But in going to that defense, Nurse wrote the subtext of the Raptors’ defensive gameplan in big, red letters across the court: anyone but Curry.
The Warriors’ guard called the defense “janky” after the game.
But it was also effective. The first time the Raptors ran it, VanVleet intercepted a Shaun Livingston pass to Curry.
On the eight possessions the Raptors ran the box-and-one, the Warriors had four possessions that effectively ended in turnovers and posted an 0-for-6 clip from the field.
“We stopped their scoring and finally got something figured out there to slow them down,” Nurse said after the game.
If Andre Iguodala doesn’t hit the game-icing 3-pointer (against a man-to-man defense that had trapped Curry) with 6 seconds remaining in the game; had the Raptors knocked down some shots of their own, there’s a decent likelihood that the box-and-one would have sent the Warriors back to Oakland down 2-0.
It says a lot that it didn’t.
The likelihood is that it was a one-off play, a last-ditch effort that Nurse won’t go back to in this series, or, perhaps, ever again.
After all, the Warriors were able to find a couple of clean looks at the basket against the box-and-one – both Quinn Cook and DeMarcus Cousins, either knowledgeably or haphazardly, found the soft spot of the zone on the wing.
That’s a spot that Klay Thompson usually hangs out around at.
The big reason the Raptors were able to go to the box-and-one and be effective was because Thompson was out of the game with a hamstring injury. (It’s unknown if he’ll play in Game 3.) And the absence of Thompson in crunch time highlights the Warriors’ lack of shooting. Cook made three big 3-pointers in the game, but the fact that he, an infrequently-used player and easy defensive target, was on the court in those moments as a 6-foot wing player, was illuminating as to the Dubs’ struggles.
Iguodala hit the big shot, but until Sunday, had not made a 3-pointer since the second round of the playoffs. Green is shooting 19 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason.
In the playoffs, everything is crisis management, and the Raptors will live with any of those players shooting for the remainder of the Finals.
What else did the box-and-one experiment tell us about this series?
It let us know that Steve Kerr, for all of his deft coaching moves this postseason, is going up against another one of the NBA’s great tacticians. Nurse is bold and confident and unafraid. To some, going to a box-and-one in the most important minutes of an NBA Finals game is crazy. There’s a fine line between crazy and genius, though.
It told us that that Curry is always willing to make the right play. So many players say they’re all about winning, but to win a title requires sacrifice, both on and off the court. The best stat to highlight that buy-in? The Warriors’ top screen assister Sunday was Curry. He had four. The next-highest Warrior had one.
It also told us that if the Warriors are to win this series, role players are going to have to hit shots. The same can be said for the Raptors. This might seem obvious, but both teams are going to try to cut off the head off of the snake with their defenses — the Warriors targeting Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors, Curry. And both are selfless, wickedly intelligent players — it’s almost a wash between the two. So it’s going to be the other guys who create the margins in this Finals series, which is shaping up to be an all-time great one.
But it was always going to be someone other than Curry who took the big shot. Curry might call that disrespectful to Iguodala, but that disrespect is the strategy for both teams – it’s downright Belichickian.