When Nick Nurse took the job as head coach of the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2018, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. He was replacing the former Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey and inheriting arguably the most skilled team in franchise history with the best player to ever wear a Raptors jersey, Kawhi Leonard. The expectations fans and management had for Nurse’s first year in charge were much higher than most first year head coaches experience.
Entering the second round of the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors looked better than ever and were picked by “18 of 20 ESPN writers and all six local Philadelphia beat writers” to win the series, according to 76ers head coach Brett Brown. Yet three games into the series the Raptors find themselves down 2-1 with home court advantage being taken away by what looks like a confident and hungry 76ers team that is getting better as the Raptors look worse and worse. Game 4 in Philadelphia is almost literally a must win game for the Raptors, and it is the biggest game of Nurse’s head coaching career. He has made very few adjustments so far in the series — especially compared to the more drastic, successful adjustments Brown has made — but the time has come for Nurse to do something to get his team going.
I am not going to pretend that I know the game of basketball or this Raptors squad better than Nurse does. He’s a man with thirty years of coaching experience hand-picked by Masai Ujiri to do the job, and I’m just some geek with a computer. With that being said, the Raptors are being outplayed and Nurse needs to make some tweaks to combat a 76ers lineup that is growing more confident by the game. What follows are some suggestions on how to do that.
It has become popular to hate on Fred VanVleet these past couple days, as he has shot just 1 for 11 on mostly open looks in three games against the 76ers while assisting on just four baskets and playing underwhelming defense.
Fred VanVleet vs. Sixers:
3 points on 1-of-2 shooting in 23 minutes in Game 1
0 points on 0-of-2 shooting in 18 minutes in Game 2
1 point on 0-of-7 shooting in 21 minutes in Game 3
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) May 3, 2019
I understand Nurse giving VanVleet a chance to prove himself for three games considering he finished the season shooting the ball really well, hitting 42.1 percent of his threes since the all-star break, but time is running out. It doesn’t matter what VanVleet has done in the past; all that matters is that he is playing poorly now and is overmatched by Philadelphia’s big wing defenders. There is only so much a 6-foot-0 point guard with little athleticism can do against a team as big as the 76ers, as Kyle Lowry is proving, and VanVleet doesn’t have the positional awareness, smarts, or skill set Lowry does.
It’s time Nurse looks to his bench to replace some of the 20.6 minutes VanVleet is averaging in this series. Jeremy Lin would be the obvious candidate to replace VanVleet, being that he’s a point guard and all, but he is another undersized guard who was ruled out of game 3 with back spasms. Since the Raptors already have a lot of creators on the floor at most times anyways, it might make sense to give VanVleets’ minutes to a bigger wing who can defend the perimeter and knock down threes like Patrick McCaw or Malcolm Miller. I would also argue that Norman Powell deserves some of those minutes, as he is averaging just 14 minutes in this series while playing sound defense and hitting 3-4 three pointers. He is also a great rebounder for his position and has been known to show up in big games.
Have Kawhi Defend Butler
I wrote before the series that the only way Philadelphia was going to have a shot was if Jimmy Butler stepped up and was their second best player. Well, he’s arguably been their best and definitely their most consistent, averaging 20.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists against the Raptors. He is being guarded mostly by Pascal Siakam, who is a very solid defender, but Pascal is not as strong as Butler and the Raptors have a two-time Defensive Player of the year standing by, guarding a guy who doesn’t take jump shots.
One idea I heard being thrown around before the series started was that the Raptors could theoretically put Kawhi on whichever 76ers player was hot that game in order to cool them down (for a few possessions at a time, at least). Nurse has elected to not do that so far, instead keeping Kawhi on Ben Simmons throughout the series. Although guarding Simmons allows Kawhi to act like a safety and roam the floor a bit since Simmons has no jump shot, it might not be the most effective use of his talents. By putting Kawhi on Butler, Nurse would force the 76ers to find other players to make up for some of the 20 points Butler has averaged this series. Even more importantly, perhaps, it would create a mismatch on the other end of the floor, where the Raptors could immediately have a more favourable matchup in transition situations as Butler will be forced to guard Kawhi, who shot 5-6 against Butler in game 1 (before Brown switched Simmons onto him permanently). Obviously asking Kawhi to defend the 76ers best wing AND continue scoring at this rate is a tough ask, but it’s worth a shot.
Go at Redick
Despite the Raptors making some adjustments in game 3 such as matching Gasol’s minutes more closely Embiid’s and getting Embiid switched onto Kawhi in the half-court, the most flabbergasting was their inability to go at the achilles’ heel of the 76ers defence: JJ Redick. Sure, Redick works hard and is hidden on Danny Green, who was absent offensively in games 1 and 2, but Nurse and the Raptors need to show some creativity to create mismatches and exploit Redick.
This is something the Raptors should look for especially when Kawhi is resting, since the team desperately needs to find ways to score when he is out of the game.
The Raptors offense has been abysmal sans Kawhi
Raptors Offensive Rating
Kawhi On Floor Kawhi Off Floor
Game 1 126.0 47.8
Game 2 101.2 35.7
Game 3 105.4 70.8
Series 110.7 54.1
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) May 3, 2019
Play Ibaka with Gasol
Nurse is unlikely to go to a lineup featuring two big men for long periods based on how he has preferred to play all season, but it might be worth a look in this series. The Raptors, playing one traditional big man at a time, are being out-rebounded 98-71 in the past two games. The 76ers are big, and they were bound to out-rebound this Raptors team, but three games into the series and it is killing the Raptors, who need to do something about cleaning up their own glass immediately.
Playing Ibaka and Gasol together could mitigate the rebounding problem while providing a bigger look to go up against the 76ers size. That lineup wouldn’t be a problem defensively, where both guys are smart and can hold their ground, but offensively it would only work if they knock down open threes. Both Ibaka and Gasol have had plenty of good looks in this series, but neither has been confident enough to shoot the ball consistently when they get those looks. If they aren’t able to start hitting some threes, playing the two of them together would create spacing problems for the rest of the team and would limit their effectiveness. However, while other coaches like Steve Kerr and Brad Stevens have gone small in their second round matchups, it might make sense for Nurse to zag and go big.
Marc Gasol really shot none of these. A critical component of spacing is a player actually presenting conscious threat to the defence to shoot, he's not making Philly feel that at all with decision making like this. pic.twitter.com/iFlLzPWZIS
— Vivek Jacob (@VivekMJacob) May 3, 2019
At the end of the day, no matter what adjustments Nurse makes or doesn’t make, it is up to the Raptors to play fundamentally sound basketball. That means boxing out and rebounding. It means rotating and helping. It means shooting (and making) open shots. It means staying mentally focused no matter what the referees call. As Zach Lowe and Stan Van Gundy talked about on a recent Lowe Post Podcast, adjustments don’t matter if you’re not going to execute basketball fundamentals, which the Raptors have done a poor job at in their past two games. Nurse seems to agree, saying, “I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make is we’re going to have to play a helluva lot harder and play a helluva lot more physical. If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter.”
The Raptors find themselves in a uncomfortable situation, but this shouldn’t all fall on Nurse’s shoulders: He didn’t tell his players to forget how to shoot a basketball or to mentally check out in game 3. In fact, I would argue that Nurse prepared these Raptors as well as he could have heading into the 76ers series, as they were moving the ball really well and creating open looks (and at times still are), were playing calm and being mindful defensively, and had a healthy and well-rested core entering the second round. Just because Raptors Twitter is freaking out doesn’t mean Nurse should: his job is to keep his team calm and make the right adjustments in order to right the ship. Game 4 is the most important game of Nurse’s career, and if the Raptors win, the stakes will only get bigger. And the challenges, too.