The Toronto Raptors had not changed their starting lineup in the playoffs. The team has gone through plenty of difficulty, trailing at some point in every series but the Finals. Almost every starter has gone through a cold streak. Yet Coach Nick Nurse has opted not to change his starting lineup through the thick and thin that led to the the NBA Finals.
Until game three. The Raptors were winning by eight points at half, ostensibly a great result. Nurse was still proactive and decided to start Fred VanVleet instead of Danny Green coming into the third quarter. The purpose was to stop Steph Curry. Curry had 25 points at halftime, and he was Golden State’s only offensive weapon. Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Kevon Looney were sidelined with various ailments. Curry was the lone player who could create his own shot, yet Toronto spent most of the first half letting him get to that shot with ease; Curry shot 7-of-13 from the field in the first half, including 4-of-8 from deep.
VanVleet’s task was to stop all that, or at least make Curry’s life more difficult. In December, I argued that VanVleet was an elite NBA defender, damn it. Well, this may as well be considered part two.
VanVleet had done a fairly good job in the first half on Curry. He among all the Raptors is probably best at off-ball defense on jittery, shoot-first point guards like Curry. VanVleet is excellent at keeping his position whether Curry does or does not have the ball. Here, when Curry catches it coming off a screen, VanVleet trails on his hip, forcing him inside the arc. The job’s not done, and VanVleet remains on his hip, forcing an awkward pass through his body, which causes a turnover.
He’s so excellent juking back and forth on defense, keeping his position above a player to deny the arc, and adapting his body position to the ball.
There were screw-ups, which are especially likely when Curry is shooting around an off-ball screen. VanVleet plays it perfectly but then doesn’t seem to recognize Patrick McCaw’s switch, or clues in a beat late. VanVleet’s momentum carries him a step in the wrong direction, and the result is a layup.
VanVleet and Green also blew a switch, and you can see VanVleet’s frustrations with his teammate at the end of the clip.
But the goal in starting VanVleet in the third quarter was to stop Steph. VanVleet was relatively effective. Almost immediately, he and Lowry displayed a brilliant mind-meld on the defensive end. It’s easy to think about chemistry as an offensive thing, but here Lowry and VanVleet prove that it goes both ways. First they switch a screen so that Lowry takes Curry, and then Lowry shoots the gap to stay with Curry as he jets to the corner. Curry isn’t able to catch the ball, and the Warriors enter it to DeMarcus Cousins in the post. Fred pretends to double on the strong-side post-up, but he doesn’t make contact, so he’s able to jump back in front of his man for the easy steal. This is heady stuff from both VanVleet and Lowry.
Fred is great off the ball at forcing a player away from the step-back, away from the pull-up. Curry’s only option here – if it weren’t for Serge Ibaka’s defensive three in the key – would have been to drive into waiting help.
There were other mistakes from Toronto, but Curry had a more difficult second half than his first. He scored 22 points in the second, but he shot far worse from the field, including only 2-of-6 from deep. The effects of Nick Nurse’s decision – like so many during this postseason – were overwhelmingly positive.
The Raptors heaped praise on VanVleet after the game. VanVleet’s teammates love him, and he and Pascal Siakam especially have a beautiful bond.
“Favorite player right there in the NBA for me,” said Siakam after the game of VanVleet. “He’s always calm. It’s crazy. I always look at him when I’m kind of rattled and I’m mad at myself about things. I just look at him and he’s always calm. He always has that same demeanor. We always have the eye contact where it’s like he tells me to relax. Fred is that type of player you love to have on your team. The energy that he brings to the team, his defense and then the three-point shooting. It’s awesome. Like I said, favorite player in the NBA.”
“Fred has a heart, I don’t know how it fits into his chest,” said Marc Gasol. “He has a huge heart.”
Of course, when VanVleet is doing things like this on the offensive end, it can overshadow his defensive grunt work.
But does all this mean VanVleet should start? After all, it was Lowry, not Green, guarding Curry for much of the first half during Curry’s breakout. When Green got his shot later in the game against Curry, he high points just as brilliant as VanVleet.
The numbers between all three of Lowry, VanVleet, and Green on Curry are telling.
Curry shot worst against Green, but the Warriors scored best when Green was guarding Curry. VanVleet held Curry to the fewest points in the most possessions, and he was the only one of the three to force Curry into turnovers. The Warriors still scored well, but VanVleet’s individual numbers were excellent.
Ironically, in the game that Nurse decided to alter the starting lineup, he removed perhaps his hottest player. Danny Green had finally broken out of his cold shooting streak. He was at 3-for-4 from deep when VanVleet swapped with him to start the third quarter. The move didn’t cool Green’s hot hand. He finished shooting 6-for-10 from 3, proving further that his slump has not carried into the Finals.
Nurse had opted multiple times not to make changes from a position of weakness. When Green was shooting below 30 percent from deep for weeks on end, he kept his starting spot. When the Raptors were down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Green kept his starting spot. Yet when Green was blazing hot, and the Raptors were winning, Nurse switched up his approach.
Nurse made proactive change from a position of strength.
His decision made from a position of strength was to match VanVleet – Toronto’s best defensive option against Golden State’s only threatening offensive weapon – to Curry’s every minute. VanVleet played practically every minute in the second half of game three. Partially as a result, the Raptors now lead 2-1 in the NBA Finals. They have retaken home court advantage. Of course, the Warriors were short-handed, and Toronto won a game that it was expected to win. That shouldn’t diminish the team’s successes, and VanVleet’s and Nurse’s within the larger framework. Nurse decided to adapt despite his team already winning, and it helped the Raptors’ chances.
But if Nurse’s surprise choice was proactive, continuing to start VanVleet would not be a proactive move. Lowry made the most number of defensive mistakes on Curry, so it may be a smoother fix simply to have Green cover Curry from the tip. I would expect Green continues to start moving forward. Really, though, there’s no wrong choice; Green and VanVleet in game three were defensive weapons and offensive flamethrowers. It’s important for Toronto to have options on Curry, and the Raptors know that VanVleet is up to the job. No matter when he checks into the game.