It all leaves Nurse in a tough position: Extend the bench minutes and the rotation out a bit further to keep the stars fresher for the conclusion of the series and he risks making the task an even tougher one, or worse, not one at all. And so again, behind in a series, you can definitely justify a heavy minutes load to survive and move on.
How sustainable that approach is, requires a bit more nuance.
There are a few reasons we might be concerned about heavy minutes for a player. This should all be a refresher from last year, as well as from the discourse of the past few years around the league’s schedule and travel, and the impact of that cumulative fatigue on performance, injury and product quality.
The first is injury risk, which is straightforward. If we assume injuries occur probabilistically, every additional minute on the floor is an additional risk. Workload within a game can increase a player’s risk beyond just the amount of time they’re on the floor (that is, all minutes are not created equal). We also know that injury risk increases as fatigue and workload accumulate, especially following the “load management” season with Kawhi Leonard. An additional factor here could be the relaunch as ankle, hip, and thigh injuries have been shown to be more prevalent in the preseason in recent years — although the Raptors are probably far enough along in the restart for that impact to have been negated.
Another concern is one Budenholzer has leaned on in justifying fewer minutes for his top players. (The Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra has done the same, but you get the benefit of the doubt when you’re winning.) It stands to reason that the more tired a player is, the more their performance may suffer. Playing Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam the entire second half could bring with it a cost to their performance down the stretch, a quandary that would then be difficult to reverse — the likelihood of them being pulled decreases the higher leverage the close-out minutes get, right as they’re getting more tired. This is both mental and physical. Multiple studies in soccer have demonstrated skill and decision-making erosion under fatigue, and studies on non-professional basketball players have shown a change in 3-point shooting mechanics when tired. (The kinematics of free-throw shooting remained largely unchanged, though free throw percentage is slightly lower in the fourth quarter league-wide.)
Humans can sometimes override their brain’s fatigue response, but that impact is usually short-lived. The “heart” or “motor” that gets referenced so often still has some theoretical limit.
Framed differently, what Nurse is working through is whether a potential erosion of performance from his best players is greater or less than the drop-off from that player to a reserve. As an example: is playing Lowry 24 straight minutes, such that he’s only at 85 percent for the final six minutes, better or worse than playing Davis for four minutes in place of Lowry somewhere in that stretch? There are ripple effects, too, especially given Lowry’s ability to raise the floor of his teammates. The coaching staff might not be trying to answer these questions 24 minutes at a time (it’s probably in something closer to three- and four-minute chunks), but that’s the type of problem-solving high-leverage rotations introduce.
Keeping Walker from shooting is not good in and of itself. It depends on what a team is allowing in the place of those shots. Considering how good Walker has been at times in this series, erring on the side of limiting those looks is probably wise.
“Man, he’s awful good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Walker on Sunday. “He’s got that … jet speed coming off there if he goes to the rim. He’s also (got the ability to be) fast to the 3-point line pull up, so it’s certainly a challenge. We are just trying to give him different matchups and different coverages and different looks to try to take care of it. I think he still got a share of great plays out of them, so we’re gonna just continue to work and challenge as best we can.”
Defensive schemes are not meant to benefit one player; they are meant to benefit the whole team. If Nurse’s goal were to maximize Gasol’s abilities, he would simply have him drop back and cut off the paint. Gasol is going to have trouble keeping up with Walker in any footrace. Again, when Gasol fails to get the angle just right on Walker, it’s going to look very bad.
The same can be said about Gasol when the Raptors have the ball. Gasol has the second-lowest usage percentage in the Raptors’ starting lineup this series; he is finishing 14.7 percent of possessions, compared to OG Anunoby, who is finishing 12.2 percent of possessions and has a 71 true shooting percentage. The difference is Gasol has touched the ball 1.78 times per minute in this series and Anunoby is at 1.04. In other words, Anunoby shoots the ball way more often per touch than Gasol.
And, yes, when Gasol doesn’t shoot — and doesn’t even look at the rim — when he is uncovered, it is frustrating.
“I think there’s probably a few more shots for him,” Nurse said. “But I do feel like he’s involved more, you know, so it’s not maybe a ton more at this point. But I think we’re always at that point because he is a good offensive player. He hasn’t, you know, got a lot to show for it obviously in this series, but it would be great if he can make a couple of those 3s and continue to get some of these rolls and some of those mid-paint short rolls and stuff. But I think he’s got a nice combination, in the last six quarters of touches, where he’s passed it and taken attempts.”
In Game 4 in particular, the Raptors put in their most complete defensive performance of the series, holding the Celtics to only 93 points and a dreadful 20 per cent from three-point range.
The effort was most notable when it came to limiting the looks of at least one of Boston’s stars as well as contesting three-pointers.
Celtics star Kemba Walker only took nine shots on Saturday and said after the game he “wasn’t aggressive enough.”
“That’s unacceptable on my behalf, to be honest,” said Walker. “There’s no way I can just be taking nine shots. That’s unacceptable.”
Walker was a little more passive than usual in Game 4, but that was mostly due to the schemes of Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who has now thrown the kitchen sink of defensive coverages at him in the pick-and-roll — from basic man-to-man, to triangle-and-two and almost everything in between.
“I think we’ve needed all of it. Man, he’s awful good. He’s got that combination of jet speed coming off there if he goes to the rim. He’s also got the combination of fast to the three-point line pull-up, so it’s certainly a challenge,” said Nurse on Sunday. “We are just trying to give him different matchups and different coverages and different looks to try to take care of it. I think he still got a share of great plays out of them, so we’re gonna just continue to work and challenge as best we can.”
Despite being outscored in the three-point battle by 30, the Celtics still had a legitimate chance late in this game. What really killed Boston on the night was allowing the Raptors to feast on secondary opportunities – outscoring the C’s 24-12 on second chance points. Toronto did so by scoring a whopping 17 points off their 8 offensive rebounds (that 2.25 PPP ranks in the 99th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), and adding 7 more points off team rebounds.
In his postgame interview, Kemba Walker harped on the Celtics’ energy levels. “I thought we just didn’t match those guys’ intensity,” Walker said. “We’ve just gotta be tougher. We’ve gotta want it more.”
A huge part of rebounding is hustling and wanting it more, and that lack of intensity really showed up in the Raptors’ advantage on second chance points. Allowing eight offensive rebounds on its own is not all that bad, but it was the fact that all lead to easy, open layups, or wide open threes. That was the real killer for Boston.
The good thing for the Celtics, though, is that these are all fixable mistakes. Take this particularly brutal possession at the end of the first half that serves as a microcosm for the game as whole. Up three with a 4-second differential between shot and game clock, the Celtics have a chance to go into the half with a two-possession lead despite shooting the ball terribly. Ojeleye does a great job to stay in front of Siakam on the isolation, and even doesn’t bite on Pascal’s up fake. The help from Tatum forces a tough pass out to VanVleet, and Smart rotates to contest the 3 as the shot-clock is winding down. Nice team defense up to this point.
As the ball is in the air, though, neither Robert Williams nor Kemba Walker really check their opponent. Both Walker and Williams have an arm on their men, but don’t take the time to properly box out. The result: Timelord swipes the ball out after Gasol gets his hands on it, but Siakam picks up the loose ball to find an open VanVleet who ties the game with a triple. Despite 24 seconds of good defense, the Celtics gave up three points, and all night, the Celtics put good possessions together defensively, but just failed to finish them off.
Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam all played the entire second half and more than 43 minutes each — Lowry was the laggard at 43:47 — in their Game 4 win over Boston on Saturday.
Lowry, VanVleet and OG Anunoby played the entire second half of Game 3, with Lowry logging 46:39, the most time in any non-overtime game by any player this season.
Rest is not an option when the season is on the line.
“I mean, if you’re ever going to do it, now’s the time to do it,” VanVleet said after playing 44:39 of Saturday’s 48 minutes. “There’s nothing to be resting for, there’s no tomorrow. There’s no … way to manage it and Coach (Nick Nurse) is putting his trust in us and communicating to a level where if you need a rest you get one, if you need him to call a timeout you get one.
“But, right now, I think he’s rolling with the big guns and that’s the way that we like it.”
It’s not like the franchise isn’t aware of the necessary off-day treatments and protocols for players logging more court time than usual. None of the top players get on the court on off days — maybe a couple get up some shots just to get the blood flowing — and the non-game days are not taxing. There’s a film session, maybe a massage or some other treatment, and then it’s feet up.
It is the same leaguewide. There’s little sense in making players go through even light workouts at this time of the season. Practice is done watching video, not moving about the court.
“I think that there’s a pretty good feel for those guys,” said Nurse, who has the help of Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ director of sports science, and his team. “You try to make it an open communication thing and listen to what they want to do and what they’re feeling and maybe throw in a couple of suggestions.”
The NBA playoffs are not for the faint of heart or weak of body, and extended, intense minutes are the norm for all championship-contending teams. It’s nice to play nine or guys or more when the regular-season games pile up and nagging injuries necessitate a day off here and there.
And he has left another impression on the game, on the NBA, even on those who coach him and don’t impress easily.
“I love having the privilege of standing on the sideline to watch (him),” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Lowry. “It is something to see. And I don’t ever take it for granted.
“I’ve said this before: I’ve never seen anybody play harder. I’m in total understanding of how much he means to our team. How nice is it from my perspective to able to coach this guy and have him.”
And in Nurse’s seven seasons in Toronto, two as head coach, five as assistant, he has seen what we’ve seen, but from far closer.
“There’s certainly been an evolution that we’ve all witnessed,” he said. “There’s a level of maturity that comes with age and experience. He just keeps getting better … His skills keep getting better … He has matured. There is no doubt about it.”
“There’s something about that guy I believe in, it’s incredible,” said Ujiri in last year’s playoff run. “We have been through so much and he’s a winner … He’s been hit upside the head from every different angle in the world, whether it’s personal, everything and he survives it. Every days he comes to win. Doesn’t matter what mood he’s in, he comes to win.”
And one piece of basketball irony that rarely gets mentioned in all the Lowry stories. The main reason Bryan Colangelo was fired as GM and Ujiri hired, more than anything else, was because then CEO Tim Leiweke couldn’t understand why any general manager of a downtrodden team would trade away a first round pick.
“Who does that?” Leiweke said to me years ago.
Colangelo did. He sent a first round pick to Memphis for Lowry. “You don’t trade away your first round pick,” Leiweke said.
That enraged Leiweke, who moved Colangelo aside and hired Ujiri, who all but and almost traded Lowry. The forks in the road that have made Lowry the most indispensable player in Raptors – and you could say modern Toronto sports – history.
Echoed Kemba Walker: “They had a great intensity throughout the whole game. I thought we just didn’t match those guys’ intensity. But it’s the playoffs. We’ve just got to be better. That’s it. We’ve got to be better.”
In the ramp to Game 4, we noted how Boston’s response would tell us a lot about their championship potential. Game 3 produced the first real adversity that the Celtics have seen in months, and they needed to respond with a championship resolve.
It didn’t happen. Instead, it was the defending champs that again showed their mettle. Boston didn’t play with any sort of desperation. The Celtics missed shots, they made careless turnovers, and they never really made the sort of surge that truly threatened the Raptors.
“At the end of the day, we just have to be better,” said Walker. “We have to find ways, especially down the stretch. There were times we got stops, but we didn’t finish the play out. Those guys just out-toughed us and got loose balls, got offensive rebounds, things that we weren’t doing. That’s really it. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be tougher. We’ve got to want it more.”
OG Anunoby’s 3-pointer at the end of Game 3 might have breathed life into a series that was a half-second away from being over. If the Raptors lose that game, there’s a good chance Boston sweeps them out of the bubble on Saturday.
Now the Celtics are the ones pondering how things unfold from here. Can they muster a better response in Game 5? They better find some intensity fast. Toronto has all the momentum in the series.
Boston, for much of the first three games, looked like they were clearly the better team. Not on Saturday. Lowry was a monster. Even at age 34, he logged 44 minutes of floor time. His shot wasn’t perfect but he made 4 of 10 3-pointers and finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Yes, he had five turnovers, but no one on Boston came even CLOSE to matching his intensity. Lowry was undeniably the most impactful player on the court.
At halftime of Game 4, with Siakam at nine points on 1-of-8 shooting from three and zero free throw attempts, TNT’s Kenny Smith had some comments ready. “Being the offensive number one option is not a skill-set, it’s a mind set, which is different. There are certainly guys who have skill-sets who can actually do it, but don’t have the mindset.” Smith was cut-off there by Ernie Johnson who noted that the ever-chatty Charles Barkley, off-camera, was nodding along. This is where things stood with Siakam at the half — threes falling or not, he wasn’t quite playing with the right mindset. As Barkley implied: it was time for Siakam to find his Plan B.
The TNT talking heads were not wrong, and most Raptors fans watching the game would probably agree too. Siakam was working very hard on defense for Toronto, but the flow to his offensive game was jammed up, misdirected, confused. For every trip to the rim for Siakam — as highlighted in that above clip — there were notes of hesitancy too, some killer indecision that couldn’t quite resolve itself fast enough. The three-ball opportunities were still waiting there, but it didn’t feel like that would be enough for Siakam — or the Raptors — to get the win. More work was necessary.
Playing as if he heard all those voices, Siakam went after it in the third quarter, doing his part to turn an early two-point Celtics lead into a cushion that got as large as 11 for Toronto. He played that entire frame, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor while putting in that extra effort we knew was there. A look at his third quarter shot chart confirms Siakam’s inside-out ability. Yes, the three attempts were there — he went 1-for-4 from deep in the third — but Pascal’s Plan B had clearly been put into effect. This was how the Raptors would beat the Celtics after coming back from an 0-2 hole in the series.
So why keep harping on this? We could write about Kyle Lowry’s continued magnificence, or Fred VanVleet’s much-needed 5-of-11 three-point form in Game 4. We could maybe even dare to dive into the headspace of Norman Powell, who has looked like a shell of himself these past four games. There is no shortage of storylines where these defending champion Raptors are concerned. It’s just that Siakam has so clearly emerged as the symbol of this team’s present and future. While others Raptors have improved or discovered new facets to their game, Pascal has wholly reinvented himself as one of the league’s top players. Fair or not, these playoffs have become almost a personal test, each success or failure a referendum on that standing. This is what it will take to be Toronto’s number one offensive option.
We can expect more threes from Siakam, and more misses as a result. It will continue to be both the easiest and most difficult shot for him to take and make. But watch him in and around those moments too. Watch the Plan B spring into action. Watch as Siakam calculates what is easy and what is hard, and how much work will be necessary to get him from here to there. No, he’s not a volume three-point shooter — yet — but he’s really just testing that limit, finding out how much empty space is there before rushing to fill it. There are physics formulae for that too — but you definitely already know it when you see it.
Pascal Siakam has not been at his best since the NBA’s return to action, but the Raptors are confident he’s getting closer to breaking out. Siakam dropped 23 points against the Celtics in Game 4, but only shot 2-for-13 from beyond the arc and head coach Nick Nurse thinks it’s only a matter of time before those shots start to fall. Josh Lewenberg has more.
Excluding the first quarter of Game 1, the scoring differential between Toronto and Boston is 374-371 in favour of the Raptors. In a series that had seven games written all over it from the start, The Coach Jack Armstrong explained what he thinks will determine the winner.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse has relied almost exclusively on his top seven players in the past two games. In the first two outings, there were a few minutes for bench players such as Terence Davis and Chris Boucher, but in Games 3 and 4, Nurse called only on Matt Thomas outside his main seven. The Celtics, on the other hand, are using a nine-man rotation. Each Raptor starter is averaging more minutes a game than his Boston counterpart.
A few Raptors starters have played more than 40 of the game’s 48 minutes in each of the past three outings, including Lowry, who played nearly 47 on Thursday and almost 44 on Saturday.
“You’ve got to play this somewhat situationally and I just think that those guys that we didn’t sub much [Saturday] night, they were all playing very, very well,” Nurse said. “I thought there was an appropriate amount of breaks in the game. There seemed to be a lot of timeouts, there was reviews, there was challenges, there seemed to be some kind of built-in rest time.”
The NBA defending champs, full of veterans, chose not to practise as a team on Sunday. About half of the players took some shots for a few minutes, Nurse said. Instead players focused on recovery, working with Toronto’s sports-science professionals, with ice baths, massages and physiotherapy.
While Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he goes for a walk around the NBA’s Disney campus every morning to clear his mind, Nurse said he has no set routine. Sometimes he goes for a bike ride or a jog on the property. “Kind of like our coverages, I like to mix it up a little bit, and just go with what I’m feeling on the day,” Nurse said.
Through the first 10 quarters of this series, the Raptors made only 26 of 102 three-point attempts. That changed dramatically for Toronto, starting with the third quarter of Game 3. For the past six quarters, the Raps have made 26 of 62 shots from deep.
That’s important, because the team that has shot the most threes has won each game. The Celtics won the three-point battle 17-10 and 15-11 in Games 1 and 2; the Raptors won that category 13-9 and 17-7 in Games 3 and 4. Boston was a surprisingly bad 7-of-35 from deep on Saturday, including Jaylen Brown’s uncharacteristic 2-of-11 three-point performance.
The theory here is sound: if they were going to lose, it was going to be because Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka beat them from deep, not because they gave up extra-pass shots to guys like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The Raptors are at their best when the ball has energy, and not rotating to the pop effectively kills said energy while dictating where the shot comes from. Sagging off those bigs clogs the lane with another help defender or shot blocker who helps force the Raptors to become a jump shooting team and beat them from the outside.
But the practice has been far from ideal. Ibaka is 10-19 from deep in this series, including 4-4 in their Game 4 triumph. While Gasol remains unable to hit anything, the scorching hot Ibaka brings reason for reconsideration of this strategy.
Most of Ibaka’s damage comes when Robert Williams is in the game. Williams, a bit more of a block-chaser than Daniel Theis, licks his chops a tad when he sees a drive from one of the Raptors’ smaller guards, carrying them a step lower than he must. As he is slower to react to those pops, Ibaka has a ton of time to catch, get set, and fire.
Credit Nick Nurse for the off-ball movement here that keeps the floor balanced and keeps Celtics defenders far away from helping if they wanted to. But Stevens has clearly instructed his bigs to live with the shot and only close out once the ball is settled.
This is a shot the Raptors can get whenever they want it. Boston has been consistent all season long about icing side ball screens, working to prevent the ball from going middle. Lowry or VanVleet just need to bait Williams to them with a couple bounces, then throw to Ibaka atop the key.
After a Game 4 loss to the Raptors, the Boston Celtics are admittedly on the ropes a bit following a second consecutive game where Toronto’s stars seized the moment and Boston’s stars shying away from it.
Kemba Walker took just nine shots, Jaylen Brown went 4-18, and worse yet, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam looked like the All-Stars that steamrolled every non-Celtics team in the bubble. That can’t happen again–particularly on the Brown/Walker front–if the Cs want to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s starting to genuinely seem like the season could be in peril. Nick Nurse’s Raptors engineered a similar comeback in last year’s conference finals when they were able to figure out how to stop the Milwaukee Bucks. Now granted, Boston has three players (four when Gordon Hayward is healthy) that can create their own offense, whereas Milwaukee was/is almost entirely reliant on Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The thing is, Fred VanVleet was very passionate following Game 3’s heartbreaking buzzer-beater and may have spoken something very spooky into existence when speaking to Masai Ujiri after the thrilling contest:
“They f—ed up,” VanVleet told Ujiri and Webster, per Amick. “They f—ed up now.”
After two consecutive losses, it appears that he may be onto something. The feel of this series changed in the second half of that pivotal third game when Lowry and Siakam started to pick up their play and Boston grew more stagnant on offense.
The series is 2-2, and this series feels like it’s going seven games. The one worrying thing for the Raptors has to be fatigue. With the season on the line, Raptors coach Nick Nurse went with a shortened bench. Only eight Raptors played on Saturday, and one — Matt Thomas — got three minutes.
Lowry, Siakam, and VanVleet all played 44+ minutes on Saturday. All three played 38+ minutes in Game 3. I admire Nurse for saying “screw it” with the season on the line and playing his best players as much as humanly possible, but he’ll have to manage those minutes going forward.
If the Raptors can keep this going, however, the East suddenly looks a bit wide open. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are surprisingly down 3-0 to Jimmy Butler and the Heat, and with Giannis reportedly fighting an injury, Miami could coast into the Eastern Conference Finals with a win on Sunday.
Miami is great, but that’s a team that the Raptors or Celtics will feel they can compete with, and beat.
With a half second left in Game 3, the Raptors looked finished. Now, they’ve got a clear path to the NBA Finals.
Ibaka shouldn’t be planning his exit from Toronto just yet, as he’ll have to see what Marc Gasol decides to do first.
Starting 27 games for the Raptors this season with Gasol injured, Ibaka proved why he should be in some NBA team’s opening five. He averaged 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds and shot 55.0 percent overall in 31.5 minutes, including a sparkling 43.7 percent mark from three.
With Gasol back and forced to come off the bench once again, Ibaka’s averages dropped to 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 22.6 minutes, with shooting splits of just 46.5 percent overall and 31.6 percent from deep.
If the 35-year-old Gasol decides to retire or sign elsewhere, Ibaka should absolutely consider returning to Toronto. If he’s asked to come off the bench again, well, there’s a number of teams that should be happy to offer a 7’0″ former block champ and now floor-spacing center a starting gig.
Ibaka already brings 10 years of postseason experience at age 30, and he should be above Hassan Whiteside, Tristan Thompson and Derrick Favors on teams’ wish lists due to his outside shooting abilities.
If Toronto sticks with Gasol, every NBA team with a need at center should be calling Ibaka.