With just a few minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 2, Toronto found themselves back in the game after a frenetic push to close the gap on a 13-point halftime deficit. They managed to whittle down the difference to just a single point — and then came the mistake that has plagued the Raptors all postseason long.
Nick Nurse pulled three starters out and placed Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet in the game all at once.
Not only has this kind of substitution killed critical runs and game-shifting momentum for Toronto, it’s proved to be fatal for all three players’ effectiveness and confidence. After a Game 1 win, Fred VanVleet was heard saying he just gave the ball to Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard; that he didn’t want to mess up what they had going. That doesn’t sound like the usually confident Steady Freddy.
For all six of Toronto’s playoff games, coach Nurse has repeatedly put his bench players in awkward and sometimes outright bad match-ups. He’s refused to look at the totality of the ten players on the floor and get creative. He’s shortened his rotation, a commendable thing when your team runs 10 deep, but he’s not mixing it up — effectively anyway.
One of the biggest issues this postseason — outside of “play Kawhi more than 33 minutes” from Game 1 against Orlando — has been his refusal to match Joel Embiid’s presence on the floor with one of the handful of players in the NBA able to stop him: Marc Gasol. Despite Embiid playing fewer minutes than Gasol last night (35 to 32), they matched up for about half of them after a critical Philadelphia adjustment. This stubbornness, in what appears to be a refusal to allow Brett Brown to dictate Nurse’s lineups, is costing the Raptors valuable Gasol minutes.
Instead we’re being treated to Serge Ibaka’s inability to contain the giant. In the final two minutes of the third quarter, Embiid scored four points and blocked what would’ve been an important Powell layup — a six-point swing. It’s the misuse of these lineups that make it seem like the starters aren’t playing enough, despite three of the five reaching forty minutes last night, and the entire group playing 30 together. (They had a net rating of +18.5 in Game 2).
The lineup that played the end of third quarter (Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka) fouls too much and is ineffective stopping Embiid. Meanwhile, the lineup that played the beginning of the fourth quarter (VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Siakam, Ibaka) renders the entire Raptors backcourt ineffective by virtue of size difference and can’t generate enough points. That fourth quarter transitional lineup had an offensive rating of 28.6 last night in three absolutely critical minutes to start the fourth. (And what Jodie Meeks was doing out there before that at the end of the third we may never know.) The Raptors may have managed a comeback (again), but they shouldn’t have put themselves in that position (again).
Nurse has to recognize these things in real time if he wants to still be considered as the correct choice as head coach of the Raptors. Fans lambasted Dwane Casey for his unwillingness to make adjustments between games and quarters, and I do feel it’s a little fair to now criticize Nurse for the same thing. Some of the gaffes (such as wasting the opportunity of a fourth-quarter Philly timeout to sub in Kawhi Leonard, just to take a timeout of his own two minutes later) have been very pronounced, and the answers seemingly obvious in most cases.
It wasn’t the worst loss the Raptors could’ve endured — in fact, we haven’t seen a “bad” one yet, which is a blessing in itself — and it does provide the opportunity for reflection for the team to make necessary changes. If the regular season is a series of practices for the postseason, than the early rounds are practice for the Conference Finals, and NBA Finals, right?
Your move Nick.