Every NBA season is a learning experience. We gather information about players, teams, and the game itself, and take away lasting lessons from this information. As fans of the Toronto Raptors, the lessons that we care about involve the team north of the border. Each week, this column will identify and explain new lessons that we learned about our favourite team from the last week of action
Here are the three lessons from this week with the Raptors.
Time to Reconcile with Playoff McCaw
Nick Nurse has acquired the cultural capital in Toronto to try out any schematic gambit that pops into his mind. If he came out tomorrow and said that the Raptors are going to run a Mighty Ducks-esque “Flying V” on offense, I’d be like “oh clever idea, let’s see how this works. Can’t rule it out. This Nurse guy always knows something we don’t.” The only thing that challenges my blind faith is the deployment of the skinny guard they call McCaw.
With the Raptors shorthanded as per against the Phoenix Suns, Nurse turned to Patrick McCaw in the starting lineup, and gave him 34 minutes overall. He had five points on 2-of-6 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, and a steal. Those are unremarkable numbers for 12 minutes of floor time. McCaw, again, had 34. His defense on Devin Booker, however, was solid, and helped force him into a bad shooting night at 5-of-14. Nurse spoke after the game like McCaw was a young Kawhi in the 2014 Finals defending LeBron.
Nick Nurse: "A lot of credit to Pat (McCaw). Pat gets 5 points, but he had a hell of a game." pic.twitter.com/b2IT8iDOKo— William Lou (@william_lou) March 4, 2020
I’ve tried to accept his regular season appearances. I even tried to zag on the McCaw hate, briefly establishing a foothold on McCaw Mountain. It was a barren wasteland with no capacity to sustain life. Had I stayed any longer, I would have succumbed to the conditions. It just is not there; he cannot be in the rotation.
The combination of McCaw’s minutes and this quote from Nurse have all but confirmed the worst of my fears: we are going to see Patrick McCaw in the playoffs. Nurse sees something in him that literally no one else does, and this suggests he will show trust in him at the highest level. This would be a mistake. His defense is playable, but his offense hurts the team.
Tony Allen was a great defender and a zero on offense. The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, the eventual NBA champion swung a series against the Memphis Grizzlies by simply not guarding him and devoting their defense to the other four Grizzlies (young Marc!) Also, Tony Allen is not Patrick McCaw, he is Tony freaking Allen! The guy that Kobe Bryant said is the best defender he ever faced! If you can scheme him out of a game, I’d be terrified to see what a good team does to Patrick McCaw.
In the following game, Nurse doubled down, using McCaw as a sixth man against the Warriors. In his 24 minutes, he amassed a whopping 0 points and three assists.
The Raptors have so many players that give you something on both ends, why resort to a guy who only helps the defense because he kind of bothered Devin Booker? (Booker still had 22 points and 10 assists, not a bad night overall!) Unfortunately, resorting to that guy appears to be exactly what Nurse plans on doing.
So, Raptors fans, the mental preparation starts now. You are going to feel significant anxiety and a looming sense of dread. That’s perfectly normal, we’re all feeling it. Picture a babbling brook, or a calm sandy beach with the waves rushing in, whatever it takes to maintain your inner peace. We must reconcile with Playoff McCaw.
Norm Powell’s Ceiling Has Been Raised
The Raptors have an argument for possession of the best player development program in the NBA. They have an unprecedented knack for finding unheralded talent and making the most out of it. This has been true for Norman Powell, a mid-second rounder that the Raptors acquired as part of a deal with Milwaukee in a move that can be added to Masai Ujiri’s rap sheet as yet another instance of highway robbery. This move also acquired the draft pick that eventually became OG Anunoby and the Raptors only had to send Greivis Vasquez to the Bucks. Unbelievable.
We already have gotten more out of Norm than a team should get from a second rounder. He’s swung multiple playoff series, has been a much-needed spark in many a sleepy midseason game, and was a fringe member of the championship rotation. Norm has traditionally been an energetic presence, who can jump start the offense with some hot shooting and lightning quick drives. He can also frustrate with erratic play and inexplicable cold spells. That’s what we thought Powell was and always would be, that the Raptors had gotten all the player development juice out of him that they could.
Powell’s play this season, however, has forced a recalibration of that mindset. His ceiling has been raised. Powell has had two waves of injuries this year. Since the end of his first, he has averaged 20.1 points with 52/40/86 splits, wildly efficient numbers on considerable volume for a player who can be prone to inefficient shots. Since his return from a finger injury, his second wave, to his non-shooting hand, he has upped that scoring to 27.3 points on 54/36/85 shooting.
Although the three-point and free throw shooting took a slight dip, his maintenance of efficiency after a finger injury is rather remarkable, as it is unlikely that he was able to continue his usual shooting routine with the injury.
Nonetheless, he has proved that his 40 percent shooting season from last year was no outlier. His improvement goes beyond his outside shooting, however. He has always had a slight penchant for the long two, an inefficient shot in general. This year, Norm is canning them at a 50 percent, enough to justify taking them. His decision-making has clearly improved. The biggest change, however, has been his shooting in the paint.
After finishing below league average at the rim for the bulk of his career, Norm has turned this weakness into an overwhelming strength. This season, he is shooting 68 percent at the rim, putting him in the 86th percentile in the NBA, according to cleaning the glass. He has leveraged his athleticism more effectively this year, trading low-percentage reverse layups and double-pump attempts for going straight up through contact for a dunk or simple lay-in.
His shift at the rim is reminiscent of a scat back who would beat three defenders behind the line of scrimmage only to get tackled for a 2-yard loss who changed his game to become a one-cut runner chugging out five yards a carry. Sure, you will wow people the odd time it works, but the brutal efficiency is well worth the sacrifice of flash.
All of this has combined to establish a different player than the one we have had for the years prior. His good nights, as shown in last night’s 37-point performance against the Warriors, are now spectacular. His bad nights are significantly less frequent, and less severe. Powell may not ever be an All-Star, but he can certainly be a star in his role, like a linebacker version of Jamal Crawford, with more defense. At minimum, he looks to be starting a career as a perennial Sixth Man candidate.
The Box-and-1 Is An All-Time Playoff Gambit
With Stephen Curry making his return from injury against the Raptors, the team that bested him in last year’s finals, the jokes about the strategy used to counter Curry were rampant.
Welcome back box-and-1 incoming. https://t.co/z6jWlLWwKC— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 5, 2020
My mind has been trained to blurt out “box-and-1” like a Pavlovian dog anytime Nick Nurse’s creative mind is referenced, as is likely the case for many a Raptors fan. This week, however, box-and-1 talk was kicked into overdrive, as the return of Steph Curry brought nostalgia for Fred VanVleet sticking like glue to Curry while the remaining members of the team watched keenly for any slippage.
That this nostalgia has spread outside of the Raptors bubble makes it clear that this strategy has a place in playoff history. At the forefront of NBA postseason lore is, of course, individual performances. Strategic shifts, however, can define a series in their own right.
Moving Andre Igoudala into the starting lineup in Game 4 of the 2014-15 established the Warriors’ Death Lineup as a cold-blooded force of destruction and defined the series more than any one player. Having LeBron defend Derrick Rose in 2011 when the Heat played the Bulls shut down the MVP and propelled the Miami to their first Finals of the Heatles era. Rick Carlisle, however, had an adjustment of his own, and started J.J. Barea in the last two games of that series, helping the Mavericks pull off one of the biggest upsets in Finals history.
The box-and-1 is right up there with those moves, as has been made clear by its revival this week. It is sure to come up any time that the Nick Nurse-led Raptors play Steph Curry in the years to come, and when great playoff coaching strategies are discussed.