Game 6 of Raptors-Celtics gave us an incredible display of willpower and attrition, with neither team willing to give an inch through two overtimes. Even after six games, the Boston Celtics appear to have the better offense, or at the very least, a higher ceiling on their offensive talent. The Toronto Raptors showed their championship composure though, and the willingness to do everything (literally!) to survive for another game.
Pascal Siakam continued to struggle against the Celtics’ defensive scheme, but he’s not alone, as Kemba Walker also struggled against Fred VanVleet and the box-and-one. This series also showed the stark difference between the two masterminds behind the bench.
In one corner, Brad Stevens tries to coach to perfection. His calculating approach avoids taking risks and going for the sure thing that has gotten his team this far. On the other corner, you have Nick Nurse, who takes big risks in big moments, driven by his survival instincts, having coached at all sorts of funky environments.
Game 7 sets the table for a potential epic end to this series. Can the Raptors muster enough willpower to drive their exhausted bodies for one more game? What does Siakam need to do to be a factor on offense for this elimination game? Can Stevens free up Kemba Walker, or can he count on his other stars to be disciplined enough to put the game away?
Kemba in a Green Box
The Raptors opened up the game with a box-and-one, and Fred VanVleet did not let up face-guarding Kemba Walker for most of the game. The Raptors bigs tried their best to keep up with him around the perimeter, and that defense was able to funnel him to multiple defenders on his drives to the basket.
However, I believe Nurse found the biggest Kemba Stopper of all: his Celtics teammates. While Walker struggled to get separation from VanVleet, he played within the offense and didn’t force it too much. He was a willing passer, as he created opportunities for his teammates, and he was ready to give up the ball early with VanVleet pressuring him. The result was Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart shooting more, and trying to play-make more. The ball rarely went back to Kemba, especially since Smart and Brown continue to be eager to jack up shots.
Almost half of the Celtics shot attempts came from the Smart and Brown combo. You have to believe Nurse and the Raptors will take that.
Raptors Small Ball (Norm Ball?)
Credit goes first to Norman Powell, who may have saved the season for the Raptors with his play down the stretch in Game 6. Credit goes second to Nurse for making the call to go small with Powell instead of a traditional centre for that time.
It was a big decision as Marc Gasol finally showed some semblance of offense, dropping eight points and with two three-pointers. Serge Ibaka looked sharp as well, displaying his two-way production with 13 quick points and three blocks. There’s very little data about this small-ball lineup, having only played two minutes together in the regular season, and five minutes in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. It also doesn’t help that Powell was a disaster for the most part in this series.
Still, Nurse went with his instinct, convinced that the quicker perimeter defense could compensate for the lack of rim protection. It wasn’t perfect, as Daniel Theis got behind the Raptors defense multiple times. However, Toronto’s perimeter defense made it suffocating for Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Jayson Tatum to drive into the paint. And as icing on the cake: Powell was the freshest guy on the floor in crunch time — as his ten clutch points can attest.
For the Celtics:
Two games ago, Marcus Smart, along with his teammates’ help, did a great job stopping Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. This time, the Raptors did a better job switching him away from those two, taking advantage of the Celtics’ switch defense. Smart’s strength as a defender was a double-edged sword, as he’s a very willing help-defender, and often would leave Lowry or VanVleet to help, forcing a switch.
These things should stand out when the Celtics watch the Game 6 tape. Should the Celtics stay on switches involving Lowry/VanVleet, daring him to either get open or get a half-a-step on Smart? We don’t know what Stevens would do, but we do know that the Celtics are in trouble if Lowry can impose his will.
Meanwhile, Nurse decided to stop Kemba Walker primarily and rely on the Raptors’ overall team defense to slow everybody else down. Walker got the face-up treatment from VanVleet, in a box-and-one or otherwise, and then he was forced to try and navigate the rest of the Raptors on his way to the rim. It led to assists rather than points, which is perhaps something Toronto can live with.
To counter, Stevens had Walker go through double-screens on the ball or play hide-and-seek off-the-ball to shake off VanVleet and force a switch. It makes sense, as a strategy, however it could be tough to do once again assuming the Raptors go with their small-ball lineup. In that configuration, there won’t be a Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka for him to exploit on an island.
Defensively, the Celtics need to hide Kemba Walker. Kyle Lowry picked on him all game, and even Norman Powell dared to get a game-winner on Walker’s head. One thing they can do is to zone up on the Raptors and hide Walker on the weak side. The idea here would be to dare the Raptors to make their threes, which has been an up-and-down risk throughout the series.
For the Raptors:
Gasol/Ibaka Minutes Distrubition
It’s not a matter of if but when the Raptors will go to their small-ball lineup at some point in Game 7. As a result, Nurse has to effectively use Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. If Gasol is struggling out of the gate, give him a quick hook and put Ibaka there. Gasol can always come back later in the quarter, and Ibaka’s effectivity fades past five minutes straight of playing time. This observation is relatively true even before his ankle injury.
In both cases, the Raptors need their offense and rim protection, but will likely need to take a wait-and-see approach with both. If Toronto gets threes from both players, look for Nurse to extend their minutes, otherwise: look for that small lineup again.
More Playoff P
We’re not talking about Paul George or Pascal Siakam; we’re talking about the Original Playoff P — Norman Powell, who finally showed up and rescued the Raptors’ season once again. I suppose it’s time for more Playoff P?
Powell has struggled to get it going against the Celtics for the most part. His miscues on defense have led to Nurse keeping his minutes short. Meanwhile, Norm’s offense, which looked easy against the Nets, has found it difficult to take flight against Boston’s disciplined defense.
Powell has to assert himself with focus whenever he’s on the floor. He’s got the Celtics’ attention now, so his activity on the floor should attract more gravity from Boston’s defense. This is good for the Raptors and Nurse should run more plays involving him, whether as the recipient or as a decoy so as to avoid him being a bystander for Siakam/VanVleet isolation possessions.
Nurse should also figure out a way to get Powell some minutes with Marc Gasol, as they have good chemistry together. Knowing Gasol, he will look and get Powell a good scoring opportunity when he can.
The Raptors ran a play for Siakam to start the game. He cut to the basket and was fouled in the process. That aggressiveness to get to the line was non-existent throughout most of Game 6 afterwards. Siakam’s struggle against the Celtics’ defense is well-documented now, but one thing that stars do when they can’t get a bucket is get to the line. For that, obviously, Siakam has to take it strong to the rack. He’s been playing softly for the most part once he enters the paint, which has to change.
Siakam is only averaging three free-throw attempts per game, and as Toronto’s de facto number one option, that’s not going to cut it. The charity stripe is a refuge for stars when they struggle. Getting there also slows the game down, allowing the player to reset and get his teammates some rest, which is scarce for the starters. There’s no way to demand this, but it would be good for Siakam to inch those FT attempts closer to the 7-8 range for tonight.
Another thing Siakam needs to do better is recognize the defensive collapse and make the right read for a kick out. Regardless of his struggles, the Celtics still have him on their game plan and are sagging and stunting whenever Siakam is on the low block. As a result, his Raptors teammates are noticeably open when he’s in the paint — if only for brief moments. It’s also an opportunity for Lowry and VanVleet to get switched away from Smart, so a timely kick out could continue to be beneficial here.
Siakam has shown that he can play-make, as he was responsible for getting Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet going by leading them into wide-open shots. But he should let the game come to him. He’s been forcing a lot of shots — which is only a good idea if, ah yes, he gets to the line.
For the first time in this series, the Celtics are facing elimination. While they have younger legs, their core players have logged similar minutes to the Raptors’ core players in the past few games. Kemba Walker’s knee has to be feeling the heavy toll of this series. How would Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart play with the immense pressure that comes with this game?
Can Nick Nurse pull another trick and make this series a crown jewel on Kyle Lowry’s career? The Raptors are a much better team collectively, so they would never everyone to show up. Not just Pascal Siakam. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Norm Powell all have to step up and not make this their last stand.