Those who know me, know I am a card-carrying member of the “Coaches Can Only Do So Much” Club. I subscribe to Sam Mitchell’s “Jimmy and Joes not the Xs and Os” theory too. At the end of the day, in the highest-stake situations, coaches are most limited by who they can actually play, more so than what plays they can call.
Look at the Raps last hurrah with Dwane Casey. His choices to guard LeBron James boiled down to second-year pro OG Anunoby and aging vet C.J. Miles. What else was there? DeMar DeRozan? Delon Wright? Serge Ibaka? All of these were unsatisfactory options, and that humbling defeat was one of the reasons Masai Ujiri loaded up on wing players the following year.
Still, coaches do have influence on the game. Casey was notably slow to change course if things weren’t working — relying on past results rather than facing what was currently happening. Of course, he’s not the only one. This year analysts wondered why Thunder coach Billy Donovan insisted on running centre Stephen Adams out against the small-ball Houston Rockets as often as he did, even though OKC was getting crushed in his minutes on the floor.
Hell, Boston coach Brad Stevens would probably like to have back the four minutes Enes Kanter played in Game 3. The Celtics not only lost those minutes by four, but more importantly it seemed to give the Raps a shot of offensive rhythm in a series where they have been badly lacking it.
That lack of rhythm isn’t a surprise. There have been warning lights about Toronto’s average offense all year long, and, against a team as long, and quick, and well-coached as Boston all the warts are on full display. No, Pascal Siakam does not seem ready to be a high-volume playoff scorer. Yes, the Raptors guards are struggling to find their range from deep against longer defenders. No, Marc Gasol does not have a “This is a FIBA Tournament” switch that turns him into the guy who can still dominate offensively.
These are Jimmy and Joes problems — they can be mitigated by Xs and Os, but not eliminated. Still, for the first time in his Raptor’s career it can be fairly argued that Nick Nurse is making some stubborn mistakes. Namely, he’s turned away from one of the better benches in the league. In the second half of Game 3, Nurse effectively ran a six-man rotation. It worked, just barely, but it’s not sustainable.
The argument is not that Terence Davis, or Norman Powell, or Chris Boucher, or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Matt Thomas are better than the Raptors starters. The argument is that they can provide things the Raptors need in this series.
Powell, in particular, is someone Nurse should find a longer leash for. Aside from the Playoff Norm moments, Powell has become a legitimate offensive weapon. While he’s scuffled somewhat in the series, he’s given Nurse a season-long resume that shows he’s better than this. Powell’s shooting, and ability to pressure the rim are two things the Raptors are in desperate need of in this series and 12-minute cameos aren’t enough to effectively unlock it. To a lesser extent, Davis can bring some of those things as well. In a series where Toronto is posting an offensive rating five points lower than the Golden State Warriors, the worst offensive team in the league this season, it’s worth trying.
Of course, all of the players Nurse is staying away from have significant flaws, but they all have proven they can succeed in set roles. And because of the Raptors’ injuries over the past year, they’ve all had chances to do so in high-stake moments against good to great opposition.
Yes, the playoffs can be different, but how do we know for sure that Hollis-Jefferson’s lack of shooting can’t be balanced in short bursts by his defense, intelligent cutting and mean-spirited attacks at the rim. Kanter excepted, Boston doesn’t have the size to play Boucher off the floor — and Boucher’s length and bounce could help deter Boston’s drives. Thomas showed in his Game 3 cameo that while Boston will seek to attack him, he’s active, and intelligent enough that it’s not an automatic bucket. And on the other end, the Celtics are paying him a lot of attention, opening badly-needed creases in their D.
There’s also the diminishing returns that come from playing your best players heavy minutes. The Raps survived Game 3 more than they won it — they were clearly running on fumes, and if Anunoby’s shot had somehow been a two, it seems hard to believe they had another five minutes of high-intensity basketball in them.
This was also an issue in Game 2 where the Celtics blitzed the Raptors in the fourth quarter, and Toronto’s offense was stagnant and the players lacked lift on their shots. Finding an extra 10-15 minutes for the bench spread across Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam’s minutes might keep those shots from hitting front-iron.
Finally, Toronto’s starting group tend towards the methodical. It’s great when that machine is grinding out points, but right now it looks predictable and, frankly, lacks energy. Boucher, Davis, and Hollis-Jefferson might make some bone-headed mistakes, but they’d also inject some chaos into the proceedings that the Raptors weirdly seem to thrive on.
Boston’s bench is, on paper, less versatile than Toronto’s. Why not go small with a Siakam-OG-Powell-Lowry-Davis lineup when both Robert and Grant Williams are on the floor? Who would the Boston bigs guard? If Brad Wanamaker and Kemba Walker are on the court at the same time, maybe use Hollis-Jefferson, who would — and could — attack both aggressively in the post, while also being able to credibly switch onto both of them. It’s at least something to think about.
I’m not going to figure out better usage of Toronto’s players than Nick Nurse. He’s an innovative team leader who just won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, and I’m just a dude with a keyboard. But by taking so many tools out of of his box, he’s limited his ability to use that innovation, and he’s heaping pressure on his key players — maybe more than they can bear.