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Tactical Issues: What adjustments will we see in Game 4 from Toronto?

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The Raptors survived extinction, and have some momentum going heading into Game 4. Can they capitalize and even their series against Boston?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A great philosopher once said, “You better stop OG.” At that time, nobody knew that it was a message to the future Boston Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics failed to heed Serge Ibaka’s advice, and as Fred VanVleet has said since: they fucked up now.

With just one great shot, complemented by a fantastic pass, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry snatched the fanbase from going deeper into despair, gave everyone hope, and reminded everyone that the Raptors are still the defending champs. Immediately forgotten was Kemba Walker’s dime to Daniel Theis that was supposed to be the nail in the coffin to the Raptors’ playoff and championship aspirations.

Temporarily forgotten was the fact that even with the loss, the Celtics are still the better team in the series. That Pascal Siakam still could not find his footing against the Celtics defensive game plan, and that the Raptors bench combined for only ten points. The Raptors won, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Throughout the game, we saw Nick Nurse through every defensive scheme he found on Hubie Brown’s Defensive Playbook for Success DVD. While it wasn’t as effective, he may have used Hubie Brown’s How to Win Against Any Zone Defense DVD. Altogether, Nurse was for sure inspired by Hubie Brown’s How to Win with Less Talent DVD. He was also masterful in executing a 1/2 Court SLOB play with one second left that could probably be found in Hubie Brown’s Special Situations Part I & II DVD (Oklahoma City Thunder fans should start a crowdfunding operation to buy Billy Donovan the same DVD).

The bottom line, we now have a series. The Celtics still have the upper hand though, and Nurse will need to dig deep into his DVDs to get Siakam and the rest of the Raptors going against the Celtics. Let’s scout some game plans for Game 4.

Scouting Strategies

Celtics’ End-Game Zone Defense

Forget Tacko Fall. The biggest question here is why Stevens would go with a zone to defend Boston’s two-point lead with only 0.5 seconds left.

Stevens made a huge gamble. He probably thought that Nurse would play it safe and try to get something in the paint or near the basket to send the game to overtime. Judging from the first and second options, it doesn’t look like it.

Fred VanVleet was option first option, and he was supposed to go to the corner for a heave. Pascal Siakam was option two, and he was supposed to cross paths with Marc Gasol, hopefully, to create some confusion with the defense. If Siakam had daylight, he would have gotten the ball. Had Gasol been able to dive to the rim, maybe Lowry would have gone there instead.

Stevens almost got everything right; they were able to kill VanVleet, Siakam, and Gasol’s routes. But their activity took the attention of four zoned up Celtics. The numbers didn’t add up, three Raptors in motion against four Celtics. OG Anunoby, meanwhile, was wide open on the opposite corner three area, away from all the action, and we all know what happened next.

Perhaps Stevens didn’t like the idea of Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart going one-on-one against Siakam in an open floor setting. Maybe it wasn’t made clear enough to watch the baseline. Whatever it was, it cost the Celtics.

Hubie Brown’s Defensive Playbook for Success

Game 3 was probably the most intense defense the Raptors have had to play this season. Nurse had the Raptors play hard and smart, using a slew of defensive schemes in the process. We saw a common zone defense, triangle-and-two, man-to-man, and what felt like a lot more. Taken altogether, it achieved the desired effect of overwhelming the Celtics. Consider something like Toronto’s ever-changing drop coverage or blitz up top. Sometimes two players were coming in to trap and funnel the ball handler to the sidelines, sometimes not. That’s a microcosm of what we’re talking about here.

Amidst all of that, the Raptors played the analytics, closing out hard on shooters, making them put the ball down, and not necessarily closing out as hard on their preferred non-shooters. Marcus Smart did not get into an insane rhythm this time, as the Raptors paid extra attention to him every time he made a jumper. Again, Toronto proved their defense is not only strong, but adaptable.

It’s enough to make me wonder if there are any extra features on that DVD that Nurse hasn’t used yet.

For the Celtics:

Trap Lowry

Kyle Lowry getting into the lane was a big problem for the Celtics. Lowry squeezed 20 points in the paint and collapsed their defense to create better opportunities for his teammates. The Celtics bigs were unable to keep up with Lowry on switches, and he bullied the guards who managed to stick with him.

Stevens should look into trapping Lowry’s screen actions, so as to force Marc Gasol to do something with the ball, or get the ball into Fred VanVleet’s hands as the decision-maker since he’s not as successful in scoring in the paint. (Now we’ll just have to see if Lowry can do that all again after 46 hard minutes in Game 3.)

More Time for the Time Lord

It somehow feels like a crime not to put Robert Williams out there as much as possible for Celtics fans. He’s been a problem for the Raptors’ defense, as he has a knack for getting in-between them as the roll man. Yes, he’s limited with his offensive skills, but that hasn’t hurt his ability to get some buckets in this series.

Seeing Enes Kanter out there must also have be really frustrating for the Celtics fanbase. It was a joy for the Raptors guards though. Kanter was not bad on offense, but his defensive abilities are just totally lacking — and the Raptors immediately knew that when he came into the game. It’s hard not to suggest Williams would have done better. I think we’re at a point now where any available backup minutes at centre for Boston should go to the Time Lord.

For the Raptors:

Give the Ball to OG and Get Out of the Way

It’s a crime for OG Anunoby to go 23:59.5 minutes without any shot attempts in the second half for Toronto. In that spirit, let’s watch this one again:

Yes, OG is usually the Raptors’ fourth or fifth option on offense. But he’s shown throughout this series that he can be counted on to make something happen on that end. He put in 20 points in Game 2, hit the game-winner in Game 3, and continues to look unafraid of the moment. I say let’s get more chances for OG to score in Game 4.

Get Siakam Moving

The Raptors were off to a good start in Game 3 thanks to the best Raptor to ever do it in Kyle Lowry. He was aggressive, constantly getting into the paint, and scoring surprising buckets against overmatched Boston big men. That set the tone for how the Celtics’ defense would react. All of a sudden, Boston had to really respect Lowry inside the arc.

Lowry mixed it up with kick-outs, resets, and 1-5 pick-and-roll actions with Gasol, where he either used him as a decoy or as a target for a roll or a pop. The Celtics’ defense kept guessing, but in all of this there’s still one player they did not have to worry about: Pascal Siakam.

In the first half, Siakam was barely involved in the offense, and he was non-existent in most actions involving Lowry’s and VanVleet’s efforts to attack the paint. He can often be seen just spotting up in the corner. That’s OG’s typical role, and even he knew how to move behind the defense for some backdoor cuts or subtle relocations.

Siakam’s number got called around five minutes into the game but he did not take a shot until a few possessions later. He struggled to post-up Jaylen Brown, which would be the theme for the night for Siakam. He did not get to attempt another shot until around two minutes left in the first quarter.

In the second half, we saw some glimpses on how to get Siakam easier shots. Gasol was able to lead him with a pass over Tatum, who was half overplaying him, and then another instance where he got Kemba Walker switched onto him in a weakside screen action with VanVleet. That simple movement was enough of an opening for him to get a quick post-up. Another example saw Siakam roaming along the baseline, where he was able to get the ball from the dunker’s spot behind the defense for his easiest shot of the series. Unfortunately, the Raptors reverted to letting Siakam take those awkward midrange shots and laboured post-ups.

To his credit, Siakam did not shy away from the moment and kept shooting. However, Nurse has to put him in better situations where the defense has less time to load up on him. At the very least, they should use Siakam’s gravity as a way to get his teammates better shots, which he’s shown he can do.

Keep the Starters Fresh

I previously raised a concern that Nurse is running his core players to the ground, with Siakam, Lowry, and VanVleet logging at least 40 minutes in each game. Obviously, Toronto playing its best players the longest makes sense — we just have to wonder if it’s sustainable for another three or four games.

At least Toronto doesn’t have this problem:

In any case, we should have expected this. Nurse had his core players in heavy minutes in last year’s postseason run too. In a game where the Raptors were one step closer to extinction, Nurse’s survival instinct made him lean on his core players — and lean on them hard.

This strategy is made tougher when we see the Raptors pushing the pace on the offense, hunting transition buckets, and then hustling back on defense to prevent the Celtics from getting any fastbreak points. On top of that, the Raptors were aggressive with their defense, closing out on shooters, executing quick rotations, and going through multiple schemes on the same possession. There was a point in the second quarter where the Raptors looked gassed while the Celtics seemed ready to pull away.

With around four minutes left in the game, fatigue was starting to rear its ugly head again. There was a missed rotation to a rolling Theis. Toronto’s set plays had no legs in their motion, and a turnover led to the Celtics getting an early offense dunk that took advantage of the Raptors’ tired defenders. To their credit, they dug deep and won Game 3, but it’s still cause for concern.

The Raptors are back at it again in less than 48 hours, and they had a light practice yesterday. Nurse should expect some heavy legs again, so he’ll need to load manage Toronto’s core players, even if it’s just for short blows.