Welp. The Boston Celtics came back to violently snatch Game 5 and the momentum away from the Toronto Raptors, who looked lethargic the entire game. Nick Nurse seemed to push all the wrong buttons the whole game — or could not get the buttons to work — as the Celtics cruised to a comfortable win, pushing the Raptors to the brink of extinction, with a 3-2 series lead.
For Brad Stevens and his Celtics, they were able to get everything they wanted. Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum shredded the Raptors defense that looked half a step (or more) slower. The Raptors’ heavy legs took a toll, but credit to the Celtics’ overall game plan, their renewed aggression offensively, and their disciplined defense that put pressure on every Raptors’ possession.
For Nurse and the Raptors, they have to scramble now to develop a better Plan B, assuming Plan A falters again. They may need a Plan C too if Serge Ibaka is unavailable to play. With that, we have some suggestions.
Containing the Point of Attack
Stevens had a big problem and made an excellent adjustment. Kyle Lowry’s aggressive forays to the basket created the chaos the Raptors needed to get their scoring opportunities. So Stevens made a move and put Marcus Smart, newly minted member of the league’s All-Defense first team, to slow down Lowry.
Smart’s length, size, and quickness bothered not just Lowry, but Fred VanVleet as well. Both guards were unable to get past Smart, who refused to let them turn the corner on him. When they were able to get some separation, the Celtics were prepared to crowd the dribble-drive penetration, shutting the lane to Lowry and VanVleet. On top of that, sometimes the Celtics would blitz Lowry, forcing him to give up the ball entirely.
Marcus Smart guarded Kyle Lowry on 18 possessions and held him scoreless.— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) September 8, 2020
He guarded Fred VanVleet on 6 possessions and held him scoreless
Combined he allowed them to take 1 FGA
The Raptors looked like they had no Plan B once they saw multiple fruitless attempts by VanVleet and Lowry. In turn, Toronto settled for tough contested shots and their offense fell apart. With Lowry unable to get going, it put a lot of pressure on VanVleet to do something with the ball. The Raptors had a slew of other problems that night, but this move was enough to suffocate whatever offense they could have generated, putting the game out of reach early.
(Given the dire situation, we’re going to just focus on the options available for the Raptors today. The Celtics seem to have it all figured out!)
For the Raptors:
Quick Hook for Gasol
I’m not a Marc Gasol apologist, nor a heavy critic. He’s shown time and again his value doing the little things on both ends of the floor for the Raptors. But sometimes I really do hope he can do more on the offensive end.
Unfortunately, Gasol just doesn’t have “it” sometimes, and there are times when the small details he brings to the table for Toronto cannot plug the gaping holes the team needs from his position, particularly on offense. It’s not Gasol’s fault for starting, nor for playing for too long. That part is on Nurse, and he and his coaching staff should have a much more open-minded approach to their personnel. Sometimes, Gasol is just not who the team needs, whether he’s struggling or not.
If healthy, Serge Ibaka should give Nurse a good option if he decides to either change the starting lineup or give Gasol a quick hook. If Ibaka can’t play, a small-ball lineup with Norman Powell would be the next logical choice, as it seems unlikely the Raptors will look further down the bench with their season now on the line.
Run the Offense Through Siakam
Whatever happened to running the offense through Pascal Siakam? Since entering the Bubble, he’s had his struggles, but he did not cakewalk his way to an All-Star selection. Siakam got there by showing a multi-faceted game that’s not all about scoring.
Throughout the season (and even in the Bubble and post-season), we’ve seen that Siakam is capable of either playmaking for his teammates, or at the very least, collapsing the opposing team’s defense. All of this has me wondering why Nurse would go away from him. Siakam’s usage in the playoffs has been weird at best, unlike their run last year, where his on-ball use made more sense.
VanVleet is taking on a lot of playmaking role, and while it worked against the Brooklyn Nets, it’s too much to ask him to constantly try to collapse the Celtics defense, especially when VanVleet’s best asset is getting that kick-out for a perimeter shot. Barring health issues, whatever it is, Nurse has to go back to Siakam as the focal point of their offense. It’s a two-way street, so Siakam will have to demand it and assert himself.
Run the Offense Through Gasol
The Raptors’ offense looked lost with Lowry unable to set the table for them. The Celtics defense easily handled VanVleet-initiated offense as they played him for the shot, and his limited playmaking got exposed. Overall, there was plenty of standing around, and sleep-walking through the motion on their plays allowed the Celtics to stunt whatever play they were trying to execute.
If Nick Nurse decides to stick with Marc Gasol, he needs to be a threat, not just defensively. Gasol’s scoring would be great, but he is nowadays best suited as a playmaking threat. The Celtics know pretty much everything in Nurse’s playbook, and Gasol has shown that he can improvise with the ball in the high-post as long as his teammates are moving.
Dig Deep Collectively
Maybe the Raptors can do it with seven players again. It’s possible, but given their mileage, it’s also a tall order for them. Nurse may have to trust his bench to hold-serve tonight and demonstrate the aggression they have displayed in the past. The starters are expected to play balls-to-the-wall, so they need to maintain their starters’ pace. To keep it going, Nurse needs to unleash Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, or Matt Thomas. Heck, put Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in there and have him create some chaos.
In all, Nurse will have to dig deep in his bag of tricks — not just defensively, but offensively. The coaching staff tonight has to show some creative tweaks to their offense to put the Raptors in better scoring positions. What’s more, Nurse will have to keep his key players fresh down the stretch, which means he’ll have to rely on his bench a bit to keep the pressure on the Celtics throughout.
The Raptors’ heavily-taxed starters will play their fifth game in ten days, with no travel but very little rest in between. If the Raptors lose this game, they can rest until training camp starts next season. Or they can refuse to give in and push this series to a winner-take-all showdown.