The third quarter Warriors. Talking heads have dubbed them “the 31st team in the NBA.” With quick jabs after the break, Golden State crushes throats and flips games on their heads in a matter of minutes. For years, the Warriors have been reminding teams that no first-half cushion is safe. Even without their superstar seven-foot scoring machine, the Warriors owned the third quarter of Game 2.
Up 12 in the second quarter, the Raptors looked to extend their one-game series lead over the juggernaut Warriors. Golden State predictably unleashed a flurry of buckets on the Raptors, pouring on a 27-3 run over seven and a half minutes. When the third quarter clock read 6:35, Golden State boasted an impressive 13-point lead. For the next quarter or so, the lead didn’t budge much. With 4:46 left in the game, Golden State paced Toronto by 11 points.
To end Game 2, the Raptors saw two major swings in their favor, one by the hand of the 6ixGod and one by their own doing. Early in the fourth, Klay Thompson landed awkwardly and would miss the rest of the game with a hamstring injury. Without Kevin Durant, the Warriors were already hamstrung on offense.
Stephen Curry is as dominant as always, but he can only do so much with four non-threats around him. From the moment Thompson went down, the Warriors actually extended their lead from seven to 11 points. Even without any real offensive threats, Steph’s gravity was enough to generate quality looks.
Steph Curry’s shooting gravity often ignites a chain reaction leading to an easy score. Take this play, for example, beginning with a Curry-Bogut high pick-and-roll. Toronto’s trap is the cooling rod for Curry’s nuclear shooting, which will explode if the Raptors employed traditional PNR coverage. The Warriors would like to have Draymond setting the screen due to his elite passing, but Curry’s pull opens up a four on three wide enough for Bogut to suffice. Danny Green rotates off of Shaun Livingston to take away Bogut, who swings the rock to Livingston. When Livingston drives, Fred VanVleet steps up and Livingston lobs to Draymond for the easy layup:
Nick Nurse knew traditional man defense wasn’t going to shrink Curry’s head to normal proportions, not on this night. In order to have any chance at this game, Nurse had to get wild. So what did he do? He did what any smart coach would do in this situation, set up the box-and-one. Wait, did you say box-and-one?
Are you talking about the cheap defensive tactic JV coaches deploy to stop the one six-foot-five kid on the other team? Yup, that box-and-one, except this time, the man standing in the way of victory isn’t some tall, lanky 14-year-old. It is the greatest basketball player on planet Earth. There’s no way a box and freaking one could work in the National Basketball Association, right?
Nick Nurse grabbed Fred VanVleet and told him (I am making this quote up): “Fred, you’re going to stick to the babyface like glue and don’t let him go anywhere or we’re letting the Magic sign you, understood?”
Nurse’s threat must have hit VanVleet, who acted as every new parent does, not letting his baby out of his sight.
Toronto flawlessly executed their scheme, sticking to their one fundamental tenet: make someone not named Steph beat us. With four minutes and 46 seconds remaining in the game, the Raptors shifted into their box-and-one down 11. The Warriors, flabbergasted an NBA team would even try such a scheme, turned the ball over seconds after crossing the half court line:
For the rest of the game, Toronto’s unconventional defense suffocated the Warriors. Over the final 4:46 of game two, the Warriors scored three points on nine trips down the floor against the vaunted box-and-one, good for an anemic 0.33 points per possession. Unsurprisingly, Steve Kerr and the Warriors had no idea what to do against a defense they, or anyone else, had never seen before. Through my brief sleuthing and asking around, I can’t find one instance of a team defending with the box-and-one in the playoffs, let alone the regular season.
With Fred VanVleet symbiotically attached to the Curry, the greatest off-ball weapon of all time had no wiggle room. Golden State’s off-ball action fell apart with multiple Raptors taking Curry away. Toronto paid little attention to Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins on the perimeter, leaving them oodles of room to operate. They sold out a bit more to Quinn Cook, though they still didn’t treat him with much respect. Take this possession, where the Raptors don’t bother to close out to Green, Iguodala, or Cousins, conceding an Iguodala three which falls short:
Green and Cousins’ passing lose value in the absence of spacing. Since Toronto can rotate hard to Cousins on the block without worrying about shooters, the Warriors can’t create an advantage. Instead of closing out, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam stay put, waiting until the ball swings to Cook to pounce:
Again, Curry desperately tries to shake VanVleet off of him. Even if he frees himself, there’s no space to run into because of the box. Toronto will gladly accept Cousins, a sub 30 percent three-point shooter this season, taking this shot:
When the Warriors are resorting to Quinn Cook pull-up jumpers with time left on the clock, Toronto knows they are inside Golden State’s head:
Here’ Pascal Siakam is turned towards Curry and away from the ball, usually a massive no-no on defense. The Raptors want to part the seas for Green, though, and get what they want: Draymond recklessly drives middle and turns it over.
Toronto clawed their way back into this game, only trailing by two with seconds to go. They extended their box-and-one to half court, full on doubling Curry. It nearly worked, as Kawhi Leonard’s mitts grazed Curry’s pass, nearly stealing it. Toronto gets the shot it wants, a non-Curry jumper, except their luck had run out at this point and Iguodala reclaims home court for Golden State.
The Raptors were a few lucky bounces away from stealing Game 2, all thanks to a defense propagated by lazy high school coaches. Putting aside his struggles, Nick Nurse deserves sincere praise for his ingenuity (insanity) and the belief in his guys to enter new terrain. Despite the end of Game 2, don’t expect the box-and-one to be the new Warrior stopper every team uses going forward.
With time to prepare, Steve Kerr likely will devise countless plays to destroy the box-and-one. When Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant eventually return, Toronto will have to go back to man to man defense and hope they can plug any leaks the old fashioned way. However, the box-and-one may have some use going forward.
Due to their lack of depth, Golden State will have to turn to Steph Curry lineups without Klay Thompson. Against those lineups, (say, Curry-Mckinnie-Iguodala-Green-Looney) Nurse will be able to sprinkle in the box-and-one sporadically to throw off Golden State’s offensive rhythm.
If nothing else, Game 2 shows us the fruits of getting a little bit crazy and the value of entering territory nobody else would dare to, even in the highest leverage situations.