OAKLAND — The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors couldn’t stop discussing Nick Nurse’s box-and-one defence that nearly fuelled a comeback against the Warriors in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night.
To explain it simply, the box-and-one is a zone defence where four defenders are stationed at the corners of the paint (the box) while the fifth man (the one) chases around the main scoring threat. The defence is popular in lower levels of basketball where one player tends to stand head and shoulders above the pack, because the box-and-one is built to leverage all five defenders to focus on one man.
“It was very effective. The key with the zone is, or any janky defence for that matter, it just changes the rhythm. Watching the tape, we had open looks that we didn't knock down. But the rhythm changed and the look changed. And so it was very effective. They did a good job with that,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said.
Against the box-and-one, the Warriors couldn’t produce a single basket over the final five minutes of the game. It wasn’t until the Raptors changed the scheme in a short clock situation gambling for a steal that Andre Iguodala finally broke the drought with a clutch triple to ice the game. If it wasn’t for the Raptors missing wide-open looks down the stretch, Nurse would probably be hailed a genius for coming up with an outside-the-box approach that got his team a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven.
However, it wasn’t exactly appreciated by the Warriors. The implication of a box-and-one is that only one player on the other side is worth guarding, which is likely why Stephen Curry called it “janky” after Game 2. There’s a certain level of disrespect baked into ignoring four players. But given the circumstances, after Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant were both out with injury, there really was just one threat remaining, and that’s why Nurse went to it.
He meant no disrespect.
“It seemed to protect the rim better for us and stop some of their cutting,” Nurse said. “And it was good. I don't know, I was just trying to come up with something to stop them.”
Context matters in this case. The Warriors had totalled 106 points with 5:39 minutes left in the fourth, and they were picking Toronto’s defence apart with ease. Andrew Bogut was practically playing volleyball on his unmarked tip-ins, while Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston found easy layups cutting backdoor. The Raptors were selling out on the perimeter to chase Curry off the three-point line, but that left the paint empty as a result. The box-and-one fixed both issues, as the Raptors could still trap Curry while still protecting the rim with the two defenders stationed along the baseline.
“It was pretty innovative. The first time a team has probably ever played box-and-one in the NBA ever,” Toronto’s Kyle Lowry said. “So you give Nick Nurse credit for that. But I guess you can call it janky.”
More than anything else, it was the newness that caught the Warriors off guard. Curry last faced the box-and-one while he was at Davidson, while Kerr’s last encounter went all way back to the ninth grade in the 80’s. Nurse’s gambit was so far out of left field that even the Raptors were confused. On one possession, Marc Gasol had to physically drag Kawhi Leonard into position.
“Never practiced that ever. I don't think I've ever run a box-and-one in my life, I'm going to be honest with you,” Lowry said.
Having said that, it is something of an opportunity wasted by the Raptors because the Warriors will certainly be more prepared for it over the remainder of the series. It’s not particularly difficult to scheme against a box-and-one when you know it’s coming, and without admitting to it, the Warriors have practiced counters.
One simple solution would be to set double screens on one side of the floor for Curry, as that would automatically put the defence at a numerical disadvantage. And when the Warriors’ big guns return, it will be totally impossible to sag that far off.
“Klay (Thompson) definitely wasn't on the floor at that time. There's no telling when KD's (Kevin Durant) going to come back either, so I don't think it will work,” Leonard said of the long-term viability of the box-and-one.
But it was never meant to be a permanent strategy. Nurse had the guts to throw the basketball equivalent of an eephus pitch, and the Warriors whiffed at it. That speaks to Nurse’s creativity, and to the trust that his players have in him to execute it at a moment’s notice in the midst of the NBA Finals.
“That’s just how he is,” Leonard said of Nurse. “He’s experimental, and a lot of what he draws up on the board works.”
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