KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The NBA bubble’s most thrilling game to date took two overtime periods and one unconventional adjustment before it was decided.
The Toronto Raptors staved off elimination Wednesday by outlasting the Boston Celtics, 125-122, to even their second-round series at three games apiece. For Raptors Coach Nick Nurse, the key move was to go small for the stretch run, benching two decorated veteran big men and turning to OG Anunoby, a 23-year-old small forward who stands 6 foot 7, as his center.
Going small to win playoff games is hardly a new development. The Golden State Warriors popularized the move in 2015 with their so-called “Death Lineup,” which featured Draymond Green at center to maximize offensive spacing and defensive versatility. The Houston Rockets have fully committed to the strategy by exclusively playing lineups without traditional centers this season. And many other teams have bought into the vision, believing that it is worthwhile to sacrifice rim protection and low-post scoring in exchange for an extra shooting threat or a more mobile defensive option.
But the Toronto Raptors relied heavily on Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka throughout their run to the 2019 title and during these bubble playoffs. For good reason. Gasol, 35, is a three-time all-star, a former defensive player of the year and one of the NBA’s most intelligent defensive minds. Ibaka, 30, is a three-time all-defensive team selection whose length and comfort on the perimeter have made him a more modern alternative to the bigger-bodied Gasol.
As this series unfolded, Nurse reduced Gasol’s role and turned more often to Ibaka, who is better equipped to handle the Celtics’ numerous perimeter playmakers. With Toronto in another tooth-and-nail fight with Boston, Nurse went away from both in Game 6 by shifting Anunoby into the middle with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. That move allowed him to insert reserve guard Norman Powell into his closing five alongside forward Pascal Siakam and guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
It was a legitimate gamble: Boston center Daniel Theis only stands 6-8, but he is long, lean and active around the basket. Theis, one of the most underrated players remaining in the playoffs, is a big man; Anunoby is not. Shifting Anunoby to the center spot also required Powell to handle greater defensive responsibilities on Boston’s talented wings.
This particular five-man group played only nine minutes together during the regular season, with the Raptors strongly preferring to keep a traditional big man on the court. Even Nurse wasn’t convinced going so small was the right move, despite briefly experimenting with the look while facing a big deficit during a Game 5 blowout loss to the Celtics.
“The thought process going in was about three games in the making,” Nurse said afterward. “I’ve been talking about doing it and getting to it for a long time. I had just never found that or pulled the trigger until we got way down the other night.”
Nurse’s decision led to some significant trade-offs, as Theis finished a procession of layups and dunks over smaller defenders to score 12 of his 18 points during the final three minutes of regulation and overtime. Ultimately, the Raptors won the exchange, as their center-less lineup played the final 18 minutes of the game and outscored the Celtics 37-33. Toronto’s defense forced a number of turnovers on the perimeter to help seal the win, and Anunoby won multiple jump balls against the taller Theis.
“It just gives us a little bit better chance to guard them, that’s the main thing,” Nurse explained. “It’s tough when Kemba [Walker] is so fast. It’s hard for our bigs sometimes to keep up with him because he can shoot the three. If you creep up too far, he darts right by you.”
Inserting Powell into the lineup paid dividends on the offensive end too. The fifth-year pro scored 23 points off the bench, a key boost in a game that saw both teams suffer from heavy legs late.
“He saved us,” VanVleet said of Powell. “He saved our season.”
After missing a potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime period, Powell scored 10 of Toronto’s 19 points in the second overtime period, including a big three-pointer, an and-one in the final minute and two free throws to ice the win.
“F—, that was great,” said an excited Lowry, who scored a game-high 33 points. “Thank you, Norm. That was f—ing unbelievable. S—. That was cool. We needed that.”
This tight series has seen multiple twists and turns, including Marcus Smart’s shooting explosion in Game 2, Anunoby’s Game 3 buzzer-beater and Boston’s dominant showing in Game 5. Yet it took Nurse’s creative break from his tried-and-true approach to force a Game 7 on Friday. The winner will face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We’re at a stage where the stakes are super high,” Nurse said. “Only good teams can win at this stage. For us to be good, we’ve got to have those little contributions from all over the place. Like they were tonight, 10 [points] here, eight here, 12 there. Norm with the big game. We need that. That’s how we’ve decided to play.”.
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