In an era of small ball, playing big might be Raptors' secret weapon

William Lou
·NBA reporter
·6-min read

With Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, there’s always a trick up his sleeve.

Nurse famously used a middle school strategy to neutralize Stephen Curry when the Raptors won their first championship. And while Curry called it “janky,” Nurse literally wears his box-and-one proudly in the form of a sweater on his charity apparel line. Innovation is his calling card, as Nurse has since introduced triangle-and-twos, two-three zones, full-court traps, and a host of other so-called gimmicks to produce the league’s second-stingiest defense this season.

That’s what makes the Raptors such a tough out. The defending champions are balanced, deep, experienced, and mentally resilient. For what they lack in elite talent — which isn’t even lacking if Pascal Siakam recaptures his early-season form — they make up for with smarts. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are among the headiest players at their positions, and of course, there’s also Nurse pulling the strings.

One of his tricks is to play more traditional. In an era where teams like the Houston Rockets have decided that centers and power forwards are obsolete, Nurse sees value in bucking the trend. On two separate conference calls with reporters over the past month, Nurse flirted with the idea of playing his “jumbo lineup” with two centers sharing the floor when the NBA resumes the 2019-20 season.

“I can envision us playing very big, I like to call it our Jumbo Lineup with OG at the two, Pascal at the three, Serge at the four and Marc at the five. I can envision that being very useful for us in the playoffs,” Nurse said a few weeks back.

This alignment isn’t new. Nurse debuted this strategy against the Philadelphia 76ers last season, and it saved the title as much as Kawhi Leonard’s shot. The supersized Sixers had size advantages across the board, and they were in prime position to take a 3-1 lead. But in the second half of that must-win Game 4, Nurse went his jumbo lineup, and that gave them just enough of a boost to even and eventually win the series. It was also implemented to a lesser degree against Milwaukee.

Nurse used it sparing this year, teasing the jumbo lineup in only three games: In a last-ditch comeback push against the Sixers, and as a temporary starting five against the Thunder and Wizards while Fred VanVleet was out. But its limited usage points more to a concerted effort to hide their cards, rather than a lack of results. The jumbo lineup was plus-19 in 30 minutes.

It was a natural fit on defense because of the flexibility in the lineup. Marc Gasol remained in his natural role as the anchor in the paint, while everyone else shifted up a spot. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam might be 6-foot-8 on paper, but they are both nimble enough to slide their feet with smaller guards. The biggest ask was for Serge Ibaka to play on the perimeter, but he is fundamentally sound and didn’t look out of place. If anything, it was a familiar job for Ibaka, who spent the large majority of his career at power forward before Nurse converted him into a full-time five last season.

“Defensively, right away it was awesome .. The size could handle the speed, the quickness, the shooting. Usually when you’re too big you can’t keep up or you can’t get back, or you can’t guard all the pick and roll actions, but that didn’t happen.

“That’s one of the nice things about our size and length. From OG, to Pascal, to Rondae — these guys can go out and move their feet and guard the majority of the perimeter players,” Nurse said.

Surprisingly, the Raptors maintained their defensive versatility despite the unorthodox collection of players on the floor. They ran zones, pressed full court, and doubled the post just as they would with their regular lineups, and it worked just fine. Anunoby was a standout, recording six steals and forcing a backcourt violation in 30 minutes.

Offensively, the Raptors had to get a little more creative. Without a natural shooting guard like Fred VanVleet or Norman Powell on the floor, the Raptors had less success with their catch-and-shoot sets. The Raptors set screens for Anunoby, Siakam, and even Ibaka to get clean looks on the move, but all three are most comfortable shooting with their feet set.

Surprisingly, spacing wasn’t an issue despite two centers sharing the floor. There were occasional possessions where Ibaka and Gasol crossed wires, but the Raptors’ spacing was generally good. There was less touches for the two centers given that one was usually parked in the corner to stretch the floor, but with both players shooting 40 percent from deep, defenses usually stayed home on their assignments.

The drop-off came in the form of playmaking. There was more of an onus on Lowry to create without VanVleet on the floor, and there were less drive-and-kick sequences. Anunoby is an extremely limited ball handler, and although Siakam is improving by the minute, he has a tendency for picking up his dribble short of the paint when facing extra defenders in pick-and-roll situations.

“Having one of Fred or Kyle out there keeps things moving. There’s probably a little less comfort in some of our guys playing some of our screen and roll actions, our two-man actions, but again we like to encourage Pascal either setting (the screen) or handling. We want to get OG to that point where he’s a handler and a setter,” Nurse said.

The one distinct offensive advantage produced by the jumbo lineup was that it created mismatches for Siakam to attack in the post. Siakam is too big for most small forwards to handle, and he’s nearly unstoppable when he can simply shoot over top his man. Siakam is also a willing passer, so when teams doubled the post, the Raptors were able to move the ball effectively to find the open shooter.

Looking ahead to the postseason, there are clear match-ups in which the dual-center strategy would be useful. Nurse has telegraphed his intentions to bulk up in a potential rematch with Philadelphia, and he also used it against Milwaukee last year — although results were mixed in that series. Indiana starts both Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, so there could be a temptation to match their size. The same goes for Miami with Bam Adebayo and Meyers Leonard. The only hesitancy would be against Boston, since they have so many playmakers on the wing that might be difficult for Ibaka or Gasol to stick with. But given Nurse’s enthusiasm for the jumbo lineup, it can’t be ruled out entirely.

“I don’t know what the drawback is. I didn’t see one, really,” Nurse said.

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