TORONTO — Giving Nick Nurse and his Raptors coaching staff almost a week to prepare for a playoff series seems almost unfair.
The five-day break is an added benefit in securing a top 6 set and avoiding the play-in tournament. It’s also the same time every other playoff team gets, but Nurse and his club have earned a reputation for their thoroughness and innovative game planning.
“When I got here and I [saw] At the first scouting report I was like, oh shit,” the recently acquired veterinarian Squidward Young — who has played for seven teams in his 15 NBA seasons — said the other day. “That was one of the best scouting reports I’ve ever seen.”
It took them some time to figure it out, but the Raptors have a pretty good idea of who they are and how they want to play. So what have they been doing with all that extra time in the gym?
“I mean come on it’s Nicky Nurse baby.” Fred VanVleet called.
“Plan A, B, C, D, where does it end? I think there isn’t an infinite number of things we can do, but there is a certain number of things we can do,” Nurse said. “I can’t tell you what the plan is for Saturday yet because we’re certainly still playing around with it and watching our film and seeing what we did and how they countered and all those things.”
Toronto will open the first round of the postseason against the 76ers this weekend in Philadelphia – the start of a long and hard-fought series most anticipated between two very good but stylistically different teams.
With Joel Embid and James Harden On the ground, the Sixers are more than happy to go on a steady diet of pick and rolls, playing at half court and living at the free throw line.
In the meantime, the Raptors have forged an identity that complements their unique roster build, capitalizing on their strengths and masking their limitations. They compensate for lack of shooting and inconsistent offensive play with a hyper-aggressive style based on the idea of maximizing possession.
They ranked 27th in the league in actual shooting performance that season. For comparison, the three teams below them — Orlando, Detroit, and Oklahoma City — had a combined record of 69-177. So what do you do when shots aren’t coming and you’re having trouble turning possessions into points? You get as many of them as you can.
The Raptors use their length, speed and athleticism to hit the offensive glass as aggressively as any other team in the league. They force high-rate turnovers and aim to turn those extra possessions into easier opportunities to score goals in the transition.
“I think we’ve all seen that we’re good at that.” Chris Boucher called. “In practice, we realize we’re doing it to each other, so we might as well do it to the other team, and it’s really helped. If you start watching games and you see that you have 47 shots to 37, that’s 10 more shots you got right after the offensive rebound and that will win you games.
Toronto ranked second in offensive rebounds, turnovers against and points off turnovers and third in fast break scoring. As a result, Nurse’s team attempted an average of seven more shots per game than their opponents — the NBA’s highest.
It’s a formula they’ve used in many of their wins this season, including a couple against Philadelphia last month. In two five-point victories — one in Philly on March 20 and the other in Toronto last Thursday — they held a 32-11 advantage on the offensive glass and attempted 36 more shots than the Sixers.
“A good thing, if there’s a good thing about playing Toronto, then they are who they are,” Doc Rivers said earlier this week. “They’re long, they’re athletic, and they don’t change much. They change a lot of defense and all that stuff, but at the end of the day it’s all about their length, their speed, their aggressiveness and you have to fight that.”
“They’re going to try to limit those opportunities and we’re going to try to create those opportunities, whether it’s through deflections and steals, breakaways on the defensive end or attacks on the glass,” VanVleet said. “That’s the most of what we’ve brought down and that’s what we’ve been emphasizing since I’ve been here, so we’ll see how that works out for us in the playoffs. I’m confident that we can do it.”
What if they can’t? You know Rivers and the Sixers have spent the week emphasizing things like boxing and ball care. What happens if they manage to prevent those extra possessions and force Toronto to play at their pace? There their game preparation and their ability to improvise or adapt on the fly will be tested.
“We’ve shown that we can win in a thousand different ways this year,” said VanVleet. We had ugly wins, we had good wins, we had shootouts, we had exchanges, as the coach said the other day. I think that’s the versatility of being able to have different things to go to, but we have to be who we are.”
This time of year, the best skill is unpredictability, and with Nurse at the helm, the Raptors feel confident going into a seven-game chess game.
“Even in games we switch coverage like four, going from box-and-one to zone to man-to-man to box-man-to-man. [which] I didn’t even know it was in the book [but] we just find out,” Boucher said. “It’s the playoffs, so who knows what else he’s got on his book than we do [haven’t seen] still.