The Toronto Raptors nearly overcame an 18-0 Golden State Warriors third-quarter run in Game 2 of the NBA Finals using one of the most unorthodox defensive schemes in playoff history. Down nine points with just under five minutes remaining in the final quarter, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse deployed a box-and-one zone that you probably last used in middle school. That’s how little Toronto thought of a depleted Golden State roster outside of Stephen Curry.
The box-and-one defense is meant to shut down one dynamic scorer, which is why it’s rarely used in the NBA. The zone uses the defensive team’s best player to lock down the opposing team’s best scorer (that’s the one) while the other four players (the box) guard a space on the floor.
Given that the NBA is filled with the best-of-the-best talents, this defense isn’t typically viable. A team’s next-best player can usually operate the floor just as well. But with Kevin Durant out and Klay Thompson nursing an ailing hamstring with four minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, Golden State had just one consistent shot-creator in Curry on the floor. If there was ever a time for Toronto to use the box-and-one zone, it was then.
Nurse’s zone saw Fred VanVleet mimic every Curry move as the one off the box, never leaving the point guard’s hip. Kyle Lowry (then Danny Green after Lowry fouled out) and Kawhi Leonard led the top of the “box”, each designated to either the top left or top right quadrant of the floor. Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol stood the bottom of the box, providing 14 feet and seven inches worth of wingspan.
It looked like this:
The objective of this box-and-one was to force any Warrior not named Curry to make a play, and it worked. In total, the Raptors used this zone on the final eight possessions of the game, and Golden State was dumbstruck for seven of them. (The eighth was Andre Iguodala’s game-sealing three in the closing seconds).
The nature of the zone left the other Warriors players flustered as they tried to reinvent an offense without Curry in command. On the above possession, a lineup of Shaun Livingston, Quinn Cook, Green, and Andrew Bogut didn’t provide much of a shooting threat and panicked. This possession ended with Livingston tossing the ball directly into VanVleet’s arms in an attempt to get Curry the ball.
Here’s what happened the rest of the time.
On the first play, VanVleet deflected a pass meant for Curry
Livingston forced the ball to Curry when he wasn’t open, which played perfectly into the hands of the “and-one” part of the box-and-one zone.
Next, Iguodala missed a side-step three-point shot
With the shot-clock running down, Iguodala was forced to make a move out of his usual repertoire. It didn’t end well.
Then, Danny Green contested a Quinn Cook three, which missed
Green recovered in time to influence the shot of the next-best shooter on the court. This wasn’t a bad look for Golden State, but it wasn’t the optimal one either.
The Raptors nearly stripped Curry again, forcing an awful Draymond Green chuck
Golden State scrambled, and even when Curry caught the ball, he was swarmed. This doesn’t happen in a man-to-man.
Then, DeMarcus Cousins missed an open three
Toronto got a bit lucky here.
Next, Leonard forced a jump ball with Cousins in the paint
The Raptors would prefer a Boogie drive to a Curry one any day. This was an easy play for Leonard.
Then, Cook missed an off-balanced long-range two
This is exactly the type of shot Toronto’s zone wanted to see.
Finally, Iguodala knocked down the game-winning shot
This moment between Iguodala and Livingston is............. special pic.twitter.com/3LWxrPAr4L— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) June 3, 2019
Calling for a box-and-one in the final minutes of an NBA Finals game was a gutsy call to say the least, but it’s not unprecedented. Nets fans might remember that Kenny Atkinson used it to beat Kemba Walker and the Hornets back in December.
“It was crazy. The way they guarded me, I don’t know if anyone else in this league is getting guarded like they guarded me. It was like a box-and-one,” Walker said after the game, via Nets Daily. “I haven’t seen that since I was in college. It was crazy. I guess that’s what teams are going to do. I have to trust in my teammates to make plays.”
Still, that game didn’t carry nearly the weight of this one. It’s remarkable Toronto had this defense perfected in its back pocket.
As well as it worked in Game 2 though, it’s unlikely we’ll see this defense again for the length of time we did before (more than four minutes), if at all. It’s hard to see this working if Durant and/or Thompson are healthy enough to play.
But at the end of Game 2, the Warriors were certainly spooked by it. They weren’t prepared to be down this many contributors, and the box-and-one defense made their lives that much more difficult.
Kudos to the Raptors for nearly pulling an NBA Finals comeback off with grade school defense.